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Confessions of an Evaluator

by Jane Anne Young

Years ago -the idea of evaluation brought fear and trepidation into the hearts of most docents in the Bayly Art Museum education program. Docents trembled and shook when informed that the chairman of education was going to “watch” their tours. These experiences helped me as director of education to develop a more “humane” approach to the process of evaluating. Evaluation should be fun even though it may at times involve some painful truths.

All tours are different and have different circumstances. Tours at the Bayly have no set formula or facts to impart. Often, a visitor’s response will lead the entire tour into a totally new area. Many docents say that they never got to this question or that painting because so much was going on with one work of art. However, I would rather see a meaningful dialogue between our visitors and one work of art than racing through six objects without a getting a genuine response.

Once, after what appeared to me to be a great tour, an experienced decent complained, “But I never told them anything.”

I replied, “That is, of course, the point. They figured it out for themselves.”

On another occasion a docent stood in the midst of a group of adults who were earnestly arguing the merits of contemporary realism with each other. She merely smiled and interjected a word here and there. This is what I look and listen for.

Evaluation is the glue that helps to bond and secure a successful education program. Frequent evaluation of docents on tour contributes to the professionalism of a docent staff. Docents know that in order to best serve our visitors, to enable them to learn and enjoy, we must consistently work on all aspects of our tours. It is important to not only recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each docent but also to be aware of the challenges of tour themes and group types.

Often, evaluation is a subjective exercise dependent on criteria that cannot be written down or explained, but which may be purely intuitive. I have developed what may appear to be an informal evaluation system but, in my opinion, is one that complements our technique of “inquiry” tours, which are individually designed to reflect each group’s needs. The Bayly docents are now so comfortable with this system that they have given me a brass cowbell to alert them to my presence in the galleries. They are also used to seeing a pair of red boots sticking out from a gallery entrance as I unsuccessfully try to be inconspicuous.

All docents complete a course in museum education, which I teach each semester. Docent education continues in monthly sessions and in special workshops as needed. In order to work with a docent who demonstrates potential, but who doesn’t seem to completely understand touring, I ask the person to develop one segment of a tour. This allows for the docent to concentrate on the preparation of a smaller and more precise area. In addition, this allows me to place up to three docents in one tour, where I can observe them all.

Upon completion of the museum education course, all new docents give a segment of a sample tour before their peers, which is evaluated by me and the whole group for positive feedback. Experienced docents also demonstrate segments of tours and tour methodology to the new docent class. This exposes new docents to the process of evaluation, as we discuss the segments together, and gives them the benefit of the “older” docents’ valuable experiences.

New docents-in-training are required to observe one tour per week. They report on good questions and good responses. This has proven to be one of the single most effective ways of teaching new docents effective touring.

As director of education, I evaluate segments of all tours and, in particular, all new docent tours. I am listening or looking for the following:

  1. Visitor voices vs. docent voices – who’s talking?
  2. Good leading questions and responses
  3. Follow-ups to visitor responses; incorporating responses in further looking
  4. Praise and appropriate acknowledgements for responses
  5. Bridges or transitions from art work to art work and from gallery to gallery
  6. Connections to previously discussed art
  7. Introduction – critical to establish rapport and let visitors know how and what will happen on tour
  8. Evaluative and premise questions
  9. Tone of voice and flexibility – smiles and ability to “roll with the punches”
  10. Sense of comfort with group and the ideas of the tour
  11. Appropriate language for age – (A wonderful docent once said “hot dog!” as praise to a group of middle schoolers; they thought she was prehistoric.)
  12. Level and language of questions (My least favorite start with “what about … ?” and generally lead nowhere. My favorites are “why?” and “compare and contrast” because they connect the visitor in so many ways.)
  13. Modeling questions
  14. Windups, conclusions, summaries.

A Few”Nots”

I am not looking for recitation of information, statements, dates, or explanations. I am not listening for docent voice. I am not looking for certain information to be covered. I am not looking for anecdotes or pontifical performances, which may be entertaining but are not transferrable learning experiences.

When possible I evaluate out of the sight of the docent and group, as I believe it can change the visitors’ response as well as the docent ‘s reactions if someone outside the group is obviously listening. Sometimes, I will evaluate the same station (area of a tour) as presented by three different docents, each of whom has come from a different station, given a different introduction, and created a different bridge based on the art she has previously used. Differences may also be the result of the makeup of the group or the presence of parents or teachers.

After the tour, the docent and I meet to review the tour. I ask the docent to tell me what he or she thought were the best and the worst aspects of the tour and why. We discuss how the next tour could be made more successful, what questions were really good this time, and why. Praise and appreciation are important to docents. Every tour has something that goes well.

I try to remember that it is not necessarily easy to provide inquiry tours. It is much easier to tell visitors everything you know and what they should think. When tours are truly a disaster, and they are on rare occasions, we need to consider how the docent can be assisted and praised for trying without giving her the impression that it was a satisfactory performance. I have made the mistake of being too honest with new docents that I believed were tough enough to take it and lost them. Evaluation needs to be a combination of tact and humor.

Generally, good docents know when they succeed and when they don’t. They are often harder on themselves than I am on them. We (I still do provide tours regularly) all have bad tours and there is nothing worse, just as there is no elation like a good tour.

Evaluation can also come from other docents who observe the tour, in addition to forms completed by teachers and visitors. We perform yearly self-evaluation, and I have found that self-evaluation is almost always a telling factor in the development of strong docents. Good docents are aware of what works and what doesn’t.

Criteria is difficult to establish and requires flexibility. A docent who is rolling on the floor with preschoolers cannot necessarily succeed with adults, perhaps because his or her voice and language don’t work. The docent who is fabulous with seniors may have a hard time sitting on the floor or leading an Indian war dance up the staircase.

Evaluation is used to help and improve the museum experience for visitors and the docent. Evaluation of Bayly tours, in particular, is not a science with specific guidelines, rules and expectations or information. Each docent is expected to have, and use, his or her different style and knowledge of people. What I look for, and continually push docents to work toward, is enabling the visitor to participate, to give the visitor a sense of involvement and ease when looking at art, to demystify and decode art, and to encourage problem solving and thinking. The joy for me is seeing and hearing docents and visitors thoroughly enjoying themselves and the art.

Jane Anne Young holds a B.A. from the University of Delaware and a Masters degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Mrs. Young began her work at the Bayly Art Museum at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, as a volunteer docent in 1977. She became the museum’s director of education in 1982 and was appointed as a member of the University of Virginia faculty in 1987. As a founding member of the National Docent Council, she represented the Southeast region and university museum education. Mrs. Young is the author of many publications relating to interdisciplinary uses of the art museum and to the methods of museum education.

Young, Jane Anne. “Confessions of an Evaluator,” The Docent Educator 6.4 (Summer 1997): 14-16.


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