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Docent Training: Do We Practice What We Preach?

Most staff members think of docents as teachers because they educate the visiting public about our collections and exhibitions. The very word “docent” is derived from a Greek word meaning “to teach.” But those of us privileged to provide docent training must also consider their needs as learners.

Museum education has been quick to assimilate and adapt research in education, psychology, philosophy, and other disciplines to teaching museum visitors. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi’s “flow” experiences, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (as it pertains to learning styles) are but a few of the studies having had widespread influence in the museum education field.

In contrast, relatively little has been written about how museum educators should teach docents, who. like all learners, are complex individuals with widely diverse backgrounds, experiences, aptitudes, and learning styles. Fortunately for those of us challenged with designing relevant and engaging docent training programs, the wealth of findings about teaching visitors applies equally well — and for all the same reasons — to teaching docents.

Current thinking advocates abandoning the lecture-style format, or “show and tell” touring, in favor of more engaging methods of teaching, particularly inquiry-based discussion and guided discovery. In a previous issue of The Docent Educator, Alan Gartenhaus summarized the reasons for teaching by the inductive method. “Inquiry teaching (1) reinforces learning behaviors consistent with perceptual and intellectual self-sufficiency; (2) accommodates visitors’ diversity; (3) helps visitors develop and practice learning skills relevant in other contexts; and (4) allows visitors to make connections between their

How much improved our docent education programs would be if staff taught docents as they would have docents teach visitors. We would not only bolster the credibility of the methodology we advocate, we’d also model the technique.

A simple, effective approach is to plan docent training sessions as though they were tours. Well-planned tours should be enjoyable educational experiences, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. They should have clear goals and objectives, which may be met within a prescribed amount of time by a group of diverse learners.

The tour planning guide in Grinder and McCoy’s The Good Guide offers an excellent framework: establish two or three related learning goals (i.e. what should be learned); devise appropriate and manageable learning objectives related to each goal (i.e. how the goals will be achieved); outline and sequence key questions; identify objects to use as examples; and determine or design aids and supporting activities.

As with tours, docent training sessions are most beneficial if learners participate, and if experiences are allowed to vary. Therefore, individuals should have opportunities to engage in activities; look; think; reflect; conclude; discuss; write; present; touch; sit; stand; and construct meaning.

Lectures certainly have a place in docent training, particularly when there are large numbers of learners present. Lectures allow a presenter to cover a vast amount of material in a relatively short period of time. Yet, we must be careful not to confuse “covering material” with “teaching,” nor to lull participants into passive receptivity. Teaching requires learners to actively engage with the material covered and to acquire skills.

While it is crucial that docents have a solid, accurate, factual foundation in the subjects they teach, it is fallacious to believe that the best way to teach facts is to state them. Most people learn and retain little by listening to a lecture. That is why people take notes — to have data to refer to later. Notetaking also serves as a mode of engagement, a way to remain attentive and involved while listening. Passive learning in schools is nearly always followed up with engagement through such activities as; essays, research papers, presentations, discussions, homework, or exams.

Just a moderate amount of effort and creativity can transform a standard lecture into a meaningful learning activity for docents. For instance, docents might be divided into groups and given a set of postcards with reproductions of works of art. Their task might be to arrange the cards chronologically without looking at dates, or to divide the cards into various kinds of categories, such as art movements or schools.

Essentially, any gallery activity or game designed to teach exhibition content on tours can be used to teach content in docent training. At our art center we have several games for kindergartners that involve matching lines, colors, and shapes drawn on cards with lines, colors, and shapes in works of art. Rather than tell the docents how the game works, we played the game with them. In addition to being fun, it served as a good review of the design elements.

Instructing others to “do as I say, not as I do,” is ineffective and hypocritical. If staff educators earnestly believe that the best learning experiences are those requiring participation, then docent training should reflect that philosophy. Then, we will be educating docents about methods of teaching as well as content. In short, we will be practicing what we preach.

Betsy Gough-DiJulio is Director of Education at the Virginia Beach Center for the Arts in Virginia Beach, VA. She received her M.A. in art history from Vanderbilt University. Ms. Gough-DiJulio has written several other articles appearing in The Docent Educator, including “Touring Nursing Home Residents, ” which appeared in the Summer 1993 issue.

Gough, DiJulio, Betsy. “Docent Training: Do We Practice What We Preach?,” The Docent Educator 3.3 (Spring 1994): 14-15.

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