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Emphasizing the Noun, Not the Adjective: Touring with Older Adults

This article first appeared in the Autumn 1992 edition of The Decent Educator. We believe the excellent counsel this text offers is worth repeating and is particularly germaine to the topic of this issue.

Successful tours for older adults, as with any group, are largely a matter of understanding the audience and reshaping one’s perceptions and techniques accordingly. The media, which strongly influences many of our commonly held perceptions, abounds with negative stereotypes of older people. Consider the advertisement for an emergency response system featuring poor Mrs. Fletcher who has “fallen and can’t get up.” Examining stereotypical representations of people, whether in the media or elsewhere, is a useful starting place when attempting to better understand an audience.

A common stereotype related to education is that the capacity to learn diminishes with age. Thus, the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

While most experts agree that the capacity to learn is maintained throughout the adult life cycle, the reasons tor learning can change. For instance, children in school often regard learning as the accumulation of information, ideas, skills, and literacies to be used later on. Adults, on the other hand, often regard education as something to be applied to an occupation or a family role.

We should, therefore, expect the goals of learning to be different for older adults than their younger counterparts, partially because of changed social roles brought about by retirement, grand-parenting, death of a spouse, or other life changes. Perhaps their goals become more general, such as to develop a more inclusive sense of how they relate to the world around them. While knowledge of what motivates learning can help docents provide a better learning environment, knowing something about theories and styles of learning allows docents to discredit erroneous stereotypes and provide older adults with more meaningful tours. In an article in the Journal of Museum Education (Winter 1991), Lynn Dierking identified 10 generalizations that are key to human learning. Docents should have an understanding of all of them, but for purposes of this article’s emphasis, we will focus on three.

1- The learning process is strongly influenced by prior knowledge, beliefs, and experiences.

Heterogeneity may be the most obvious characteristic among groups of older adults. The range of individual differences increases with age and life experiences. In addition, all the other factors that differentiate people from one another (educational background; social, economic, marital, and health status; social, religious, and political attitudes/beliefs) will determine the behavior, personality, and learning process of older adults.

It becomes necessary, therefore, to establish a context in which visitors feel comfortable sharing highly diverse observations, ideas, and experiences. This can be accomplished, in part, by asking older adults questions that work to establish an informal, accepting environment while revealing more about each visitor’s aptitudes, interests, and perspectives.

Though the benefits of inquiry teaching are well established, decades may have passed since adults on tour were engaged in this manner. Students, on the other hand, are exposed to this method in their classrooms. Therefore, docents should “ease” these older visitors into this mode of interaction.

Many docents find “life review” an effective way to structure interaction with older adults. History is meaningful to older adults in ways that it cannot be for younger people. Life review encourages individuals to reflect on their diverse personal histories and relate them to exhibited objects.

The docent’s questions and comments should direct the discussion to help visitors forge connections for themselves.

2- Perception is central to the learning process.

Information is acquired through the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting). Making tours more multi-sensory is advantageous because it engages additional ways to perceive, while it acknowledges and accommodates differences in the variety of favored modes of perception.

The majority of older adults do not experience significant vision or hearing impairments. For those who do, however, tours that depend largely on the spoken or written word, or even upon viewing objects, may deprive them of a prerequisite for learning— perception.

3- Memory is central to the learning process.

Dierking defines learning as “a measurable change in behavior that persists over time, presumably because it becomes a part of our memory.” While most older adults do not experience significant difficulty with short-term memory loss, those who do may be more apt to forget earlier parts of a discussion. Therefore, they may seem unable to link new information with prior knowledge, since what has been forgotten cannot be integrated.

To avoid creating problems for those who experience memory loss, docents should design questions that are not dependent upon visitors’ ability to recall information introduced earlier in the tour, while still building on previous concepts. For example, in an art museum, replace a question like this: “Think about our discussion of Picasso’s treatment of space in the last painting we looked at. How is de Chirico’s different in this work?” with this: “We just talked about how Picasso flattened space and presented different sides of an object simultaneously. How is de Chirico’s space different from Picasso’s flattened space?” The latter question does not require visitors to retrieve earlier dialogue from their short-term memory.

Current philosophies of museum education recommend a slower pace for ALL visitors to allow time for them to realize new insights and contemplate more fully the object(s) being discussed.

Though most do not, some older adults do experience a significant slowing in the assimilation and processing of information, as well as in response time. Speaking at a moderate pace will help. Also, repeating or rephrasing aspects of the dialogue slows the pace of exchange, making it easier to follow while teaching or clarifying vocabulary and concepts.

Slowing the pace of discussions will also aid visitors having hearing impairments. It is estimated that approximately 15 percent of people over 65 experience significant hearing loss. A person who appears not to understand what is being discussed or asked may simply not have heard. Presbycusis, the most common hearing impairment among older adults, is associated with difficulty hearing higher tones. Lowering the pitch of your voice, enunciating words, and looking directly at visitors is much more effective than shouting. Background noise, such as music or conversation, should be minimized. Similarly, conversations between people in a group are often difficult to follow for people with hearing impairments, unless care is taken to repeat or rephrase what was said.

Some physical changes that occur with aging may require that docents make adaptations for older adults. Slowing the walking pace accommodates those with decreased mobility. While walking more slowly, try asking questions or pointing out objects for visitors to observe. Rest and restroom stops may need to be incorporated into the tour. During a rest stop, pass an object around to shift attention away from the wait. If some of the visitors want to move more quickly, or don’t want to rest, direct them to your next stop and suggest a focus. You might say, “If you walk straight ahead and enter the next gallery on your left you will see an exhibition of landscape. Try figuring out which country each scene depicts.”

By understanding this audience and making a few adjustments to your teaching and touring techniques, you will find that when providing tours for older adults, you can emphasize the “adult” and not the “older.”

Betsy Gough-DiJulio earned her M.A. in art history from Vanderbilt University and is the partnership coordinator in the Office of Community Relations for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. Formerly, Ms. Gough-DiJulio was the education director at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia in Virginia Beach, VA, a position she held for over eleven years. She has been a frequent contributor Of articles to The Docent Educator over the past 12 years.

Raymond M. Leinbach, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Community Health Professionals and Physical Therapy at the College of Health Sciences; and is the director of the Center for Gerontology at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, VA.

Gough-DiJulio, Betsy and Raymond M. Leinbach, Ph.D. “Emphasizing the Noun, Not the Adjective: Touring with Older Adults,” The Docent Educator 12.3 (Spring 2003): 10-11+.


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