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Finding and Using “Clear Proofs of Ability”

One of the definitions of demonstration is “clear proof,” as in “clear proof of ability.” For docents seeking to improve their teaching technique, clear proofs of ability abound. Some are intentional —demonstrations offered by institutions to help staff and volunteers provide better tours and educational programs for the public. Other demonstrations are unintentional — opportunities that lie outside the formal training milieu but, nevertheless, are fertile ground for docents wishing to pick up useful tips that can make their teaching better and more effective.

The most common intentional demonstrations docents are exposed to are called modeling. Usually, modeling comes in the form of sample tours provided by experienced docents or staff educators. Unfortunately, educational neophytes are sometimes tempted to “parrot” these sample tours. There are a number of dangers inherent in this practice, not the least of which is the “copy machine syndrome.”

Back in the days of carbon paper and mimeograph machines (before modern copy processes), a copy was never as good as the original. It lost some degree of clarity and focus. Parroted tours do the same. Unless a tour “belongs” to the docent giving it, it is only a poor copy. Docents can take possession of a good tour they feel inclined to copy by adding their own personalities, their own language and phrasing, anecdotes from their own experiences, and their own choices from the collection to the frame of a tour they admire.

In another, perhaps better, way of modeling, docent instructors teach by employing the same techniques docents are expected to use when giving tours. For instance, an education program that asks docents to use inquiry or hands-on experiences while touring does more than just provide sample tours using these techniques. Instructors actually model these techniques during training sessions.

Docents trained in this manner explore and question the collection as they acquire the knowledge base they need. Instead of simply listening to lectures, they participate. The instructor asks questions that challenge docents to observe, analyze, and evaluate the collection throughout their training. In turn, docents learn how to apply such creative questioning techniques by learning from questions that encouraged them to think creatively, to explore multiple answers, to suspend disbelief, and to consider from several points of view.

Demonstrations also surround docents who take notice of their peers. Other staff and volunteer educators may use crowd control or discipline techniques, and introductions, transitions, or closings that work well. Again, rather than merely copying, a docent might analyze them. Why is this technique successful? Would I be comfortable doing or saying something similar? How can I modify this technique to suit my personality and tour goals? While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it is wise to ask before “borrowing” from another’s tour repertoire.

Sometimes other docents will drop fascinating bits of information into their tours that you might never have heard before. Charming little stories about the collection or the people associated with it may be interesting additions to a tour. Unfortunately, however, many fascinating bits of information and charming little stories are not true (or are told incorrectly) and may damage the integrity of the institution or its collection. Before borrowing any of these “tour brighteners,” be sure to check the facts. Start by asking the docent using them to share her source. If you cannot verify the story or fact, don’t use it. Your refusal to use a fact you can’t verify is another demonstration, a “clear proof” of your commitment to accuracy and honesty in your tours.

Masterful docents in other institutions also provide demonstrations of exemplary teaching. In addition to observing good teaching in museums like your own, try touring and analyzing educational programs in institutions with very different collections. As you observe a fascinating tour in a historic home, for example, try to determine what makes it so interesting. Is it the stories the docent tells? Has she drawn you into the home’s time period by asking you to role play? Does she make the artifacts relevant by asking you to imagine what we now use in their place? In what ways can you use her techniques in your institution?

An art museum docent, intrigued by a science center guide’s use of a magnifying glass, might employ such an aid in his tour of miniature portraits or Chinese snuff bottles. A zoo docent, who was captivated by the storytelling she encountered in a history museum, could incorporate African or Asian folk tales in her tours of animals from these continents. A botanical garden tour that encouraged visitors to sniff and touch in a kitchen garden might inspire docents at a historic site to develop a similar garden appropriate to the era they are interpreting.

Museums, zoos, historic sites, gardens, and science centers don’t have a monopoly on good teaching, of course. Teaching of note also takes place in more traditional settings, and docents should take advantage of such demonstrations of quality. If you teach children, the most obvious place to find excellent examples to study is in public or private school classrooms. Youth programs, such as scouting or camps, offer educational programs where good teaching takes place. Religious classes, organized sports, and afterschool programs are also places to find dedicated teachers who might have some things to teach you. And, if you should encounter teaching that doesn’t seem to be working, learn from that as well. Why doesn’t the teacher seem to have control of the group? How could the instructions have been clearer? What would you do to make this topic more interesting to a group of third graders?

If you work with adults, you might want to explore the classes offered by a local college or university, Elderhostel, or financial institutions. If you find the class interesting and well-taught, examine what made it so. How does the teacher make allowances for differences in background and experience in his audience? In what ways are class members encouraged to share their knowledge? Are the teacher’s questions designed I to elicit facts or do they encourage open discussion and accommodate a variety of perspectives?

Television is yet another resource for teaching demonstrations. If you are challenged by the need to work within a constrictive timeframe in your institution, look no farther than a 30-minute TV cooking program for ideas. While the personality of the on-air chef goes a long way toward making these programs successful, they also employ a number of useful teaching techniques that anyone can use. One of my favorite chefs answers phone-in questions during her preparation, never allowing the interruptions to get her “off track” but, instead, serving to keep her audience interested while she sautes or stirs. In addition to the visual treat of the food preparation, she uses printed menus and recipes to help her audience learn what she’s teaching. Museum docents that explain complicated processes, or who must use arcane language to interpret their site, could borrow this tip, using written visuals to make the process or language clearer to their visitors.

Most docents continue to add to their knowledge base throughout their careers by attending lectures, taking college courses, and reading and studying on their own. But, it’s equally important to continue to sharpen teaching skills. By seeking and learning from demonstrations of “clear proof of ability” wherever they are found, your ability to engage visitors’ interest, stimulate their curiosity, increase their retention, and foster their self-confidence will become more effective and rewarding.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. ” Finding and Using “Clear Proofs of Ability,” The Docent Educator 9.4 (Summer 2000): 14-15. 

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