Docent Educator Logo

Know Who You’re Working With

Think of it — the overwhelming majority of students you tour on school visits were born since 1980!! So what? So everything! We are all products of our time, and this generation of young people cannot be expected to be an exception. For those who are now in grades nine or younger, people have been traveling to the moon for twice as long as they have been alive. Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev are like Benjamin Harrison and Kaiser Wilhelm II —just names out of history. And, they have never known a time when people didn’t have computers, compact disc players, or cable (much less television).

What implications does all this have for teaching and learning in sites like museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens? Plenty!

Television and Passive Thinking

Television may be the most powerful force in contemporary life today. Most young people spend more time watching television than they do engaged in any other personal activity. On average, young people watch over four hours of television a day! Television has become babysitter to our toddlers, nanny to our children, and the purveyor of culture to our adolescents.

Television is not inherently bad. It’s just that television’s impact so overshadows other experiences of childhood today, that its effect upon learning cannot be overstated.

Television is characteristically and primarily a passive experience; it requires little participation. We do not “do” television, we “view” it. Unlike reading or even listening to radio programs, we need not conjure or imagine. We can surrender such activities to the talented few who create sitcoms, soap operas, and M-TV.

Reading requires involvement — interpreting language, conjuring images, and infusing situations and characters with expression and emotion are all active mental processes. Television, on the other hand, does the work for us by supplying these elements. Viewers need not become actively involved, but can passively watch what others have interpreted, imagined, and synthesized for them.

This is one reason why museums, historic sites, zoos, and gardens are so important for young people to experience. Such learning situations require an approach much more like “reading” than like “viewing.” The collections reveal themselves through active intellectual and perceptual involvement. Their lessons unfold best through careful inspection and reflective thinking (unless an educator robs visitors of the need to engage mentally by telling them what they could otherwise be guided to discover for themselves).

An Obsession with Speed

Contemporary society has developed an addiction to speed that borders on an obsession. Fax machines, supersonic passenger jets, calculators, microwave ovens, E-mail, “same day” delivery service, and cellular phones are merely a few of its many manifestations. What seemed so useful and efficient just a few years ago — air mail, slide rules, electric typewriters, adding machines — now seem ploddingly slow, cumbersome, or even obsolete.

Our devotion to speed influences everything, including how we inform ourselves. We expect information to be delivered to us, F-A-S-T, and with few of the details that might slow us down.

During the 1968 election campaign, for instance, U.S. television audiences were shown “sound bites” of their two Presidential candidates averaging 38 seconds in length. By 1988, those “sound bites” had been whittled down to a mere seven seconds. Just seven seconds to absorb and make decisions on topics as complex as global economics or nuclear disarmament!

Young people’s lives and attitudes are being shaped in a world that demonstrates little patience for process, analysis, or detailed examination. They see, and are shown, only results. They learn little about the lengthy process of scientific investigation that leads to revelation, conservation, or invention; the exhaustive years of study and experimentation characteristic of most artistic careers; or the exhaustive pursuit and investigation of primary and secondary sources typical of historical conservation, restoration, or reconstruction.

Society offers few opportunities to appreciate learning situations where information must be sought and considered, where answers unfold through careful observation, and where re-examination brings even greater insights. Youngsters are learning that “fast” can be more important than “good.” Could these factors be among the reasons why an increasing number of children seem to be diagnosed with attention deficits or attention spans more abbreviated than the norm?

What’s a Docent to Do?

Is it any wonder that the learning styles of those who were born since 1980 are different than of those who were born 30+ years earlier? Think of how dramatically and profoundly life has changed in that brief amount of time. Should we be surprised that schools are in trouble — that teachers, textbooks, and chalkboards fail to capture the attention and imagination of young people who measure life’s involvement and pace against that of M-TV and video games?

What are the implications for educational environments as staid and sober as museums, gardens, parks, and historic sites? What can docents do to reinforce thinking skills among young people who have become increasingly passive and impatient?

Talk Less, Involve More

It has been said that all classroom teachers, regardless of the subject they teach, are first and foremost teachers of reading. Unless students can read, they cannot access information. By the same token, all docents touring and teaching students, regardless of their institution’s exhibitions or resources, are teachers of “awareness.” Awareness leads to interest; interest leads to learning; learning leads to understanding; and understanding leads to valuing. Unless young visitors are made aware — actively inspecting, gathering information, and constructing meaning — they may never fully realize or value the lessons taught by museums, gardens, parks, zoos, and historic sites.

Though those who teach must be knowledgeable about their collection and subject matter, teaching should not be equated with the act of “telling.” Teaching is the systematic transfer of information and skills based on the learner’s level of awareness — designed to accommodate and challenge what the learner is able to grasp, comprehend, and use.

A good rule-of-thumb to remember is, “the less information a visitor arrives with, the less information a visitor can absorb or retain.” Well-prepared or wellversed school groups can spend more of their time listening to an authoritative lecture because their awareness is already heightened. The vast majority of school groups, however, cannot listen long before they are adrift mentally (or even physically).

Action, Action, and More Action!

While museums and other such institutions can serve as an important counterbalance to today’s hyperactive environment, they will not thrive in conflict with it. If the students are not made enthusiastic and intrigued, they will not be learning much or for long. Therefore, those who work with students must adapt their methodology in a manner that makes the experience more “dynamic.”

Most objects are silent and still. They do not invite participation easily. Stimulating involvement and interest are the educator’s job. Use activities, questioning strategies, data retrieval sheets, and/or storytelling to invite participation and provide avenues for mental engagement. Make your visiting students do things! Get them talking! Challenge them to express ideas and opinions that can be referenced back to the objects examined, and reward such personal and intellectual risks by being positive and supportive. Give student visitors a boost! Help them discover the joy and excitement that comes with active thinking.

The articles included in this issue of The Docent Educator provide a starting point for constructing participatory activities and exercises (as do our previous issues). Call upon these, and use your own inventive powers to create new ones. Discover for yourself the rewards and excitement of teaching! Surely, when aware and engaged, your students will not make the same double-edged comment about their visit to your institution that Jane Austin is credited with saying about visiting her family . . . “It was a delightful visit; a perfect visit would have been much too short.”

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Know Who You’re Working With,” Docent Educator 4.1 (Autumn 1994): 2-3.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *