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Participatory Teaching: Guiding the Discovery Process

While traditional classroom studies primarily call upon deductive reasoning skills (going from generalities and moving to specific examples), learning from art, history, or science collections requires inductive reasoning (looking at specific examples and extrapolating as to generalities). Quite naturally, therefore, teaching within museums, historic sites, zoos, gardens, and other similar facilities will take on a slightly different “appearance” from the more familiar, classroom model.

Even though inductive reasoning is less a mainstay of classroom teaching than is deduction, induction is a familiar means of learning. In real life, young children mostly learn through induction. For instance, they see at home and in their neighborhoods many different color and sized animals, all called “dogs,” and from those specific examples they develop the ability to recognize any example of a dog.

Teaching an inductive lesson can feel a bit awkward at first since it requires that a docent lean away from giving an expository type lesson, such as a lecture or “gallery talk,” and toward guiding discovery through participation. For instance, rather than tell visitors about the common characteristics of insects, a docent will challenge visitors to make observations and comparisons of a variety of insects on display, say . . . ants, grasshoppers, butterflies, dragonflies, and beetles. Then, the docent asks visitors to tell what characteristics they have noticed that all the examples share in common. The visitors move from collecting specific information to constructing a general conclusion.

Learning through induction usually requires three steps. First, visitors are asked to make observations through the use of activities. In this stage, visitors are gathering information through the senses and through intuitive impressions. Second, visitors classify their observations into categories or concepts that help to explain the information collected. In this step, questions are asked that challenge visitors to make inferences and to determine commonalties. Finally, students draw conclusions (or make discoveries) that describe the facts and observations. These conclusions are in the form Of generalizations.

When generalizations are drawn, the docent or instructor should keep in mind that the final product of induction is probable answer rather than right answer. In an inductive lesson, the conclusion drawn or the inference made cannot be judged on the basis of a predetermined correct answer. The conclusion or inference must be based on, and defensible on the basis of, the data collected. That is why it is often useful to keep more than one discovery or hypothesis in play during discussions.

The introduction to an inductive lesson should arouse curiosity and alert visitors to the tour/lesson’s purpose without also telling them what is going to be learned in the lesson. For example, it would be inappropriate to begin a lesson on Cubist paintings by telling visitors those characteristics Cubist paintings have in common. An appropriate introduction might be to ask visitors what happens when artist depict three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional canvas. In this way, visitors are alerted to the topic to be examined, while the nature of the lesson is not revealed.

The body of an inductive lesson involves having visitors collect data or make observations. This may be accomplished individually, in small groups, or collectively. For example, visitors might be asked to list the many ways that the 18th century kitchen they stand in differs from a typical contemporary kitchen. Then, the docent leads a discussion that challenges visitors to generalize as to what cooking and eating might have been like over 200 years ago. (If a conclusion or generalization deviates from standard knowledge on a topic, the docent leads a discussion, not of why visitors came to a “wrong” conclusion, but of why their conclusion differs from what is generally accepted.)

The summary of an inductive lesson should return to the generalizations derived from the discovery lesson and reinforce those that are most salient. Often, it is useful to ask the visitors, themselves, to summarize what they have discovered.

Countless studies have proven that listening does not lead to learning. In fact, the vast majority of what is told to us is forgotten within a few short hours. These same studies do demonstrate, however, that learning and retention are strongest when there are opportunities for participation and dialogue. And, since the measure of any educational endeavor is the learning that occurs, rather than the teaching, it only makes sense that docents work toward strengthening their ability to teach in a participatory manner.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Participatory Teaching: Guiding the Discovery Process,” The Docent Educator 7.2 (Winter 1997-98): 4-5.


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