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Presenting the Challenge of Expansive Teaching

Here’s an old trick that’s worth repeating. Interlace the fingers of your two hands. Look and see which hand’s thumb is on top. Now, unlace your fingers and interlace them again, but this time place the opposite thumb on the top. How does it feel? If you find it “awkward,” or “uncomfortable,” or “strange” you are like most people. Each of us has a proclivity to do (and to view) things in a certain routine way that “feels” normal and predictable to us.

The same propensity to do and to view things in predictable and comfortable ways persists when we teach. That is why, when training nascent docents, I like to introduce them to a collection from a variety ot vantage points before presenting specific information offered by the curatorial staff Such broad exposure gives new docent recruits a chance to experience one of the greater rewards of teaching in museums, zoos, historic sites, parks, or gardens — the many ways collections can be approached, experienced, and appreciated.

Labels such as “art,” or “history,” or “science,” tend to focus consideration and, thus, teaching. One contemplates sculpture as a work of art at an “art museum,” or a fossil as a scientific specimen at a “science museum.” But such views do not carry the weight of law, and are often transgressed by less knowledgeable visitors who may look at the sculpture as an intriguing sedimentary rock and the fossil as a captivating thing of beauty.

Docents should recognize that among the reasons our collections are highly significant is their intrinsic ability to convey a myriad of stories and to reveal a wide variety of information and truths. For instance, an historic home can tell visitors more than mere history. Beyond being a house built in a certain year and owned by certain people, it is a reflection of culture, values, lifestyles, artistic expressions, architecture, engineering, physics, mathematics, construction methods, occupations, resources, materials, and more. The academic labels of art, history, science, and so forth are simply concocted contrivances, created for cognitive convenience and categorization.

The persistence of such labels can have the unintended consequence of pre-determining THE WAY we think we are supposed to approach our collections and implement our teaching. That is why I enjoy using these labels in a less anticipated manner. When beginning a training session, I take docents into a gallery space or defined area of a zoo, park, or garden and, then, pose each of the following questions one at a time.

If you were an artist — a person who has an ability to create things that display form, present perception, and/or communicate meaning — what might you be interested in when looking at this collection? If you were a biologist — a person who observes, studies, and examines life forms in order to formulate a systematic, objective understanding of them —what might you be interested in when looking at this collection? If you were a chemist — a person who is concerned with the physical compositions, properties, and interactions of substances —what might you be interested in when looking at this collection? If you were a designer— a person who plans and carries out skillful arrangements of things or spaces based on forms and functions — what might you be interested in when looking at this collection? If you were a historian — a person who inquires into, studies, and analyzes past events and activities — what might you be interested in when looking at this collection? If you were a mathematician — a person who calculates quantities, magnitudes, and forms using numbers — what might you be interested in when looking at this collection?

Then, after going through this exercise of interpreting using these offered perspectives, I ask the docents to make a list of what they, themselves, are interested in knowing or learning about from this collection. I conclude by telling them that each of their visitors will have their own personal interests and concerns when they come to this facility and explore the collection.

It is at this juncture that I speak with docents about the differences between classroom teaching and teaching in museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens. Though most of us expect to teach as we experienced being taught— the way it was modeled for us by classroom teachers in school — and while those of us who teach in museums share the title of “educator” with our classroom counterparts — our objectives and methods are considerably different. Rather than working toward a series of anticipated responses by focusing a learner’s thinking, docents strive to expand thought. Rather than being concerned that learners know one particular set of facts, or names, or dates and are able to recall them when tested, docents work to provide multiple routes for encouraging interest in, and exploration of, objects or specimens that are imbued with unlimited potential.

Docents need not test visitors, nor do they labor under the same form of accountability that classroom teachers do, therefore they can enjoy far greater freedoms. They can make inclusiveness and expansive consideration a major component of their instructional methodology.

Since a docent’s goals are to stimulate interest, convey significance, and encourage self-directed learning, he or she should employ a different approach than used in traditional classroom methods. A docent’s approach ought to be one that is more open-ended and flexibly-oriented than classroom teaching often is.

Once a docent experiences learning from institutional collections in an inclusive manner, rather than as the exclusive domain of a particular subject area, the use of an inquiry approach when teaching through open-ended questioning begins to make sense. Questioning allows viewers to explore collections in ways that preserve their individual perspectives and confer legitimacy to their personal points-of-view. When properly employed, questioning also allows docents to build upon visitors’ responses and introduce facts, information, and academic perceptions as additional ways to consider or understand. This approach makes presenting such facts, information, and perceptions less threateningly authoritative and conclusive than lecturing can.

The greatest challenge to employing the inquiry method of expansive teaching is that it is rarely modeled for the very docents who are told to embrace it as a method of instruction. Even the staff who supervise docent programs often do not employ inquiry when providing training to docents. The solution to this challenge is apparent — inquiry should be used in educational training sessions from the very start, and in a variety of contexts, so that its purpose becomes more explicable to docents and its methods are more clearly modeled and understood.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Presenting the Challenge of Expansive Teaching,” The Docent Educator 12.4 (Summer 2003): 2-3.


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