Docent Educator Logo

Ready, Set, … Plan!

When meeting visitors and beginning a tour, do you feel obliged to give them everything you’ve got, to fill them in as much as possible about your institution and its collection? Do you hope they will experience the benefits of all the books you’ve read and experts you’ve listened to? Do you want them to know that you speak with some authority? And, are you all too aware that this brief encounter may be your only opportunity to accomplish these tasks with this particular audience?

If you have these feelings, I sympathize. I, too, am experiencing many of these emotions as I approach writing this, my final article for The Docent Educator. There is so much to cover, and I want you to receive it all. Nevertheless, I realize that yielding to this imperative (or worse yet, teaching to satisfy it) will seriously denigrate my effectiveness. I will overwhelm you, and myself Quite probably, I will lose focus and cohesiveness. But, most importantly, I will have lost sight of what teaching is truly about.

Simply put, teaching is not about the instructor and what he or she wants to give — it is about students and what they are to learn. And, with that shift of focus, planning a tour is an entirely different and far more constructive process.

Planning to Plan

In order to serve visitors (a.k.a. “the students”) best, a docent (a.k.a. “the teacher”) must know who they are and be able to make some generalizations about their needs from that profile. If, for example, those on a tour are second graders, the docent must make certain that his language is appropriate for seven and eight-year-olds, that his demeanor is warm and accessible, and that his lesson moves quickly and is consistent with their limited attention spans. If, on the other hand, his audience will be college students, he must make certain that he challenges and provokes them, that his demeanor is one of respect and openness, and that his lesson has depth and interest commensurate with their current educational experiences.

A docent should know if his visitors have any special areas of interest or reasons for visiting? Perhaps they are part of a social studies class studying the settlers’ push into the American West. Then again, they could be coming as members of a garden club. Such distinctions will make a profound difference in what is taught and could also determine which exhibitions are focused upon and which may not even be viewed.

The docent should also know if members of his audience have special needs. If he knows of visual or auditory problems, he can work to ensure that everyone will see or hear. If he knows of mobility challenges, he can plan appropriate routes and/or allow extra time for moving from one place to the next. And, if he knows of emotional or intellectual challenges, he can ask their teacher or group leader how to best work with such visitors while meeting the needs of the other audience members.


Most of us have a strong desire to be liked. That is why, when planning a tour or lesson, I begin by reminding myself that I am not trying to get the audience to like me, or even the collection for that matter. I am trying to get the audience to learn. After arriving at this point, I confront two essential questions, “What should students learn?” and “How will I know if they’ve learned it?” It is by tackling these two questions that I begin planning my lesson.

“What should students learn?” goes directly to the heart of the matter. Intuitively and intellectually, I believe that students should learn something from the collection that furthers their understanding of the subject matter. That leads me to the theme or “big idea” that learners should consider, wrestle with, and reflect upon. The theme serves as my instructional goal, but offers no information about how this goal is achieved. For that, I must construct instructional objectives. Instructional objectives unambiguously communicate how learning will occur in ways that can be demonstrated and evaluated.

For instance, an instructional goal might be “to have visitors examine and comprehend 19* Century paintings of the American West.” While this goal is clear, it does not tell how this will be accomplished. When constructed properly, instructional objectives clarify what students will do to demonstrate that they are learning. For instance, such an objective might be that “students will identify three attributes common to 19* Century paintings of the American West.”

Now, I know what I am teaching, because I know what visitors must do. (Note that I have not pre-determined the outcomes. I have not said which attributes they should find. I only know the minimal level of identifying attributes, which is three.) To implement this instructional objective, I will ask open-ended questions that call upon thinking skills. Such thinking skills are ones of: observing, comparing, classifying, summarizing, interpreting, hypothesizing, imagining, and deciding.

“Identifying” requires observing or looking carefully with a purpose. Therefore, I will ask questions that challenge visitors to inspect paintings for the purpose of describing them. Such a question might be: “How would you describe this painting to someone who could not see it?” or “What words might make appropriate captions for this painting?” To answer these questions, visitors would have to look, gather information, and justify their answers based on what they discovered.

Since identifying attributes found 1 in common involves comparing, I will also ask students to note which attributes they find in several of the paintings. Examples of questions requesting comparisons might be: “If you were to put all the paintings we’ve looked at into one book, what might you title that book?” or “What are some qualities or messages that seem to be present in every work we’ve looked at?”

By asking these questions, students must spend time looking, considering, and comparing. That fulfills part of the instructional goal. By assessing the range of answers I receive, I can tell if they are truly learning to comprehend and draw some meaning from these works, which if successful would fulfill the rest of the goal. And, if I find that they are not able to respond to these questions in appropriate ways, I know that I must revisit my questions and how I lead students in their exploration of the works. So, I also have a mechanism for evaluating my teaching.

Good planning is truly the key to an effective delivery and useful evaluation. Unfortunately, many docents do not do this form of preparation. Rather than think their lesson through, down to writing out instructional goals, instructional objectives, and open-ended questions supporting those objectives, they just wing it. But, those who teach in such a haphazard manner do so at the risk of appearing unprepared, inconsistent, and unprofessional. Furthermore, they rarely know why they taught well one time, but not the next. They simply assume it is the audience, when often it is not.

Good teaching is not scripted, nor is it formulaic, but it does require good planning. A planned lesson is a coherent one. It allows for diversions because the instructor knows what students must ultimately do and, therefore, ways to keep digressions productive and to the point. Good planning supplies both the instructor and the learner with a roadmap, relieving learners of the responsibility to sort through new information in an attempt to determine meaning. It places that responsibility squarely where it belongs, with the teacher.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Ready, Set,…Plan!,” The Docent Educator 13.2 (Winter 2003-04): 2-3.


Leave a Reply

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