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Systematic Instruction

Teaching is an endeavor that has both artistic and technical components. While it may be difficult to transmit much about the artistic aspects of teaching because they emphasize such subjective attributes as performance, attitude, style, and nuance, the technical aspects of teaching can be more easily delineated.

Successful teaching should not simply be formulaic, but a method does exist that can assist in structuring one’s teaching responsibilities. This method, which is known as “systematic instruction,” offers a useful construct for organizing and providing instruction.

The first step in instructional decision-making is to determine what goals to achieve. Unfortunately, most educators talk about their instructional goals in terms that are far too ambiguous to be helpful. Wanting visitors to gain an appreciation for abstract art or teaching visitors to have a greater awareness of mammals leaves little (or, perhaps, far too much) to build upon when creating a lesson.

Instructional goals should be stated in terms of observable “student” behaviors, such as “visitors will discover three qualities of abstract art that are non-narrative,” or “visitors will determine three attributes that make an animal a mammal.” With these specifics in mind, a decent knows precisely what visitors must accomplish and, in turn, what he or she must do to get visitors to demonstrate that learning has occurred.

A second step in planning sytematic instruction is to pre-assess the visitors’ status with respect to the intended objectives. What do visitors know and how prepared are they to absorb new information? (One wouldn’t want to teach over visitors’ heads or insult their intelligence.)

This is why an introduction to touring is so useful and important. During an introduction, visitors can be queried about what they know of the topic, if they have seen your institution and its collections before, and what they were told about their tour and its subject matter prior to arriving. Once these things have been ascertained, a docent can move forward, or quickly re-assess, the teaching objectives and routes for their implementation.

The third step in planning systematic instruction is selecting the tour theme and activities. At this stage, many educators incorrectly focus on the question, “What shall I do?” rather than on the more relevant question of “What shall visitors do?” By focusing on the latter question, the educator usually increases the probability of selecting instructional situations that will help learners achieve the desired objectives.

There are certain learning principles, drawn largely from psychology, that have been shown to increase the probability that visitors will attain the learning objectives. For instance, one rather generally accepted learning principle is that the learner should be given opportunities to practice the behavior called for in the instructional objective. This is one of several reasons that interactive teaching, which calls on visitors to participate in responding to questions and accomplishing activities, should be employed.

The fourth and final step in a systematic instructional model is evaluation. In this case, it is not directly evaluating the teacher that is being suggested, but evaluating the visitors. Docents should examine the post-instructional behaviors of students to see whether the learning activities selected produced the hoped-for-results. This can be accomplished during the tour’s conclusion. Asking visitors such summarizing questions as: “What do you remember most from the tour we took together?” or “How will you approach the next abstract art work you come across?” or “So, what questions might you ask yourself if you are trying to determine if an animal is a mammal?” can show docents whether their instructional activities were effective or require further modification.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Systematic Instruction,” The Docent Educator 9.1 (Autumn 1999): 5.

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