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Teaching Adult Students: Adult Students Take a “Hands-On” Approach

Each year, the education department of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln provides tours to approximately 1 ,000 first-year students enrolled in a program entitled University Foundations. The University Foundations program is a course designed to develop “the student’s ability to master the University environment and to utilize its resources fully.”

The greatest percentage of students enrolled in this program are from rural or non-metropolitan areas. Many Foundations students find entering the art museum intimidating, and yearn not to be perceived as interested in such esoteric topics as 20th century American art. These first-year students, therefore, can be quite challenging.

After struggling with a number of these tours, our education department developed an innovative technique that has proven to be extremely successful with this “difficult” audience. Quite by accident, we received a cache of duplicate periodicals containing images by artists represented in our collection. Rather than simply file these images away, we decided to clip and laminate them, and hand them out to students as they arrived. We wondered what might happen if the students were asked to peruse the permanent collection galleries looking for an image by the same artist as the one in their hand. Would having such a task enhance their experience and lessen their inhibitions and discomfort?

These laminated images offer no written clues, such as an artist’s name; therefore, students must look at the works of art to make matches rather than simply read labels. After a few minutes, the students are asked to tell how they made their choices. As the discussion leader, the decent utilizes questioning strategies to augment discussion, channel information, and direct the group as is necessary in order for all to participate.

Student responses varied, but the exercise afford an excellent opportunity for each student to discuss relevant issues based on his or her own individual experiences. Ordinarily students begin by discussing the elements of art, or the principles of design, without actually realizing they are doing so. Students frequently begin to identify more significant and timely issues by delving more deeply into what they actually see within specific paintings or sculptures that led them to discover similarities between “their” laminated image and their “matched” image. The discussions are enriched significantly as a result of the divergent thinking that takes place.

Among the many benefits of this program are:

1- an immediate engagement with the students by placing in their hands something they can actually touch, while at the same time making a point of the reasons art objects are not normally touched in the museum setting;

2- an increased ability on the part of students to expand their vocabulary by verbalizing their reasons for determining the connection(s) between ‘their’ image and the one in the gallery;

3- a significant increase in interest among students to investigate works more closely, and to recognize and discuss works of art within our permanent collection; and

4- an interest on the part of students to return to the museum because they determined that the museum was an environment in which they could feel comfortable looking at, and discussing, works from their own unique perspectives.

Foundations faculty have praised the educational value achieved through this new approach. One of the instructors wrote, “The activity that you did with the students, giving them a reproduction of a work by an artist and sending them on a search for similar works, is both innovative and effective. In post-tour discussions, both classes agreed that personal involvement made it a much more interesting tour. My sense is that you gave each student a real opportunity to establish personal ownership of a specific work. Your request of a student to explain specific elements shared by the reproduction and the original Sheldon work was the basis for such ownership. The fact that this explanation was presented by “peer docents” added variety to the discussion and was another wonderful innovation. The other stroke of sheer brilliance ( ! ) was the way you showed the evolution of (de Kooning’s) work. Neither young nor non-traditional students tend to think about how an artist’s work grows as the artist matures. I thank you for two quite wonderful tours.”

The reference to showing the evolution of one artist’s work involves distributing reproductions of works by one, single artist, from both the early and later stages of his/her career. Students then show these images to their classmates in chronological order revealing how one artist’s work progresses. This also allows us to discuss how the permanent collection is installed, and can be understood, historically.

The success of this technique with university students has inspired some docents to use it with other adult groups. It seems that most novice museum visitors, regardless of age, appear to appreciate the type of museum learning that allows them to participate.

Karen Janovy is Curator of Education at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, where she also teaches in the Museum Studies program. She serves as faculty and co-director of Region 2 of Prairie Visions, Nebraska’s statewide consortium to implement “Disciplined-based Art Education. ” She received her MA degree from UNL, and a BFA from the University of Oklahoma, as is co-author of The American Painting Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, 1988, University of Nebraska Press.

Janovy, Karen. “Teaching Adult Students: Adult Students Take a ‘Hands-On’ Approach,” The Docent Educator 4.4 (Summer 1995): 11-12.

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