Docent Educator Logo

Teaching That’s More Engaging, Open, and Fun

Object-based activities are teaching strategies designed to shift visitors from the passive repose of listening into the active postures of seeking, finding, and/or responding. Object-based activities are employed to encourage learners (visitors) to make discoveries on their own. Because these activities must enfranchise all learners present, regardless of their diverse natures and experiences, such activities must accommodate a wide variety of individual differences.

Whether simple or elaborate, object-based activities are often initiated by asking a question or giving visitors a task to accomplish. The purpose of such questions or tasks is not to test visitors’ abilities or memories, but to give them reason for more careful observation and more in-depth involvement.

Asking visitors to locate items by reading labels or text panels does not fit my definition of an object-based activity. While reading labels can assist visitors in identifying objects, it does not guarantee that they will engage with them. The ultimate reason for employing object-based activities is to demonstrate how to learn, understand, and/or appreciate objects by modeling methods for increased involvement.

In addition to engagement, object-based activities should offer lessons that can be applied again with similar or related types of objects. For instance, when a docent in a botanical garden or park hands visitors two different leaves and asks that each visitor make note of at least three differences between them, it is not simply for identification. She is challenging visitors to sharpen their vision and take note of what they see. Rather than expecting visitors only to be able to distinguish between those two leaves in front of them, the docent is anticipating that visitors will learn how an examination of a leaf’s shape, color, texture, veining, and so forth can aid in plant identification. And, she is offering her visitors a model of how to identify trees by inspecting their leaves in future encounters.

Constructing Object-Based Activities

Teaching visitors such skills as observing, comparing, classifying, summarizing, interpreting, and hypothesizing by challenging them to participate in an object-based activity models skills that can be used over and over again, with different objects in other settings. And, when constructed properly, object-based activities offer an added bonus — the involvement they initiate encourages greater retention of what is learned (whereas listening does little to ensure that information heard will be remembered or mastered).

Despite the diversity of object-based activities that can be developed and the wide range of settings in which they may be used, all should share several common characteristics. To be appropriate and effective, object-based activities should involve, accommodate, and engage thinking-skills.

Involvement Object-based activities are participatory, open-ended, and dynamic. They get visitors “doing” and “learning” rather than remembering or confirming what others have learned. Therefore, lectures do not qualify as object-based activities, even if the information told relates directly and specifically to a particular object. While listening to a lecture can lead to learning, the process is passive and does not require involvement to make discoveries or analyses. Asking convergent, closed-ended questions, or assigning convergent tasks, is also inappropriate for object-based activities. Convergent questions and tasks require that all visitors find the same answers. Often, they request that visitors recall previously learned knowledge that has nothing to do with the immediate experiences taking place. For instance, asking visitors to identify which of two leaves comes from a maple tree requires remembering such identification through a prior learning experience. Convergent questions and tasks are not appropriate for object-based activities; they exclude from participation those visitors who do not know the correct response.


In his Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein postulated that time, which seems factual, fixed, and immutable, changes based on circumstances. The U.S. military tested his theory in concrete fashion by using two clocks — one on the ground and the other in a plane that flew for the entire 15-hour testing period. The results proved his theory— the clock in the plane ran slower than the one on the ground. This objective measurement is not the only way to confirm the relativity of time, however. Differences in time can also be experienced personally and subjectively. Just consider how differently time is experienced when the same amount is spent stuck in traffic rather than at home relaxing.

What connection does the measurement of time have to creating and using “object-based activities” at museums, historic sites, zoos, aquariums, parks, and gardens? It serves as a reminder that everything in your collection, no matter how factual, concrete, or fixed they may seem, can mean different things to different people. Like the time spent at your institution, your collection will be experienced in a manner that is relative to the backgrounds, learning styles, age-levels, interests, and cultural identities of your visitors. There is no one, fixed way to interpret or appreciate a work of art.

There is no one, fixed way to view or understand a period or event in history. There is no one, fixed way to examine or consider the implications of a scientific specimen. And, there is no one, fixed way to focus on or respond to a botanical environment. Countless variables will affect perception and reflection. Even you, the docent or educator, will affect the visitors’ experiences, and will shape how they relate and respond to the collection


Object-based activities should require that visitors do something, find something, and/or respond to something. It should prompt them to think, to sort, to consider, and/or to decide. It has implications and applications beyond the specific examples that are being used for teaching, because object-based activities are meant to teach visitors skills for thinking in addition to object-specific information.

What are the skills that object-based activities can teach? They are the same skills of analysis and synthesis used by experts within the disciplines of art, history, and the sciences. Though the activities docents employ may request a less sophisticated level of involvement than those of experts, the thinking skills of observation, comparison, classification, summarization, interpretation, and hypothesis are the same types of thinking skills employed by authorities.

Relating the aforementioned thinking skills to the mental tasks performed by experts may seem an oversimplification. And, while it is a simplification, it is not overly simplified. The difference is solely in the level of sophistication, not in the mental activity. The challenge for educators is breaking down activities that we can do and understand almost without reflection into their component parts in order to teach others who are less familiar with the process. For those of us who read, for example, the act of reading is an activity we do without giving consideration to the mechanics. Ah, but to teach others who do not read how to do so is challenging and complex! We docents and staff educators are more like teachers of reading in that we are not only teaching about the objects (recognition of the words), but also teaching how to decipher and comprehend their meaning (the act of reading and comprehension).

Several Sample Object-Based Activities

  • Have visitors divide the objects in a gallery or large display case into categories of their own making. Challenge them to categorize by sorting things using perceived similarities or differences. Do not be overly concerned with the categories created, but listen carefully to the justifications used for creating the categories and assigning objects to them.

Once visitors have experienced such a sorting task, understanding that authorities create such categories as schools of art, periods in history, phyla of mammals, genera of plants, or types of rocks makes more sense. It is at that time, that a discussion of such categories may be appropriate.

  • In an historic setting, visitors can examine the evidence of a particular historic period and can make assumptions about life during that time based on the evidence and artifacts presented.

For instance, have visitors examine the many items and evidence of activities presented in this 18* century kitchen. Then, have them hypothesize a list of chores and responsibilities that could have been necessary to keep this kitchen working and functioning smoothly.

  • Dioramas in natural history institutions were created to depict a context for the animal mounts displayed. Challenge visitors to interpret these depictions by asking them to find as much meaning from the animal’s environment as they can. Have them look at the evidence presented, such as in this diorama with brown bears, and ask them to extract meaning from what they can see of the animal’s surroundings, activities, and circumstances.
  • The tides of artworks often summarize the artists’ literal or figurative thoughts or intentions. Have visitors condense their own thoughts and reactions to works by asking them to create tides of their own making for works such as the one presented here. Once they summarize their responses into the abbreviated form of titles, have them reverse the process by elaborating upon which variables presented in the work were most influential to their tides’ creation.

Object-based activities are not only involving and engaging for visitors, they keep lessons from becoming stale and educators from becoming bored. The responses and participation from visitors always feels fresh, and new ideas seem to come forth each time an object-based activity is employed. Such dynamics are a lot more fun than lecturing for both the learner and teacher. Try it; you’ll like it!

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Teaching That’s More Engaging, Open, and Fun,” The Docent Educator 11.4 (Summer 2002): 2-5.


Leave a Reply

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