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Using Transitions to Teach Touring

At the Tempe Historical Museum, we do not expect our tours to be based on memorization and recitation of exactly the same information each time. Instead, docents are encouraged to vary their tours within defined parameters so that their lessons are interesting to, and appropriate for, the particular groups they are leading. It is important, therefore, that docents graduate from our basic training class ready to lead tours through our main exhibition hall in a manner that is both flexible and accommodating.

This has not been easy to accomplish. Several techniques have been tested, including mentoring — pairing new docents with senior docents so they have someone to observe and with whom to work. Frequently, however, the new docents become dependent upon their mentors and say that they need even more time to observe, or that they just aren’t ready.

In response to this challenge, the Museum has changed the way basic touring techniques are taught to new docents. In the early stages of training, new docents are taught how you get from “point A” to “point B” rather than about exhibition content. In other words, they are taught using transitioning phrases. A “transition,” as defined in Webster’s Dictionary, is “movement, development, or evolution from one form, stage, or style to another.”

When touring our main exhibition hall, transitions become the mechanism for docents to move from one location to another, while helping them remember the concepts taught by our institution. This approach encourages the trainees to find a flow within their tours. Once they learn this flow and know where they are going and how they will get there, they can relax and concentrate on the ideas presented rather than on their ability to remember isolated facts.

Our expectation that docents will take a flexible approach to touring makes the use of transitions even more useful and important. When docents know how they are going to proceed through the tour, they feel free to elaborate at each location as much as is useful. This allows docents to fine tune the information shared to the interests of their audience, without worrying about how they will connect the discussion to the next location.

During training, the docents first experience the tour using only the transitions. This may sound awkward, but it keeps them focused on the major concepts they will be teaching. At the next session, the docents recite the transitions at the appropriate locations. They also receive a synopsis of a sample tour in writing with the transitions in bold type for quick identification. Then it is time for them to give a general tour. Each time the tour is practiced, docents first go through and reiterate their transitions. The tour no longer seems so immense.

Transitions quickly become cues (just as the lines in a play might be) for the docents to remember what to discuss next. If, on the other hand, they had memorized the whole tour and then forgotten something in the middle, it might be more difficult for them to recover or remember what comes next.

Transitions can take many forms. In our tours, transitions are often questions. For example, one of our transitions is . . . “As we move into the later 1900’s, we see that growth increases dramatically in Tempe. Why?” Other transitions can be in the form of provocative statements for visitors to ponder as they move to the next location. For instance, “Let’s see something that was unique to the developing community of Tempe.” Both transitions establish expectations so that visitors will want to stay with the tour and discover answers. Each also sets the stage for the next topic while “leading” the docent through the tour. In addition, such transitions permit any number of activities to occur at the next stop, from historical comparisons with other urban locations to identifying how Tempe’s history continues to impact upon life, here, today.

Our first transition is the lead-in to the main exhibit hall and tour. It emphasizes the importance of introducing Tempe history, communicating the purpose of the tour, and providing general information about the museum to visitors. These important beginnings can sometimes be overlooked by a docent who is nervous about remembering information or who is more focused on knowing the information than on understanding the reasons for touring.

Our training also reveals how transitions can give continuity to a tour. Consider, for instance, the transition, “We started by discussing agriculture as the major economic factor in the founding of Tempe. After all these people began moving in, what do you think is happening to agriculture?” A transition such as this reinforces what was previous learned and connects it to what is coming up next. Moving from an agricultural to an urban environment has been a major factor shaping the development of Tempe. By emphasizing this in the transition, the docents are sure to get the point across to visitors.

The results of this approach have been rewarding. Graduating docents have been far more willing to venture out and start leading tours right away. While there are still concerns about not knowing answers to all of the visitors’ questions, the emphasis on transitions has helped docents feel prepared and willing to literally walk out of graduation right into our main hall.

In addition, the senior docents who helped with training classes observed the teaching of transitions and asked that this technique be presented to them as well. Even experienced docents seem to appreciate the idea of training with transitions, and they say that it makes the tour much more cohesive. They also feel it reinforces the introduction and conclusion of the tour.

We have been using transitions as a teaching tool for a little over a year now, and have had positive results. Identifying the role of transitions, and developing that role into a technique for preparing docents for touring, has enabled our volunteers to be more comfortable with the public and more effective as guides.

Anna Johnson is Curator of Education at the Tempe Historical Museum, and a past President of the Museum Association of Arizona, past Co-chair of Museum Educators Council of Arizona, and member of the Coordinating Committee on History of Arizona. Ms. Johnson has a certification in secondary education and a degree in history. She has taught many subjects and grades, and has been the Director of the Frontier Historical Museum in Glenwood Springs. CO. Ms. Johnson co-authored The Elusive Dream, A Relentless Quest for Coal in Western Colorado.

Johnson, Anna. “Using Transitions to Teach Touring,” The Docent Educator 5.1 (Autumn 1995): 14-15.

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