Docent Educator Logo

We Still Need the Teacher

When I began my teaching career, in the mid 60’s, my principal issued each teacher textbooks for every subject she taught, a record player, a tape player/recorder, and a box of chalk. Our school also owned two projectors, one for 35mm movies and another for filmstrips, and a mimeograph machine. During that first year, I averaged grades “by hand,” but before my second year I bought my own calculator for $85. My last classroom, a few years ago, had two computers, an overhead projector, a closed-circuit television/VCR, a tape player/recorder with headphones, a classroom set of hand-held calculators, microscopes, fewer textbooks, and a box of dry erase markers. A great software program made averaging grades a breeze. The teachers’ workroom had two copying machines and a laminating machine. During the thirty years that I spent in a variety of elementary, middle school, and college classrooms, my teaching became more and more effective. Part of my success had to do with technology.

Some of the technological tools in my 90’s classroom saved me time, giving me more of the precious stuff to spend on individualizing instruction, attending in-service classes to learn new and better ways of teaching, learning more about my students. Some of the technology brought my students and me better, more current, information. As we studied world history and geography, for example, we gave up our “out-dated-before-they-were-printed” textbooks and relied on primary source material available through the internet.

No matter how wonderful the new technology was, however, no one seriously suggested getting rid of me. That’s why I’m always a little nervous when I enter a museum today and see audio guides, but no docents.

Two museums I visited a few years ago gave me my first twinges of concern. After a truly inspired docent tour of one museum’s definitive collection of my favorite artist, I complimented the docent on an excellent job. Her eyes filled with tears as she asked me to please pass on my comments to the museum administrators who were in the process of phasing out the docent program in favor of a new, state-of-the-art audio program.

A few days later, on the same vacation trip, I visited an historic site that made extensive use of an audio wand that I hadn’t experienced before. I was fascinated by the freedom it gave me to visit a part of the site I was drawn to, punch in a number code, and hear a brief description of what I was seeing. I could play it again and again. Of course, I couldn’t interact with it, so before I left the site, I sought out a docent to answer my questions. Then we discussed the site’s proposed use of the audio wand. He explained that the original plan called for, again, phasing out the docent program. However, after one summer of use. that plan was jettisoned. It was found that without docents to guide them from one area to another, most visitors drifted rather aimlessly (even when numbers marked a chronological order) or tended to “bunch up” in one area causing terrible “traffic jams.” Without a docent to ask and answer questions, learning about the site was superficial, even though more factual information was being presented through the wand than even the most avid docent could impart. Continued on

Why would museums and other the next page, such informal educational institutions want to abolish programs that offer their visitors a personal, rather than machine, tour? Part of the reason may be the difficulty of recruiting, training, evaluating, and retaining quality docents. Another reason, however, has to do with success.

When art museums began offering the touring public “blockbuster,” “must-see” exhibits, visitor services directors carefully considered square footage of the exhibition space, the number and size of works in a show, and the average time visitors spend looking at art (30 seconds for a painting, and 15-20 seconds for a sculpture) as they planned the optimal number of visitors per half hour.

Audio tours were one very efficient way to handle the crowds. A well-known celebrity welcomed the visitors and, in mellifluous tones, guided them from room to room, from exhibit case to exhibit case. Visitors were encouraged to “turn off your audio guide” and spend more time in each room. However, as anticipated, most simply moved through the exhibition at the audio tape’s pace — 30 seconds for a painting, 15-20 seconds for a sculpture, and a look at only a selection of the exhibit’s paintings or artifacts. Lots of people got to see King Tut’s golden mask, da Vinci’s Pieta, and Van Gogh’s The Harvest. Audio tours do convey quantities of information, and, in some cases, they convey information that is not possible in any other way. In the National Portrait Gallery in London, for instance, an audio wand program makes it possible to hear interviews with the artist and model of some of the paintings. In other cases, speeches by the painting’s subject add a rich dimension to the viewing experience. No docent could match hearing Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in the great statesman’s own voice or the unexpected (and unintentional) humor of Scouting’s Lord Baden-Powell’s explanation of the wolf cub’s cry: “Dyb, dyb, dyb means do your best, do your best, do your best. And we reply dob, dob, dob, we’ll do our best, do our best, do our best.” A guide, however, might have ensured that I didn’t miss the delightful painting of Sir Edward Landseer modeling one of the enormous lions that corner Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square just a few steps away from the Gallery. A guide’s words and the shared experiences of a touring group might have made even more poignant the casual family portrait of King George VI and the future Queen Elizabeth II at Christmas, 1951, shortly before his death and her ascension to the throne.

A Powerful Combination

Given the ability of audio tours to convey carefully edited and controlled information, of efficiently moving large numbers of people through an exhibit, and of offering experiences not possible in other ways, museums and other such institutions would be foolish not to consider their use. However, finding ways to combine audio tours with interactive learning only possible with a docent or other guide can create the best of both worlds.

Docents can be an important part of planning before instituting an audio program into an exhibit or collection. As “test subjects,” docents can preview the content and ease of use of a proposed audio tour. As they use the audio material, or read a printed copy of the script, docents can help develop gallery handouts or auxiliary talks to make the presentation more interactive, as well as those materials to be used as pre- and post-visit information for teachers. Questions for after-the-tour discussion groups on site or in classroom follow-up activities can also make the generally passive experience of an audio tour more personal.

Wouldn’t we learn more from an audio tour experience if, in every gallery, the taped voice said, “Now that I’ve given you some factual information about the artifacts in this gallery, turn off the machine and find the docents who are here to help you learn more. They’re easy to spot. They’re wearing red blazers with the museum’s logo on the pocket.” At that point, a docent in each gallery would lead visitors to discover more on their own, asking them questions to find out what they already know, to get them involved, to get a discussion going, to provide a springboard for their ideas on the topic, to stimulate creative thinking about the exhibit, and/or to review and summarize what they’ve seen so far.

Or, how about an informal “after the tour” discussion? The audio tape voice would instruct visitors to “…join us in a discussion of what you’ve just seen. As you leave the exhibit, you may wish to stop for a while in the lounge area just to your left. There a docent will help you learn more.” In a comfortable room (maybe with simple refreshments available), a docent will answer questions and ask those that will help bring closure to the exhibit experience.

Audio tours alone isolate the visitor, putting their learning into the hands (or voice) of an all-knowing “teacher.” Combining the audio with docent involvement once again empowers the visitor, as the docent’s job is to help visitors realize how much they already know and can discover on their own. The conversations possible within a touring group enhance the viewing experience and different points of view are shared. Inquiry learning shifts the focus back to the learner.

Audio Tours with Children

Audio tours for children hold special dangers. Many children (and some adults) find it extremely difficult to locate the objects about which the narrator is speaking. Instead of gazing rapturously at a selected painting or artifact, children are often literally turning in circles to find the object. This difficulty provides another opportunity for museums to make good use of their decent corps. Like map reading, audio touring is a learned skill. If children are expected to use an audio tour, outreach docents could visit the classroom ahead of time to provide special instructions and practice prior to a class visit to the exhibit. Audio tours provide excellent experiences in listening and following directions, but children shouldn’t have to learn “on the job.”

While children are usually more comfortable with new technology than most adults, they expect it to work properly and are far more frustrated by equipment failure. Docents within an exhibit gallery where audio tours are used should be sensitive to the body language of confused children and quick to assist them.

Some museums effectively combine docent availability with audio guides by stationing docents within galleries to answer questions and provide assistance. Identifying symbols, such as badges with large question marks, help visitors recognize the docent as someone to approach if they have problems with the audio equipment or questions about the exhibit material. Face to face with a “real, live person,” students find it much easier to be attentive. The docent’s vocal variations, body language, facial expressions, and inquiry techniques serve to hold a group’s attention. All these are missing when an audio tour replaces the docent. Gallery docents can also help keep younger visitors focused by interrupting an audio tour from time to time to interact with an individual student or group of students.

General audio tours are designed for the “average” viewer. Unlike a good docent tour, which takes into account the diversity of the group being toured, an audio tour must try to be, to paraphrase St. Paul, all things to all visitors. Neither too scholarly nor too elementary, such tours are often good introductions to a topic. In attempting to compete with other entertainment media, however, some have sacrificed content for drama. One such was the audio accompanying an exhibit of pre- Columbian artifacts from Peru. Dramatic music and whispered voices emphasized the danger and mystery of exploring these ancient artifacts. Even the children in my group thought the narrative terribly silly and, even worse, distracting.

A good audio tour, however, combined with the best of an institution’s docent availability, can be a technological tool that doesn’t sacrifice the communal sharing of a learning experience for mere content. The visiting public gains when the museum offers both.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “We Still Need the Teacher,” The Docent Educator 8.4 (Summer 1999): 17-19.

Leave a Reply

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