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When Activities Teach, What is the Docents Role?

The emergence of activity based learning centers in museums across the country poses a challenge to docents who staff these areas. In these “discovery” rooms, visitors engage in activities designed for self-directed learning. The role of the docent becomes that of facilitator, which means interacting with visitors in a less traditional way. How can docents share their wealth of knowledge in a setting that is designed to promote self-directed learning? Within this paradox lies the challenge for docents. When the activities teach, what is the docents role? By using a learning center at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History as a model, we can create a profile of the “ideal docent” for such an environment.

The staff of the popular Hands On History Room learning center at the Museum has struggled with the above questions. The Hands On History Room targets all ages, from 5 through adults. Most of the exhibit’s thirty-five activities use reproductions of objects and relate directly to permanent exhibits in galleries. Visitors gin cotton, make rope, decipher a buffalo hide painting, sort mail, explore the life of slaves on a rice plantation, and try their hand at Morse code, among other activities. Between 3 and 5 docents staff the Room when it is open to visitors. Controlled access to the Room is through one door. The enclosed space was planned to encourage a change of pace from the rest of the Museum and to provide an intimate environment where learning is flin. During busy times of the year, free tickets are required for admission. Docents clear the Room every thirty minutes in order to admit the next group.

What characteristics does a docent in a self-directed learning environment need? The following components appear to be key: flexibility, sensitivity to visitor needs, an ability to ask good questions, and knowledge of differences in learning styles.

Flexibility is an important job requirement for all docents, but even more for those who facilitate self-directed learning. Because docents control visitor access to and in the space, they must be able to explain and, where necessary, enforce all of the Room’s policies. Docent responsibilities in the Room also include: monitoring visitor flow, keeping visitor statistics, protecting the collection, tidying up between sessions, and presenting focused school programs.

The number one priority when facilitating the visitor experience is sensitivity to visitor needs — knowing when a visitor needs help with an activity, when a visitor desires interaction with a docent, which activities are most suitable for visitors with various accommodation needs (visual and hearing impairments, cognitive disabilities, etc.), and which activities are suitable for which age groups. Since every activity in the Room is self-directed using clue cards, written and visual directions, or audio directions, visitors do not need docents to have meaningful experiences. Through practiced observation, docents learn to discern which visitors desire docent interaction and which are content without it. Certain activities, such as the cotton gin and the highwheel bicycles, require docent monitoring for safety reasons. Other activities, such as making rope, harnessing the life-sized fiberglass mule, or using the telegraph station, require several people to complete the activity.

Knowing how to construct and ask good questions is the key to becoming an effective facilitator. When visitors jump right into an activity without reading the attached descriptive text, the docent must get involved to ensure that learning takes place. For instance, visitors in the Room have an opportunity to climb up on a stationary highwheeler and feel what it was like to ride one of those amazing machines. The textual material accompanying the bikes places them into historical context and includes interesting photographs of people riding highwheelers. Many visitors do not read this material, however, and merely climb on and peddle. When they get off the bike and go to another activity, chances are they will not have made any connection to history unless a docent gets involved.

The docent can ask questions to get a discussion started. “Why might the bike have such a big wheel?” “Why do you think the bicycle was designed this way?” “What is missing from the bicycle that we have on bikes today?” These questions lead to others, and often to a fascinating discussion of highwheelers. At the very least, the next time the visitor rides her bicycle, she might think back to this experience, and at best, the visitor might be curious enough to explore more about the golden age of highwheelers on her own. Ultimately, the docent can encourage the visitor to see the authentic object in our collection. As naturalist Freeman Tilden wrote in his text, Interpreting Our Heritage, the chief aim of interpretation is provocation. Good thought-provoking questions help guide visitors toward making personal connections with history.

Understanding differences in personal learning styles is also essential for working in an environment where self-directed learning occurs. The Hands On History Room is based in part on the theories of multiple intelligences. (Howard Gardner has written several books on this subject.) Docents who recognize that people receive information in different ways and who have a clear understanding of the learning styles related to each activity are better able to assist visitors. For example, visitors who are drawn toward logic usually enjoy learning about an eighteenth-century cooper’s craft: putting a piggin (a small barrel) together. This activity shows the skill involved in fitting precisely crafted staves tightly into position inside three hoops without using nails or pegs. Visitors must carefully follow directions to set up the staves around the inside of the smallest hoop. Once they fit the tenth stave into the hoop, they can continue. While this is a challenging activity, it is easy to miss the historical context and to think of constructing the piggin as simply an entertaining puzzle. A docent can give procedural tips to the visitor, while asking provocative questions: “What skills did coopers need?” “How might people have used piggins?” “What objects do we use today instead?” The logical learner will leave satisfied that he met a challenge and mastered the puzzle, while learning something about history. Hopefully, he will remember the experience the next time he uses a Tupperware-type container.

Can docent-led programming work in a discovery room designed tor self-directed learning? Yes, but only for certain groups. Morning school programs in our Hands On History Room follow a structured approach that provides focus within the self-directed learning format. Every school visit examines one of five broad historical themes: Life in the late 1700s, Life in the 1800s, Westward Movement, Native Americans, and Invention and Industry. Teachers choose the theme and discuss the content with a docent prior to their museum visit. The program employs three approaches. In part one, a docent leads the entire class through an activity introducing the theme and the importance of primary sources. Part two features docent-led small-group exploration ot activities relating to the theme. In part three, the students have free-time to explore the entire space. This format, initiated in the fall of 1996, has been well-received by teachers and docents alike. The thematic focus supplements and reinforces classroom curriculum and gives docents the opportunity for a different level of interaction with the students than they have with the general public.

Docent-led and focused activities have not been as successful with public sessions. Both docents and visitors realized that imposing a docent-initiated structure in an unstructured discovery room is not appealing. One reason that the Hands On History Room is so popular and successful is that the activities allow visitors to teach themselves. Docents can, however, augment the experience by directing and encouraging visitor involvement, and by supplementing textual and visual materials with provocative questioning.

The challenge for docents working in our Hands On History Room is to find ways to help visitors enjoy their visit and have rewarding experiences. From what we read in the visitor comment book, they are successful. “Excellent!” wrote one visitor, “Docents used inquiry skills to take visitors beyond the basic activity to the historical importance of process.”

Tim Grove is an Education Specialist at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D. C. As program coordinator of the Museum’s Hands On History Room exhibit, he trains and manages a docent corps of sixty.

Grove, Tim. “When activities Teach, What is the Docent’s Role?,” The Docent Educator 7.2 (Winter 1997-98): 12-14.


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