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Food for Thoughts

“Eat your vegetables!” That battle cry resounded through our house when I was growing up, and the mealtime encounters that ensued could range from tense to all out warfare. The problem wasn’t really the vegetables, but my dear mother’s cooking. She didn’t enjoy cooking and it showed. She did little to enhance food preparation or embellish tastes. Vegetables simply went from the can to the saucepan, were heated, and then put on the table. What a discovery it was to learn how a few spices, a bit of butter, or a light sauce could make green beans tastier or spinach more palatable!

As flavors can be enhanced or diminished when cooking, visitor enjoyment can be diminished or enhanced when teaching. Much depends upon the effort put forth in lesson preparation and presentation. Lessons can be delivered in a “canned” fashion, diminishing their appeal, or they can be enlivened (spiced, if you will) to become more engaging. Much depends upon a willingness to put forth the effort it takes to make learning more entertaining.

First, Make It Nutritious.

Allow me to be clear and emphatic — I believe our first obligation when constructing or delivering educational programs is to promote learning. I use the term “entertainment” in conjunction with education only to refer to audience interest as expressed through involvement, exploration, and discovery. I do not equate entertainment to “applause,” the “wow” factor, or the type of passive stroking one might experience when watching situation comedies on television.

Recently, I had an opportunity to visit a new state-of-the-art, hands-on science center and museum. Among the attractions hawked in their promotional materials is a Simulation Center, which promised an “educational examination of how the brain interprets sound, light, and motion.”

The Simulation Center presentation did not turn out to be “educational programming” but an amusement park ride! The audience was shown a movie of an alien attack while sitting in seats that shook in synchronization with the movements of spaceships projected on a giant screen. Though fun, it was a game and a trick— there was no actual attempt to teach anything. Regardless of this program’s popularity or draw, I consider such programming a prime example of how the desire to entertain can supercede an institution’s educational goals and responsibilities.

The “nutrients” in educational programming are only “ingested” when one learns what is being taught, not simply by having fun. That doesn’t mean that fun is unimportant. But, it does mean that entertainment should be considered the “spice” in educational programming and learning objectives the “food.”

Now, Make It Delicious.

Audience interest is an appropriate way to measure the entertainment value inherent in educational activities. Using that criterion, however, places the burden of entertaining squarely on the shoulders of docents since the interest and fun associated with learning can be enhanced or diminished by the manner in which lessons are taught.

Nature works in the docent’s favor. Most institutional collections are inherently engaging and interesting. Therefore, fostering interest in art, history, or science collections should be relatively easy, as long as nothing is done to squelch curiosity and interest. After all, the desire to satisfy an aroused curiosity is as natural to human nature as is scratching an itch.

Curiosity and interest can be stifled, however, if the docent teaches in a manner that inhibits access and involvement. For instance, if a docent gets hung up on such inhibitors as “imposing order over creating exuberance,” “testing memorization over ensuring comprehension,” or “imparting information over encouraging inquiry,” he can effectively squash the motivation to learn and defeat any chance for participation. That is why teaching methods that incorporate active learning opportunities are so critical. They build upon our natural curiosity. Teaching people through passive techniques, such as “show and tell” or lecturing, are the educational equivalents of culinary “heat and eat.” At best, these techniques merely warm up what is “canned.” Even more importantly, such lessons proceed in precisely the same manner regardless of whether visitors understand what is being taught, or not.

Simply being told what authorities have learned offers few opportunities for involvement or excitement. Furthermore, such a teaching strategy places all of its evaluative weight on what is being taught and precious little on what is being learned. Therefore, visitor satisfaction doesn’t account for much. That’s not a recipe to make education “tastier,” but more bland or unpleasant.

Spice Things Up!

A well- stocked kitchen usually contains a variety of spices, each one ready to lend its own special flavor and flare to foods. Similarly, a well-versed educator should know a variety of active learning techniques, each of which can add flavor and flare to a lesson by magnifying the excitement and satisfaction that is inherent in learning.

Spice things up by challenging visitors to find information on their own. Get them involved! Then, give them the confidence to continue learning by telling them what they have accomplished. Help visitors become more observant by giving them reasons to look.

For instance, ask them to compare the appearance of crystals to that of minerals. Or, have them describe the look and the feel of a room in your historic house. Get them to see the many colors an artist used to create skin tones in a portrait. Or, have them discuss the fragrance of different flowers or herbs in your garden.

Asking visitors to participate answers the unspoken question, 1 “Why should I care?” Have visitors use their imaginations (to pretend) or develop I hypotheses (to make educated guesses 1 based on evidence). What can you j learn about the past from a painting?

Have visitors consider how a landscape, executed in the late 1800’s, might be different were it painted today? Why should I care about early attempts at flight? Well, what would our lives be like today ifwe had never known the benefits of air travel? Who cares about invasive plants? Ask visitors to consider how their ecosystem might be affected if a foreign plant were introduced? What can be learned from looking at a kitchen on an historic property? Ask visitors what seems most difficult or most hazardous about working in a 18th century kitchen?

The appropriate route for infusing entertainment into our educational programming is not trickery, rides, or other gimmicks, but through activities, questions, and other pursuits that demonstrate how much fun learning can be. If we try to compete with amusement parks, movies, and other forms of entertainment, we will lose on “foreign turf” We are educational institutions. Our strength grows from our ability to generate interest and stimulate engagement with collections that are fascinating and worthy of elaborate consideration.

If your museum installs a Simulation Center that provides rides, develop lessons that make the visitors’ experience truly significant. Build programming around it, rather than let it substitute for a lack of programs. Provide a forum for visitors to discuss and interpret their experiences. Challenge them to place things into context and enlarge upon meanings.

Just because our institutions serve things that are nutritious does not mean they can’t be delicious. But, if they are simply delicious, and have little nutrition, then they are merely mental “junk food.” And, in a world that already has too much mental junk food, that would be a tragedy. Let us strive to create programming in our museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens that tastes good, but let us first and always ensure that they are good for you!

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Food For Thoughts,” The Docent Educator 10.4 (Summer 2001): 2-3.


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