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Subjectivity and Inquiry Teaching

To successfully conduct “inquiry” tours, it’s essential to remember that all experiences, including viewing and interpreting objects in your collection, are subjective. Whether caused by differences in physical proximity to an object, or differences in personal or cultural patterns of thinking, the range of subjective variables among visitors is great and their impact upon perception can be profound.

In his text Communications: The Transfer of Meaning, author Don Fabun illustrates this point by asking us to consider words such as “patriotism,” “virtue,” and “morality,” and their many manifest interpretations. He points out that word meanings change with speakers, regions, contexts, cultures, and times.

This same element of subjective interpretation and association applies to viewing objects or living things. Consider, for example, four people inspecting a chair. Each would see that chair from a different vantage point by virtue of where he or she stood in relation to it. In addition, each might contemplate the chair from a different mental vantage point, reflecting personal thoughts and interests. Person # 1 might focus on concerns about the chair’s comfort; person #2 on the chair’s aesthetics and design; person #3 on the weave and type of cloth fabric covering the chair’s seat; and person #4 with the graining of the wood used for the chair’s frame.

Images, too, are experienced subjectively. A simple “+” shape used in a non-representational work of art might be interpreted as the intersection of lines or, perhaps, streets. It could also be a sign signifying the mathematical process of addition, or even the cross hairs in a gun’s sight. Some Native American people might know this shape as a symbol marking the center of the universe, while others might find it evocative of a crucifix, the Christian religion’s symbol of worldly suffering and promise of salvation.

This phenomenon of subjectivity is true regardless of how quantifiable, precise, exact, or objective an experience may be. Take “time” for example. One hour is a fixed quantity. It is always and precisely 60 minutes in length. Yet, consider how differently an hour spent in the dentist’s chair is experienced from an hour watching an engrossing movie.

It seems important, therefore, that docents be prepared for a multiplicity of responses when using the inquiry method of asking “open-ended” questions to teach about objects, living things, or environments. Most answers offered will have merit when individual, temporal, or cultural viewpoints are taken into account. However, they must be fully shared, discussed, and explored to be useful. Maintaining an accepting attitude is one thing; accepting answers without having visitors elaborate upon their reasoning and justifications is quite another.

Even the most informed answers to open-ended questions can legitimately vary from one another. Consider the variance among thoughtful answers to questions concerning the rights of “the accused” versus the rights of “victims,” or the appropriate separation between religious beliefs and governmental policies, within the Supreme Court of the United States.

While not predetermined or limited, subjective answers to open ended questions are distinguishable by the quality of their supporting arguments. For instance, simple personal opinion is an insufficient answer to most open-ended questions. Respondents should be prompted, in a supportive and non-challenging manner, to justify their responses by making use of factual information or evidence, and to clearly reference their answers back to the object inspected by showing, pointing out, identifying, linking, analyzing, or critically evaluating what they have found.

This can be accomplished if the docent is patient, develops good questioning strategies, and does not feel compelled to move from one object to another too quickly. After receiving a response to a question, docents should ask the visitor to elaborate. “What leads you to that conclusion?” or “Can you show us where you found that.'” will, if asked with an encouraging and interested tone of voice, prompt respondents to explain or justify their responses. In addition, such questions allow others in the group to grasp new, unusual, or difficult understandings and insights.

The effort required to use inquiry might cause some docents to wonder if it isn’t easier and more appropriate to teach by simply telling visitors about their collection. While it is true that telling (or expository teaching) is easier, it rarely constitutes as valuable a learning experience, and may present facts that have a fairly limited “shelf-life.”

Most of us learn best through direct, personal experience (called by parents of teenagers — “the hard way”). Listening to a planned talk is a very limited experience when contrasted against such participatory activities as contemplation, investigation, and discovery. Inquiry takes advantage of the way we began learning from infancy — by examining, trying, and testing our ideas.

As for the desire to convey specific factual information, not only are isolated “facts” rarely remembered, but the “facts” themselves will occasionally change. While paging through the first volume of a set of encyclopedia published in 1930, 1 was surprised to .see how many “facts” and attitudes had changed over the intervening years. Airplanes taking off from carriers were literally blown off by a charge of gunpowder; the Amazon was a jungle so dense that not more than 25 square miles had been cultivated; and native Alaskan peoples were termed the land’s “inferior races.” Art historians, social historians, inventors, and scientists constantly challenge and re -evaluate previous findings, changing facts and altering widely accepted beliefs.

The goal of education in any setting isn’t simply to have students accumulate facts, but to guide them in the development of methods for continued learning. Rather than shy away from using inquiry to teach because of subjectivity’s challenges, docents should acknowledge and incorporate subjectivity into the learning experience, allowing diversity to enhance experience and reveal the many routes for exploring and appreciating.

Alan Gartenhaus is the publishing editor of this newsletter He has sensed as an educator at the Museum of Arts and Sciences, in Daytona, FL the New Orleans Museum of Art, The Smithsonian Institution, and as a director of Cornish College of the Arts. He was awarded an Alden Dow Fellowship for his work investigating the relationship of museum use to creative thinking. In addition to conducting docent and teacher in-service workshops throughout the country, he is the author of the recently published text – Minds in Motion: Using Museums to Expand Creative Thinking.

Gartenhaus, Alan “Subjectivity and Inquiry Teaching,” The Docent Educator 1.1 (Autumn 1991): 2-3.


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