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Survival in the Chalbi Desert Multicultural Perspectives at the Zoo

Incorporating multicultural perspectives into exhibit interpretation encourages visitors to gain an appreciation for the longevity and diversity of native cultures. At the Brookfield Zoo. a team of docents has developed a “touch cart” demonstration that introduces visitors to the lifestyles of the Gabbra people, who live in the Chalbi Desert area of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia.

The touch cart is situated in The Fragile Desert section of the Zoo’s three part exhibition. The Fragile Kingdom. The theme of The Fragile Kingdom is the ecology of survival, and in The Fragile Desert visitors are shown how desert plants and animals, including humans, cope with extreme heat and shortages of food and water.

The touch cart demonstration serves as an interactive, interpretive component within the exhibit. Docents present visitors with an opportunity to carefully touch and handle authentic Gabbra artifacts. By combining object-based learning with questioning strategies, docents help visitors gain appreciation for those who cope with the problems of desert survival, and invite visitors to compare and contrast their lifestyle with that of the Gabbra people.

Learning how the Gabbra’ s lifestyle enables them to use scarce food and water resources in a sustainable and renewable manner prompts an examination of our own lifestyles. It also encourages us to consider how we, too, might use our natural resources in a more sustainable way.

Though Brookfield Zoo visitors learn an approach to survival and conservation in the desert, the touch cart concept may have just as easily been used to enhance the study of art, history, or technology. Multicultural perspectives have much to offer us and questioning strategies help us relate them to any discipline area.

Questions Help Deliver Messages

Questioning strategies enable docents to lead visitors in any number of directions. At the Brookfield Zoo, docent training includes several sessions on informal learning and communication skills. Docents learn a questioning strategy that focuses on four levels — recall, process, application, and affective.

Each level builds upon the other. To be most effective, questions are asked in sequence, beginning with recall questions that allow visitors to recall what they’ve learned, make observations, and collect information.

After sufficient data has been gathered, docents raise the level of thinking by progressing to process level questions. This encourages visitors to compare, infer, and analyze. Finally, the thinking level can be raised further with application and affective questions. When additional information or new concepts are introduced, docents return to the next lower level, allowing visitors an opportunity to gather missing data or to re-examine ideas.

The Gabbra touch cart demonstration utilizes all four levels of questioning. Docents begin the demonstration with a “recall” question. (Do you think it is easy or hard to live in a desert?) Answers to recall questions are based on prior knowledge. This level of questioning asks visitors to list, name, describe, define, observe, identify, recall, count, or select.

The next level of questioning gets visitors to “process” information. (Why would it be hard to live in a desert?) Answers are based on organizing information and on finding cause and effect relationships. Process questions ask visitors to classify, compare, contrast, distinguish, experiment, explain, group, infer, analyze, or sequence. Then, visitors are asked to “apply” a principle to a new situation. (Can you imagine living in a desert all year round? Can you think of some ways people get enough food to eat in the desert?) When applying, visitors will predict, hypothesize, generalize, guess, imagine, or evaluate.

Finally, “affective” questions encourage visitors to explore their feelings and/or clarify values. (While we may not wish the Gabbra’s lifestyle to be our own, theirs enables scarce food and water resources to be used in a sustainable and renewable manner. How can each of us make changes that will allow us to use our fragile kingdom’s resources in a more sustainable way?)

Can you think of ways you might use questioning strategies to incorporate multicultural perspectives in your exhibit interpretation? Be inspired — pursue research into how and what other cultures may teach us – and then, share it!

Marta Gore is an Education Aide at Chicago Botanic Garden and a candidate for an M.A. in Curriculum and Instructional Design. Her studies were devoted to informal and museum learning and to environmental values education. She has developed and presented a number of programs concerning multicultural and environmental related topics. In addition, she is Education Chair for Prairie Woods Audubon Society, a chapter of National Audubon, and since 1992, a docent serving at Brookfield Zoo.

Gore, Marta. “Survival in the Chalbi Desert: Multicultural Perspectives at the Zoo,” The Docent Educator 4.2 (Winter 1994-95): 7+.


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