There are people who believe that teaching is simple — just learn the subject matter and then tell others about it. But, they are mistaken. The gulf is wide between telling what you’ve learned and helping others to learn. Think about it — if effective teaching is really as easy as telling, why aren’t there more great teachers? The truth is, effective teaching only begins with content knowledge. Beyond that, there is little that is easy about teaching. It is a skill that demands constant effort, requires total involvement, and deserves continual reassessment. Teaching is a challenge, and anyone who attempts to strip it of its complexities denigrates the process and underestimates the tasks involved.
While the ingredients that make for effective teaching are elusive, the list might begin with an affection for the subject matter. Demonstrate your enthusiasm when you approach each new group. Communicate wonderment in your voice and intonation. Keep energy levels high, while pacing your lesson to be consistent with visitors’ interests.
Don’t simply tell others that you love the subject matter; display your enjoyment for it in your eagerness to explore the topic. Encourage visitors to explore with you. Delight in the different things that they may find. Rejoice in their individualized interpretations. And, respect their disparate views.
The second major ingredient for good teaching may be an affection for people. Take pleasure from your audiences —youngsters, families. or adults. Work to recognize and appreciate the individual qualities of those you teach. Respect their thoughts and opinions, even if those thoughts and opinions are difficult to place into the context of your own. Know that most everyone who participates in your lesson is trying to make a positive contribution.
Give your “students” the gift of confidence. Make visitors feel good about themselves and their ability to perceive and comprehend. Strive to find something productive in every idea or thought they offer. Thank them for participating. Honor their willingness to take part. Show visitors that their contributions are always welcome and appreciated by remaining open and receptive.
Teaching is hard work. It takes planning, organizing, and evaluating. Begin by constructing a lesson plan. Know what you are attempting to teach and your methodology. Develop a lesson plan that will guide implementation of your teaching objectives. Then, factor in the need to remain flexible and accommodating of shifts that take place in your audience’s interests or in your institution’s exhibition halls.
Plan your lesson by deciding what your visitors should learn and work from that vantage point. How will you know if they are learning what you want to teach? What should visitors be able to do? Perhaps they should be able to verbalize their interpretations of works of art by creating descriptive titles of their own making. Or, maybe they will construct reasoned hypotheses about animals by looking at their skeletal structures. Or, they may “read” historic buildings by both comparing and contrasting them to contemporary ones.
Teaching by requesting actions such as interpreting, hypothesizing, and comparing is very effective and allows for maximum audience participation. Most importantly, teaching in this manner empowers learners. In his landmark text The Process of Education, Jerome Bruner states that “the first object of learning, over and above the pleasure it may give, is that it should serve us in the future. Learning should not only take us somewhere; it should allow us later to go further more easily.”
Employing a thinking skills approach to teaching encourages student growth and continued learning, whereas the transference of factual information remains fairly static and has limited application. Teaching to skill acquisition isn’t easy, however. A “thinking skills” lesson emphasizes process and challenges visitors to make their own discoveries, rather than simply to listen to a description of the discoveries that others have made. Such lessons must be involving and participatory, with opportunities to observe, compare, classify, summarize, interpret, hypothesize, imagine, and/or decide.
Retaining your sense of humor while teaching is essential. If you are relaxed and having fun, others are more likely to feel that way, too. Remember, your institution is an auxiliary educational facility. You are not teaching in a classroom; you are teaching in a gallery, garden, or park. The pressures of testing and grading are off you and your visitors. You don’t have to gain your visitors’ attention by stressing the seriousness of the subject matter. Never forget that the lessons you are teaching aren’t serious . . . they’re interesting!
Attempt to reach all your visitors, but be willing to reach just one. Know what your visitors are able to absorb. Understand the implications of their age, experience, and exposure, but don’t underestimate their ability to reach for new ideas. Challenge them without intimidating them. Keep as many of your visitors interested as possible and look for those who reflect the light of genuine enthusiasm.
Use your vocabulary to facilitate communication. Never use it to demonstrate your knowledge or authority. Words should be understood by those who are listening. If you want to teach visitors a new word, first tell them the thought in words they will comprehend and then offer them the new word, so that they will understand the new word’s meaning and its application.
Push yourself to excel at teaching. Each time you plan a lesson, strive to make it more participatory, more engaging, and more interesting. Learn to teach skills as well as facts. And, be aware of this fact . . . there are two types of teachers — ones who teach for ten years and ones who teach the same year ten times. Make each season a new start; don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t be satisfied. Put forth effort. Grow!
Improve your best lessons and techniques, and re-work those that were less successful. Don’t be timid. Try new approaches, make changes, and try again. Don’t get discouraged. Ask for assistance. Talk to other docents, staff members, and classroom teachers. Experiment and refine.
Examine all aspects of your teaching. Be introspective. How could you strengthen your introductions? Are you teaching with themes? Do you ask open-ended questions and allow adequate time for responses? How are your transitions as you move from one place or object to another? Do you ask summary questions at the conclusion of your tours?
Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. Don’t think of evaluation as an intrusion; think of it as attention. Ask someone whose knowledge of teaching you respect to follow your tours and give you critical feedback. Don’t ask for compliments; ask for criticisms. While it is important to know what we do well, we learn most about our teaching when examining how we might improve.
Teaching is a endeavor that requires constant improvement. We mustn’t assume that we are doing a good job, but focus on how we might be doing a better one. Whether we volunteer or are paid, we made a choice to teach in our particular institutional settings. We want to be the best teachers we can be and make as great a contribution to visitors as possible.
Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor
Gartenhaus, Alan. “Pedagogical Techniques for Being a More Effective Teacher,” The Docent Educator 9.1 (Autumn 1999): 2-3.