Educating to an Audience

Recently I received some of the highest praise an educator can receive after a lesson. Toward the end of a family walking seminar of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, I announced to the group that our seminar was coming to a close, and the two children in the group both made audible sounds of disappointment.

For just over 18 months I’ve been leading seminars for Context Travel at various sites in Washington, D.C., namely SAAM/NPG, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Mall. Only recently, within the current calendar year, have I felt like I was actually getting good at leading these seminars.

That’s not to say that for my first year the seminars I led were bad, just that only in the past several months, as I’ve gained more experience and delivered numerous iterations of each tour, have I really began to get into a groove.

This lag time corresponds with comments from other Context docents about their experiences in becoming comfortable with leading tours, and with the working world in general and how long it takes employees to fully integrate in their position and become skilled at their responsibilities.

What I attribute most to my increasing skill at delivering walking seminars isn’t a stronger recall of factual knowledge related to the seminars (although that leads into it) but rather a much better job of “reading” the clients, and adapting on the fly to meet their needs and to meet them in a place somewhere between my knowledge base and their intellectual interests.

Last week this point was hammered home by my attendance at a public lecture offered by a local historical society on whose board I sit, on the topic of editing and using Wikipedia. The speaker obviously possessed deep structural knowledge about Wikipedia and could edit it in his sleep, but was either unable or unwilling to take stock of his audience as his talk progressed, failing to realize that he was talking to a room of novices who had never heard of the concept of mark-up language, let alone what it looks like in practice and the ways in which Wikipedia’s mark-up language differs from HTML. His audience was lost, and while he did acknowledge that fact at one point, he never diverged from his presentation, so focused was he on delivering the content he had prepared to deliver.

Focusing on content delivery rather than engagement is a major issue for educators across the board, whether they are a college professor, K-12 teacher, gallery educator or public speaker. As experts, we look at the subject matter and pick out all of its nuances, the great stories and interesting facts that put it in the greater context of the world’s knowledge. However, we can become so enthralled with covering content that we don’t pay heed to what our students are getting out of the lesson, and what they will take away from it.

That tunnel vision is something I struggled with when starting to lead seminars, just as I did when starting to serve as a teaching assistant and then as a lecturer at the University of Maryland. It wasn’t until the freeing experience of participating in the University Teaching and Learning Program offered by the then-Center for Teaching Excellence at UMD that my pedagogy was jump-started, so to speak, and I began to put the learner first rather than my own ego and desire to just strictly deliver content.

Which, omitting a number of steps, got me to that high praise from 10- and 11-year-old learners at the NPG. Early on in the seminar it became clear that both of the kids had strong grasps of Revolutionary-era history, and of the role of antiquity in serving as a model through which early Americans understood the leading figures in their own nation. It meant that instead of ending the seminar on the third floor of the American Art Museum looking at a portraits of Eisenhower and Churchill, we spent time discussing the role Henry Knox played in pushing the British out of Boston in 1775 (and by that, I mean one of the kids recognized his name on the label and proceeded to tell me stories about this person whose portrait I had previously only talked about in terms of its formal characteristics). It meant rather than looking at video art by Nam June Paik, we spent more time talking about the early iconography in images of George Washington. The older child was able to recite the story of the Roman leader Cincinnatus by heart, so we took the extra time to talk about how Washington was considered a modern-day Cincinnatus and the way artists tried to reference this symbolism in their portraits of the man.

It meant that when the family was entranced by Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada, we spent extra time talking about its interpretation of the untapped American wilderness and how the experience of viewing that painting mapped onto their experiences of having traveled through Yosemite and many places elsewhere in the American West. Rather than look at John Singer Sargent’s The Spanish Dancer, I instead discussed the similarities and differences in the Impressionistic approach to landscape versus the influences of the Hudson River School and luminism on Bierstadt’s work, completed just four years before Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.

“But wait!” you say, “Sargent is crucially important to understanding the history of Americans working abroad in the late 19th century, and in the intersection of Grand Manner portraiture with the stylistic innovations of the Impressionists!”

Well, yeah.

Then again, is it more important that student gets a drive-by viewing of The Spanish Dancer just to say he covered Sargent, or is it better that he cultivates deeper understanding of material he already knows, that he realizes that at age 11 he can already utilize his prior knowledge to enhance and make greater meaning of new material, that he thinks back fondly about his learning experience at the National Portrait Gallery because it built on previously-scaffolded understandings of American history rather than because it had pretty pictures?

Sure, I didn’t get to talk about one of my favorite works currently on display, but this educational experience was never about me in the first place. Recognizing that has greatly improved my seminars, and far more importantly, has greatly improved the educational experiences of the clients spending three hours in a museum with me. And that’s the truly rewarding thing.

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