Creating a culture of thinking: A new kind of docent education program

This post originally published on the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums Blog on October 26, 2010.

For lack of a more appropriate descriptor: this conference session blew my mind! Of any session I have been to at any conference this one was the most effective in such a short period of time. This session—presented by Heidi Hinish, Head of Teacher, School, and Family Programs; Elizabeth Diament, Museum Educator; and Christine Stinson, School Docent Candidate—was all about the Docent Education Program at the National Gallery of Art, a two-year training program encompassing the goal of creating a thinking culture for students.

The five-year conceptualization of the program was influenced by a wide swath of research, but the work of Ron Ritchhart was chosen as the main topic of today’s session. The presenters chose to focus on Ritchhart because they felt his ideas have direct application to all types of museums and they were struck by his focus on learning as a group, not as an individual.

Cultures of Thinking are places where a group’s collective, as well as individual thinking, is valued, visible, and actively promoted, as part of the ongoing experience of all group members.—Ron Ritchhart

The eight cultural forces:

  1. The modeling of the group leader
  2. The way time is allocated
  3. The way language and conversation are used
  4. The interactions and relationships that unfold
  5. The expectations that are communicated
  6. The opportunities that are created
  7. The routines and structures that are put into place
  8. The way the environment is set-up and utilized


The National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art photo by Phillip Capper

Of the eight forces, the National Gallery of Art chose four to elaborate on.

Modeling – Each docent must be a thinker and a learner—how can they understand a work of art and how can they help students understand it?

Time – I found this portion of the presentation to be the most interesting.

…thinking requires time. (Ritchhart)

Many docents spend time trying to cover an immense amount of material but the docent program at the National Gallery of Art focuses on giving visitors time to think about what they are learning and seeing. The Gallery transitioned from 10 tour stops in a 60 minute period to 4 tour stops in a 75 minute period.

Allowing more time encourages:

  • Prolonged looking
  • Building descriptions
  • Wondering and puzzling
  • Developing interpretations
  • Creating conversations

Language and Conversation – Though there are several types of language necessary in providing tours, the importance the Gallery places on providing non-judgmental feedback in order to facilitate the scaffolding of thinking is phenomenal. This encourages active learning and free-flow thinking.

Relationships and Interactions – The Gallery recognizes that group learning can be more enlightening then individual leaning; the fact that each person brings their own life experience to the seeing and understanding of a work enhances the group experience.

Challenges in implementing new docent techniques:

  • Opening seasoned docents up to new methods
  • Educating teachers about the new process and why it works; creating linear learning schedules
  • How to invite thinking in very large groups
  • The Great Number Crunch – dealing with management while still offering the best learning

The session provided intriguing food for thought about how we, as museums, are conducting our docent programs. I feel there are many valuable lessons to be learned from the model the National Gallery of Art has created. The presenters wrapped up their session with an excellent revision of a Ritchhart quote:

For school tours to be cultures of thinking for students, museums must be cultures of thinking for docents.

Learn more

More information about the theory behind the Gallery’s program can be found in Ritchhart’s article, “Cultivating a Culture of Thinking in Museums,” Journal of Museum Educations, Volume 32, Number 2, Summer 2007, pp.137-154.


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