In our first podcast, educator Kady Yeomans described her work leading groups of kids on the floor of a large science museum. And the main sense I got from Kady was that she is always thinking about her audience – there are facts to deliver, sure, but there’s no lecture.

Here’s how she put it, speaking from her learners’ point of view:

This is a new place! And an exciting person who has this new perspective about things! I think when the can access the information through a different source, it definitely gives them a, “Whoa, this person in a professional setting also thinks this maybe I should listen!” So I think it gives the kids another way to interact with the information.

Her words recalled to me good ol’ Freeman Tilden, a forerunner of today’s non-classroom educators – what we sometimes call interpreters. Tilden attempted to classify the work of the cultural naturalist and established six principles of our work1. I’ll post about all six someday, but the very first of them is what Kady and I would call audience-centered teaching.

Here’s how Tilden worded it:

Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile. (p. 9)

Relate what you are saying to your audience… that’s the key to audience-centered teaching. Here’s the new-teacher trap: giving lots of facts. Their lessons are planned and their research is complete, so they deliver everything they know as efficiently as possible. We informal educators often learn “a program” – an hour-long tour through the museum, say. Early on, we stick to that program even faced with the yawning evidence that our facts are not landing on our audience.

How can I connect with my learners?

Audience-centrism is the cure. We start, of course, by getting to know our learners, by asking them as much as we’re telling them. At their best, our lessons will feel more like conversations than lectures.

However, every informal educator knows that two-way discourse, especially with very young students, can turn into a cacophony of “I saw a fish once, too!” and other assorted whatnot. No one learns from a chaotic free-for-all! So the educator has to guide the group down a middle pathway of interaction, mixing dialogue and facts, conversations and authentic experiences.

Let’s review…

Recall Tilden’s words from the first principle: relate to “something within the personality or experience of the visitor”. Whatever and wherever we are teaching, we must forge a link to the learner’s past knowledge and experience – the learner’s personal context – in order to deliver our programs effectively.

Tilden’s words are over 60 years old, of course, but we still draw inspiration from them. In future posts, I am going to revisit the remaining five principles to see what new learnings we can glean!

Read more

  • Tilden, F. (2007). Interpreting our heritage (4th ed., expanded and updated). University of North Carolina Press.

  1. As a podcaster, I have to admire that a writer from the 1950s managed such a search-engine-friendly concept: “Six Principles of Interpretation that will BLOW YOUR MIND!” I might use that title for a blog post some day… ↩︎

Freeman Tilden wearing a hat
Interpreter and author Freeman Tilden
Photo: National Park Service (U.S.A.); public domain
Freeman Tilden wearing a hat
Interpreter and author Freeman Tilden
Photo: National Park Service (U.S.A.); public domain


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