Training Informal Education Volunteers to Talk

Volunteers are essential to the missions of many informal education organizations. But unlike relatively-unskilled volunteer positions – think repairing trails or passing out food at a soup kitchen – the volunteer educator has one of the most demanding job descriptions there is: teaching.

Training volunteers to be educators has very little to do with facts. Here’s how Brittany Sabol of Environmental Volunteers put it in our conversation about training:

Actually, teaching techniques and how to be with kids in my mind is the much more important part of training. For the activity I can give you a write-up and a box of materials and you can kind of figure it out. But then how do you actually execute that with the students? That’s the important part of training.

A teacher facing a group of young children
Me, when I started out as a volunteer educator

I have been on both sides of this equation. Early in my career, I was an education volunteer at a few different sites: a natural history museum, a wildlife hospital, that sort of thing. Nearly all the training was on the facts: there’s a gemstone or a coyote in a glass case, and I needed to be able to answer questions about it.

Much later, when I was working as a classroom teacher and taking my students on field trips, that kind of fact-based docent (that is, the kind of educator I myself had been) was the absolute bane of my existence. Volunteers trained to recite a litany of facts don’t engage their audiences so well. In other words, for kids at least, they can be deadly dull.

Finding an Alternative

About ten years ago, an art museum in Canada decided to revamp their docent training completely in favor of dialogic discourse. Before the jargon scares you off, though, you should know that the concept is pretty simple: there is no learning without dialogue. That’s usually speech, but it doesn’t need to be; you can construct activities that include some sort of interaction but no actual words. Here’s how the Canadian researchers worded it:

Dialogic learning depends on social interaction among learners for the purposes of meaning making. (Lachapelle et al., p. 172)

(Last month, I wrote up a similar concept – reflective dialog.)

The Montreal docent training course is intense – you can get college credit for it. And, to be sure, the topic of how to engage with learners was always addressed even before the course redesign. It just wasn’t centered (or “privileged” to use Lachapelle’s word): facts were. You can imagine that museum docents need a lot of facts – about the art, the artists, cultural movements and history and politics and a thousand other things. So to set some of those aside in favor of instructing docents to converse with museum visitors was truly a brave act.

And the docents themselves had a hard time – the researchers write that “we frequently witnessed students falling back either on a transmission model or a ’leading question’ strategy” (p. 173). And you can kind of imagine that, right? When you’ve spent a week learning about one-frickin’-painting you really want to transmit those facts you worked so hard to memorize! Oh, and that “leading question strategy” – shoot, who hasn’t seen a docent using that wrong? Forcing your audience to engage in dialogue can be counter-productive, the researchers note: “leading questions can be a frustrating experience for participants and that perceived coercion or inauthenticity can hinder connection” (p. 174).

Three Ways to the Right Kind of Dialogue

So how can you train your volunteers to engage in reflective dialog or dialogic discourse? Here are three strategies I have employed in the past – if you’ve got more ideas, put them in the comments!

  1. Let the students talk to each other.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve said this to new educators, but these words should be dropped from your vocabulary:

“Raise your hand if you know the answer.”

That question is completely ubiquitous and completely pointless. The kids who do know will raise their hands, be disappointed if they’re not picked, and disengage. The kids who don’t (or sort of) know will fear being called on and not really listen to the answer.

Here’s a better way. If your instructor has a dialogic question – “Why are whales so big?” or “Why did the artist use bright colors?” – ask everyone and have them discuss amongst themselves. Pre-assigning small groups of three or four might work, or hands-up-pair-up, or at even just “talk to your neighbor” (though there are better ways).

Then, the volunteer asks someone at random what their partner thought. That is, what was the response of someone else in their group? That response can then lead to more conversation, not of the “put-on-the-spot” variety, but of the authentic “let’s-think-about-these-ideas” sort. That way a dialogue grows in the same way it might among adult acquaintances – organically following lines of interest and connection.

  1. Privilege dialogue over facts.

Our volunteers have deep bodies of knowledge. And when you know something, it’s only human to want to share that knowledge! But docents or other informal education volunteers are not encyclopedias, but teachers. Classroom teachers know that the way you pass on information will determine how much gets retained; students who are engaged in a process of knowledge-building will have a much easier time keeping that knowledge around after the test. For informal educators, dialogue – a two-way,

  1. When in doubt, use an activity.

A few months ago, I talked with Jim DePompei of Cabrillo Marine Aquarium about their technique of having students dance, do a gesture, or sing a song in order to cement a concept. Activities naturally lead to higher engagement level, and if the activity includes the sharing of ideas, then it’s a dialogue.

Often, I find, volunteer educators have simply never been exposed to the concept. There are ways to engage your audience, especially if they’re young. Getting your volunteers to think past simple recitation of facts is a great way to drive true knowledge construction.

Further Reading

  • Lachapelle, R., Keenlyside, E., & Douesnard, M. (2016). Rethinking docent training at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: A pilot project. Canadian Review of Art Education: Research and Issues / Revue Canadienne de Recherches et Enjeux En Éducation Artistique, 43(1), 170.
  • Trent, S. B., Allen, J. A., & Prange, K. A. (2020). Communicating our way to engaged volunteers: A mediated process model of volunteer communication, engagement, and commitment. Journal of Community Psychology, 48(7), 2174–2190.
Person holding a 'Volunteers Needed' sign


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