Elements of an Effective Public Education Toolkit

The world of a museum educator is a fly by the seat of your pants endeavour. No matter how much education and experience you have in one field, the museum visitors to whom you talk aren’t going to stick to that field. You could be innocently talking about calcium formations in caves when Bam! Out of nowhere you’ll be asked about the use of caves for shelter, food storage and black powder production in the civil war. And that’s the most relevant question you’ll get. Most of them will be more along the lines of “So, what do you think about von Däniken’s ideas about aliens?” or “I heard that Jesus was actually born in a cave, not a barn” or “Batman lives in a cave! There are BATS! Are you Batgirl?” (Usually the last is from a five year old who will then go on to ask you a complicated question about adaptations to bat senses which allow them to live in caves.

Sometimes you’ll have an answer. Strangely, I’m probably better equipped to answer most Biblical literalism questions than most creationists. Sometimes there is no good answer and you’ll be left thinking. Von Däniken, really? Did they really just quote Chariots of the Gods at me? Really?

However, there will always be a question that is perfectly valid and pretty interesting. The moment they ask, you’ll wish you knew the answer. Partially for knowledge, but partially to reward the visitor for asking such a good question. But you won’t know the answer. And that’s okay.

The most important tool in a science communicator’s arsenal is the ability to say “I don’t know, but here’s where you can find out” or some variation on that. It’s also one of the most difficult things to learn how to say. My colleagues at the museum are a group of highly educated, fairly young professionals who have ended up here through a wide variety of paths. They know their fields backwards and forwards, and are usually pretty good at speaking with the public about them. However, they are mostly young enough that their primary method of learning and reporting has been as the student part of a student-teacher relationship.

This has a huge impact on the way they present information. They are used to working in a very narrow field with people who are actual experts in said field. They never really heard “I don’t know” coming from their professors, so they don’t immediately consider that a valid answer.

Instead, they will treat a visitor’s question in the same way they treat an essay exam – as if they have to give some answer, no matter how tangential or speculative. The ability to say “I don’t know” has never been an acceptable answer in their life before, so why should it be now?

This is a problem, and one I see repeatedly among young educators and communicators. They know that their position has changed from a theoretical position, but they haven’t made the transition to “expert” from “student”. They don’t quite realize that everything they say while on the museum floor is going to be approached by the visitor as gospel truth. They are “the authority” according to the people who walk through our doors.

To highlight this idea, I have to tell a story that one of my friends told me. When I first started at this museum, my friend Cel was in art school. Now Celia is truly a renaissance woman, who aside from being talented in art, is also an incredibly logical thinker and absorbs knowledge like a sponge. Unfortunately for her friends who don’t quite share that ability, she also has deadpan delivery of the most ridiculous statements down pat. While she was at art school she managed to convince several of her roommates that there were “giant, human-sized preying mantises” that lived in the sewers of New York. The evidence that she used to support this was that “her friend who worked in a museum” told her it was true.

This story is interesting from a couple points of view. First of all, the fact that she assumed that they would immediately know it was ridiculous because of course human-sized praying mantises couldn’t exist. Non-aquatic invertebrates just don’t get to that size! Those of us with even the smallest background in sciences generally take it for granted that people outside of the field will know these basic facts, when that is just not true. The second interesting idea is that they accepted that of course the girl who worked in a museum was a valid authority, not knowing anything about me. Heck, I could have been working at a modern art museum for all they knew.

I bring up that story because it’s one that has stuck with me since it was told to me. I have always had a tendency to use sarcasm and humor to get my point across. If I considered something a ridiculous question, then I would answer in kind*. Or if a question was out of my realm of knowledge, I would speculate based on half-remembered facts and concepts. I shudder now to look back at the things that 18 year old me told people because I didn’t know that there was a better answer. Things that those people might still believe and be telling others.

It took me years to be able to honestly say “I don’t know the answer to that question” gracefully and without embarrassment, and it’s the single biggest accomplishment in my ability to explain the intricacies of the world at a basic and intelligible level. It also took me years to be able to not assume that concepts that were basic to me (laws of superposition, natural selection, etc.) were not basic to people who had studied something other than a hard science, or to people who had spent their lives learning how to run a business or do a trade. However, that didn’t mean that they were dumb or not interested. It just meant that those ideas had never come up.

My current ability to explain at an effective level owes much to my ability to switch between a student role and a teacher role. In the student role I am a researcher, learning from other people and from the world itself. I’m always trying to expand my breadth of knowledge in order to be able to answer whatever question is thrown at me. In the teacher role, I am conscious that what I am saying may not be interpreted in the way I was saying it, and that making up something or using a silly answer to bunt a question so that I don’t look ignorant isn’t the most effective way to create a more knowledgeable population. Admitting ignorance and then giving them the tools to find the answer themselves will be much more effective in the long run.

My Public Education Toolkit

1. Explain things from a position of knowledge, but don’t go beyond that knowledge without checking your facts. If you can give someone an idea of where to look for an answer to their question, then you’re not failing them by saying “I don’t know.” In fact, you’re probably engaging them further in their own process of learning than you would if you just spouted out a fact.

2. Explain things at a basic level, but not in a way that is talking down at the visitor, particularly if you’re speaking to a group. One-on-one you have an opportunity to ask specific questions to find out their knowledge level. In a group, you don’t have that ability. My favorite method for this is to engage the children in the group in a Q and A. If you get them to explain things, then the adults feel good that their children are smart, plus they’re probably learning along with the kids.

Both Radiolab and Science Friday on public radio provide great examples of how to explain complicated concepts on a layperson-friendly level. Also, I’ve been repeatedly known to steal wholesale from Carl Zimmer’s explanations (with citation!) when talking to visitors. If you find an explanation that works, don’t be afraid to use it! Chances are, your visitors don’t read science blogs or popular science literature. And if they do, then they’ll recognize and be able to engage with you on that level!

3. Humor/sarcasm can be used, but it has to be used carefully. If you make a visitor feel bad about what they don’t know, then you’ve lost all ability to communicate with them. If you make them feel like they’re in on the joke, then you’ll probably be able to engage them on a more in-depth level, and they’ll probably go away from the discussion remembering the humor and therefore the concept.


*E.G.: to the question “You know how St. Peter said ‘and on this rock you will build my church?’ Well, I was wondering what kind of rock that was.” my instinctive answer was “Pumice. Because it’s holey”. However, the visitor was asking a serious, if misinformed on many levels, question. And by answering in a serious way, I might have helped him at least straighten out the question he was asking in a way that wouldn’t have happened if I had given the humorous answer.

19 thoughts on “Elements of an Effective Public Education Toolkit

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  3. Heh, I for one am very grateful that I had it beaten into me before I started working in a museum setting that it is terrifyingly easy to convince people something’s true.

    I think it’s really important to reassure the visitor that it’s okay for them to not know something/have questions (because if you don’t, that might be the last one they ask and if the question is along the lines of “Is Egypt in Africa?” they really, really need to be asking), because one of the best ways to get someone to go along with whatever giant lie you want to tell is pull out the old “Everyone knows this, duh” card. Most people won’t argue, and will in fact go along until you give the an obvious cue not to, and I think that’s because almost no one wants to look ignorant.

    Or, in shorter form: yes, I agree.

    • I’m glad you learned that too. I’m not sure I’d want to deal with a visitor after you convinced them (accidentally) of something outrageous.

      I like the point you make about that the more basic a question is, the more it needs answering in a straight-forward and non-mocking way. After all, it’s those questions that often provoke the strongest instinct to give a silly answer.

  4. This is a very important message for all of us. It is tempting to speculate – and sound very authoritative when doing so. It is a good habit to develop to stop and think and sometimes decide to say “I don’t know, but I can help you find out.” Even better, if possible, “Let’s find out together” because having a person watch you look up information, filter information, decide what is a trusted source… that is also very educational for them.

    • That “Let’s find out together” is one of the best tools possible. When I used to work on the floor of our Natural History museum, we had an area called the Trading Post. In the Trading Post visitors could bring in things they found in nature, find out about their item, and then get points for explaining or learning about the item.

      The default approach among museum and staff volunteers used to be “if you don’t know anything about your item, you can’t earn points for it”. This policy ignored one of the most important aspects of museums. In that context you have the chance to teach someone something that, while they don’t know it already, if presented in the right way they will be excited to learn. This was a chance that many of the volunteers were throwing away, since they didn’t know themselves how to bridge that gap.

      One of the first trainings I did was on how to lead a visitor through research. We (the other education specialists and I) printed out identification keys and taxonomies and made lists of sites with good information. Then we worked with the volunteers until they were comfortable leading other people through that process. As a side effect, this made our volunteers, some of whom were 13-18 year old high school students, much more effective at separating good information from bad. It’s amazing just how much learning how to teach or lead another person can enhance our own abilities to research and understand.

      • That is interesting. Similar to my experience volunteering in the Discovery room at NC Museum of Natural Science – I had some really good, experienced tutors there, fortunately.

        I am wondering if carrying an iPad around is a good idea, for finding information together with the visitors that ask questions?

        • I’ve seen several staff members looking things up on their iPhones when they didn’t know an answer themselves. Technically this violates the museum’s “no phones on the floor” rule, but I consider it an outgrowth of the little notebooks we all would carry around in exhibits with the numbers and names we couldn’t remember off the top of our heads.

          I have yet to pull out my iPad in front of visitors, as iPads are still a little too new to not be a distraction in and of itsel (an interesting question by itself, and one that Danielle brought up in the TechWild discussion), but I have looked up things on my phone, and recently one of my staff had a question during an animal demo he was presenting that I was able to look up from the back of the room and pull up a diagram of the process to share.

          Phones don’t distract any more in the same way that a tablet does, but at the same time it’s hard to truly share the process of looking something up when you have a screen the size of your palm. I might have to throw caution to the wind and try blatantly using the iPad as a resource during programs.

  5. This message is an important one. It also applies in teaching, from my experience. I invite students on the first day of class to ask their oddest questions, no matter what, and I tell them that I’ll say if I don’t know the answer, and we’ll find it together. Needless to say, I’ve gotten some really strange questions–especially when teaching physics (not my field)–and it’s both terrifying and exhilarating to be standing there, the *instructor*, and reveal your own lack of knowledge. While I feel free to speculate out loud in an informed way, I’ll also say, “I’ll have to do some investigation to confirm that,” or I’ll just invite them to seek the answer and bring it to the class. I just look at it as a chance to show that learning always continues. And then, we turn together to that behemoth of accumulated knowledge, the Google search.

    Of course, you can’t do that on the spot in a museum talk (or maybe with a smart phone, you can?), but you make a great point. I like it.

    • I like your method of asking your class to ask their strangest questions. It fits really well with what Celia was saying above – that the strange questions are still valid questions that need answers, and those answers may not be immediately available, but there are ways to answer them.

      Sometimes I have the opportunity to work with people to explore a topic, and that has always been the most rewarding interaction I’ve had at the museum (see my overly long-winded comment above!) It’s when I’m talking to mixed groups that it gets more difficult. Each visitor likely has their own path of interest that they would like to follow. The difficulty, for me, lies in balancing giving each person information with being able to answer everyone’s questions in turn.

      My solution to this so far has been to ask a visitor to talk to me after a program or to take my email address and follow up. I’m still not entirely happy with this compromise, since I think that asking a question in public and having a group hear the process of coming to those answers is even more valuable than the answers themselves. This is something I struggle with, and probably will continue to struggle with my entire career!

  6. Great post! I especially value the reminder to use humor/sarcasm with care. When I first moved to SoCal from Brooklyn, I couldn’t figure out why everyone thought my sense of humor was biting & mean. At first I thought that too much sun had warped my personality, but eventually I realized that the culprit was regional differences in communication styles. Now I take care to be bubbly in my public outreach, and it goes much better (though my soul dies bit by bit… 🙂 ).

    • Same here! My sense of humor is extremely dry. I’m always confused when I meet people and they don’t understand that I’m making a joke. It’s so obvious to me. I overcompensate a bit now and tend to use goofy or kid-oriented humor when presenting.

      I may come off as ‘that strange museum girl’, but at least they’ll remember what I’m talking about.

  7. Emily, I wish more museum people were like you. Every parent learns to say “I don’t know” as soon as their child learns the word why. Pointing people to a place that they can do more research…what a concept! Imagine, self-directed learning. If more of the people directing museum tours took your approach there would be more visitors.

    Now concerning Batgirl questions; I bet you could tell them all manner of trivia about Batgirl. I know of your passion for comic book character costumes.

    • I’m actually not particularly unusual in the museum world – or in the environmental education world. Every good educator eventually learns the things that I talk about, and many of them probably learned them more quickly than I did.

      I’ve generally been impressed with the way my more experienced coworkers handle visitor questions. Watching them, it almost seems like a dance, deftly pulling themselves away from the problematic aspects of the question and bringing the conversation around to something that will make an impact on the visitor they’re talking to. Everyone does it differently, but all in rather interesting ways.

      As for comic books, yes, I’ve delighted many a young Batman fan by being able to switch gears from bats to comics and back without missing a beat. ^.^

  8. This is a great and insightful post, thank you. I’m now in my mid 50s but was a museum educator in the 1980s in Sydney Australia (before I got off the floor and behind a manager’s desk). It was an absolutely formative experience for me as a communicator. I too have a smart-alec sense of humour and learned that it does not work for the public. Nor does the student/teacher model make the most of the informality and diversity of the museum experience. My main discovery was the immense power of rapport – the essential communication channel. As you suggest, it’s by getting the visitors to have their own conversations, ask their own questions and share their own thoughts that you produce the most satisfying experience. Your skill is to facilitate that. Of course they’ll revere you as an expert – but the honesty of helping out where you can (and letting them know when you can’t), engages, demystifies and humanises what you and your museum do. Great work!

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