Museum Language

As an educator, docent or guide, do you pay attention to the language you use when you are with a group? Do you notice how certain words, phrases and tenses can have a positive or negative effect on a group?

We regularly facilitate training and workshop sessions to museum educators and docents on how to facilitate discussions in the museum using elements of an approach called Visible Thinking. As part of these sessions, we spend a significant amount of time discussing the language we use in the museum and practising ways to improve the way we frame subjects and facilitate discussions. Whilst the thinking routines help to provide a structure around which we can base the group discussion, the language we use as educators can have an important impact on how the conversation flows.

1. Use neutral language.

Staying neutral as a facilitator encourages feedback from every participant and allows for multiple interpretations. By keeping the words you use and responses you give as neutral as possible, you avoid alienating members of the group and keep the discussion as inclusive as possible. Neutrality also prevents the museum educator or docent being cast (or casting themselves) into the role of the ‘expert’.

2. Use non-judgemental feedback.

Giving feedback to a group member who has made a comment or stated their opinion is  important as it creates a connection between the participant and the facilitator (docent or educator) and also with the group itself. How you react to each comment will have an impact on the group itself. Overly positive or negative feedback can limit and close down a discussion. If you are interested in hearing a wide range of comments from all participants, giving feedback without any implied judgement is essential. This requires practice and patience. Effective feedback  requires careful use of language and a neutral stance (verbally and through body language). If you find it hard to offer a neutral response, try summarising or paraphrasing what the person has said using the conditional language described below. Using feedback in a neutral way opens up the group discussion so that everyone in the group feels their opinions are valid and valued.

3. Use conditional language.

This simply involves the use of language that implies allows for multiple correct answers or options for example, ‘might’ ‘could’ ‘maybe’ and so on. This opens up the conversation within the group and allows for more possibilities and interpretations. Compare, ”Finn says that the object comes from Africa’ to ‘Finn thinks that the object might come from Africa. What does everyone else think?’

4. Use the language of thinking.

The language of thinking can be simply defined as words that describe and evoke thinking. The aim is to develop and encourage a rich language of thinking; where one hears words like reason, conclude, opinion rather than think, guess and feel as using these precise words actually helps people to think better. As a docent, you can use a rich and diverse vocabulary to paraphrase participant comments thus modelling the use of such words.

5. Use thinking routines.

As educators and docents, we are often given checklists of language and questioning ‘do’s and don’ts’ with our groups. As I’ve said before, this tends to confuse and overload the very person who is in control of a group’s museum experience.

Thinking routines provide a structure for your conversations and discussions and alter the way educators and docents interact with their groups. The carefully structured questions in these routines prompt the educator to model similar language. Regular and repeated use of thinking routines has been shown to help build a language of thinking, encourage the use of conditional language (‘might’ ‘could’ etc) and help people externalise their thoughts more clearly (for more information, see here).

Remembering to stay neutral, use non-judgmental feedback and being aware of how the language you use can affect the group, takes time and practice. I struggled with neutrality in the early days of working with this method – particularly after comments that I was personally impressed with or that opened up new lines of inquiry. I have now learned to curb my enthusiasm which benefits the group as a whole. The next time you are leading a group in the museum, try to pay a little more attention to the language you use and observe what effect this has on the overall discussion and participant experience. A few small changes could yield a more open and balanced discussion for all.