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Success-Factors for Leading Discussion-Based Programmes Around Art

Success Factors for Leading Discussion-Based Programmes Around Art



Today I’m sharing some thoughts about how you can successfully lead engaging discussion-based programmes around art. I’ll be talking briefly about the difference between conversations, discussions and dialogue before moving into 11 tips for successfully creating and leading conversations around art and objects.
Don’t forget last week we covered 6 common fears about leading art discussions and I shared some tips on what you can do to overcome these! So do go back and listen to episode 18 as a podcast or read the blog post, if you haven’t already. 


So, let’s talk first about conversation, discussion or dialogue. What are they?
In museum education, conversation, discussion and dialogue are three phrases that are used to describe talking in museums.
They are all different modes for engaging with groups.
They all describe the participatory approach that is fairly common-place (or should be commonplace) when working with groups in museums these days with art and objects. .
But as we discovered last week, there are many fears around leading discussion-based programmes. So today I’m sharing some success-factors for creating and leading conversational, discussion or dialogue-based programmes. But first, let’s look at what these three terms mean taken from Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee”s book ‘Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience‘:


Conversation is perhaps the most loosely structured of the three types of ‘talking’.
It often occurs in small groups whenever visitors come together in twos and threes, pausing to point something out and share ideas or memories. You’ll see this with couples, family groups regularly in the museum.
If you’re working with small groups or private tours, you also likely to be having conversations with your groups. This means friendly exchanges, asking questions, making casual remarks and sharing insights.
With gallery teachers in the museum, conversational exchanges are usually quite free and improvised. The teacher or educator may contribute information and offer his or her own opinion or thoughts too.


Discussion is more purposeful than conversation.
It can be focused on a question or object or it could be a debate of strongly held convictions.
Discussions promote critical and creative thinking and problem solving skills.
They are carefully planned and designed using a flexible list of pre-prepared list of questions. The educator’s role is to guide the process towards a reliable conclusion.


Dialogue shares a middle ground between discussion and conversation.
Dialogues are open and improvised but have a stronger sense of purpose and more focused.
The educator deliberately guides and shapes the discourse, not toward his or her own predetermined goals (as in a discussion) but to explore the object together.
It is shared inquiry, a way of seeing and thinking together in a ‘cooperative pursuit of understanding, guided by the spirit of curiosity and discovery’.
Collaboration and innovative ideas from the group are required. Dialogue is based on the participants not on the teacher/guide.
There are two types of dialogue – open and thematic. Open dialogues have a very free-flowing format and there are usually lots of different lines of inquiry. Thematic dialogues are usually framed by a specific theme
It is worth nothing here- : all educators embrace a variety of methodologies and approaches to teaching. They may use both types of dialogue and all types of ‘talking’ in a single programme.
And secondly, please note that I use the terms conversation, dialogue and discussion simultaneously to describe ‘talking’ about art and objects and circumstances will dictate which type of ‘talking’ you will create for your group.
So, what are these success-factors that I keep mentioning? Well, I have 11 tips here. By following these tips you will ensure that you will be creating and leading successful discussions around art and objects


Planning and preparation are important when it comes to designing and leading discussion-based programmes. Although you can’t plan for all eventualities, having clear goals and having a structured design will stand you in good stead.
In preparing a single dialogue or an entire programme, you should set up clear teaching goals and have a structure whether it’s a thematic or open discussion. For an open discussion, the structure and goals will be much freer and more open of course.
You also need to make sure that in your plan and preparation you are planning for participation and variety.
Ask yourself:
  • What is the purpose of your discussion or dialogue? Does it relate to a curriculum or to a theme? Does it relate to the target group’s reality?
  • Who thinks the theme is relevant? The target group, the museum curators, the educators, or you?
  • How will you create motivation for participation and ensure that you get everyone involved? Is there a balance in your design between your input and group participation? How can you create space for the group to share their experience of the artwork or object?
  • Does your design have a good structure but with room for flexibility and variation?
  • What is the role of the artwork? Is it there to inspire/challenge or inform?
  • What thinking routines are you choosing for your approach? Are you investigating the formal features (colour, shape, line) or technique? Or the historical context? Be conscious of your approach at the start. Don’t try to cover everything.
  • What exercises can you include to boost the learning experience. What activities can be used with each thinking routine?
  • Have you thought about an introduction and a conclusion? Conclusion with space for reflection is always a good move.


Even before 2020 happened, building great relationships between participants was an important factor in making your programmes, tours and sessions great. Now it is even more important.
You need to make people feel comfortable – as though they are among friends and that they trust the people around them. When people feel socially comfortable, they are more likely to ask questions and participate in the discussion, conversation or dialogue.
It’s not difficult to create this kind of environment but it does require an effort on your part as the facilitator. You create the conditions for this to happen.
If you want to find out more about group dynamics then have a listen to episode 9 where I talk about creating a great group dynamic in the ‘new now’.


I always seem to be talking about setting expectations but you’d be surprised as to how many people think they are setting expectations at the start of a programme based on discussion but are actually not.
Be explicit and tell your participants what to expect during their time with you.
Yes, you want to create a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that encourages participation and involvement from the start.
Yes, You want to make sure that all participants feel that their contributions are valued and understood by the facilitator – ie you.
BUT you also need to tell everyone that this will be a programme based on talking and the more they put into the discussion, the more they will get out of it. Explain your role as facilitator too!


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the questions you ask and the way you ask them are key to the success of your programme and how involved your participants get.
Work on your questioning skills regularly, try new questions, experiment with questions and see what works well.
Be a ‘student of questioning’ and read as much as you can around the subject or take a course on questioning. Don’t leave the questioning part to chance.
There is skill involved in asking the questions in the right way at the right time.


This goes back to the planning and prep that I talked about in point #1 but each discussion that you have in your programme needs to have a structure. Each one. Your programme as a whole needs a structure but so does each and every discussion.
How structured your discussion will be will depend on the type of talking you’re doing (conversation, dialogue or discussion) and the type of programme and group you’re with. But you need to have a noticeable beginning, middle and conclusion to every discussion. Or it can appear a little aimless or vague.
Following a simple structure for your discussion based on observation-description-interpretation-wondering-conclusion using a combination of thinking routines will also free up head space to allow you to be more creative with your groups and will give you more energy to focus on what they are saying too.


Facilitation is a key part of the Visible Thinking in the Museum method and a key part of the success of a discussion-based programme.
But developing the skills of a good facilitator is an art form in itself – it requires practice and patience.
You manage the discussion and make sure everyone stays on track and on time, you get people involved and encourage quieter group members to take part.
You also set the conditions for learning to take place, you decide when, where and how much information to share – if any!
And so much more, there are many roles you will play as the facilitator of the discussion.


Which brings me nicely on to success factor number 7 which is active listening – an essential facilitation skill but worth mentioning separately here as listening is really a KEY factor in whether your discussion will be successful or not.
Active listening involves listening with all senses. You need to focus on what the person is saying and the words they are using.
Be aware of the tone they are using and any emotions that may be coming across. Pay attention to their body language, make appropriate eye contact with them and give verbal encouragement.
But don’t forget as well that you are the role model for how well others listen and talk to each other. Really ensure that you listen to what people are saying and genuinely work through the replies and responses of the group. Don’t forget all responses are valid. Be attentive and listen to what people are contributing. Ask for clarification where necessary and use uptake and appreciation too. Show that you appreciate someone’s contribution.


When you share contextual information with a group during an art or object discussion, it’s ALL about inserting small chunks of information at the right time. ⁠
This information you share should encourage further discussion. ⁠
⁠If you go into ‘lecture-mode’ and start monologuing you’re only going to be shutting down conversation.⁠
Show restraint in how much information you share in order to encourage questions and inquiry. ⁠
It’s not about sharing everything you know about something. ⁠It’s about selectively choosing the right information to convey at the right time. ⁠


Discussions don’t go well when they feel rushed or the facilitator is always playing catch up. When you do your planning and preparation you need to be aware that discussions take time and less is more. Plan to do less in the time you have.
You don’t have a crystal ball to look into to tell you how the discussion is going to go, it may go very quickly or could take time to get going. You may have a very talkative group or a quieter one. Plan accordingly. Don’t be too ambitious.
Always be aware of the time – allow 10 minutes as a minimum for any discussion – anything less is too short to get going. If you’re on a guided tour, consider visiting less artworks or objects.
When I designed Stories around the World I had 6 possible objects planned for the 90 minute programme and 4 for the 60 minute programme. In reality we usually visited 3 for the 60 mins and 4 for the 90 mins programme including an introduction and a conclusion.


Space is so important in programme design. We have been lucky recently in online discussions that we have more say over the space we’re using on Zoom, but in the museum it can be tricky.
Choose artworks or objects that have space around them for a group to gather and linger for longer than a few minutes. YOu don’t wnat to be blocking the corridor or in the way for other visitors.
Likewise you want to be able to HEAR what everyone is saying (and for them to be able to hear you too!).
So try and choose a space that has the right acoustics (I know from experience that this is not always possible) or is not near any interactive displays.
I once tried to hold a discussion next to an interactive film that played on a loop continually and it never worked well – even though the object was fantastic, the space just wasn’t good enough for the discussion!


There is a certain amount of ‘going with the flow’ when designing and leading discussion-based programmes. You can’t predict everything that will happen or where the discussion will take you. Sometime you have to just go with it. And that’s OK too.
You may even go to some exciting and unexpected places. Always make a note afterwards about what went well in your session, what you’d like to work on and what was surprising . It’s really good to write these down so that you can look back on them too!
So, there you have it 11 success factors for discussion-based programmes. If you’re just starting out with discussion-based programmes, Don’t forget, take one step at a time and imagine each step as a learning opportunity. Make practise a habit. ⁠Set aside time regularly for what you want to improve and practise, practise, practise.⁠


If you would like to be taken step-by-step through the process of learning about how to lead engaging discussions about art and artefacts in a supportive learning community, then do join my Visible Thinking Membership and take my Visible Thinking in the Museum Online (VTMO) Course starting on September 20th
VTMO is an 8 module online course with a combination of self-directed study and live tutorials spread over 10 weeks to fit around your schedule.
⁠Join me to learn how to master the art of facilitating engaging discussions about art and objects.
You’ll learn how to give your discussions a flexible structure and substance, how to deploy basic and advanced facilitation skills, how to formulate brilliant questions that get results; develop a practise habit to embed your new skills quickly and be part of a global community – connect, learn and support each other and collaborate.⁠
Don’t forget we start on September 20th and you can find out more via the button below!