Staff and Docent Training

Staff and Docent Training


Training staff and docents is a multi-faceted, ongoing process. As part of your accessibility programming, consider two types of staff and volunteer training:

Disability Awareness Training and Accessibility Tools Training.

In this module, we will review these trainings and suggest how to adapt them for various departments. In addition to accessibility training for staff, you will find sample agendas, checklists, troubleshooting and fundraising tips, and a complete Docent Training course.

Practical Considerations:

Sample Agendas


Troubleshooting Tips

Funding Strategies! Low Cost. No Cost.


Contributors and Reviewers:


Practical Considerations: Staff Training

Disability Awareness Training

All museum staff members, docents, and volunteers benefit from disability awareness training. Please see our Disability Awareness training module for our online training course, as well as other training resources. Through this training, staff and volunteers learn what resources and services are available to people with disabilities and what barriers exist. This awareness and confidence in their ability to relate to people with disabilities allows your staff and volunteers to do their jobs better, and thus increase visitors' enjoyment of your museum.

In larger institutions, disability awareness training for all staff might be difficult or impractical. Instead, provide trainings tailored to different department needs. Even if you are in a small institution, you may want to consider a group of separate trainings.

Kathryn Potts, Whitney Museum of American Art (4:05)

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Kathryn Potts, Education Director, Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, on How the Whitney Used Sighted and Blind Consultants in Creating Accessibility


Helena Vidal, El Museo del Barrio (1:26)

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Helena Vidal, Director of Education and Public Programs at El Museo del Barrio, New York on The Role of Blind Consultants in creating Accessibility

For example:

Accessibility Tools Training

A general overview of accessibility tools is an important part of disability awareness training for all staff. But some individual departments require more extensive information and training.

Accessibility tools, as described in this handbook, fall into two categories: Learning Tools, such as verbal description and touch tours, and General Accessibility Tools, such as braille/large print, and accessible Web and tactile graphics. Any department or staff member involved in the design, creation or dissemination of public information should be aware of general accessibility tools, such as design standards and alternative media used in making information accessible to people with low vision and other disabilities.

Education staff, and staff in any other departments involved in lecturing, teaching or presenting information to visitors, should receive more in-depth training on verbal description, touch and tactile experiences, and other learning tools. This type of training is valuable for those working with all audiences, both sighted and blind, and allows staff to accommodate a visitor who is blind or a group of visitors in which one or two members are visually impaired. With basic training, staff members can adapt their knowledge, skills, and experience to the needs of people with a broad range of disabilities.

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Practical Considerations: Docent Training

The importance of docent training cannot be overstated! In most successful programs for people who are blind or visually impaired, a dedicated group of docents form the core staff, and they frequently provide institutional memory through staff changes. Often docents have a personal connection with the blind community. Therefore identifying and training docents is crucial.

Selecting Docents

If you have the luxury of choosing a specific docent from a pool of applicants, consider these points.

Training Topics

All your docents would benefit from disability awareness training. Please see our Disability Awareness training module for detailed information and resources. A session with a visually impaired person who is both interested in art and familiar with accessibility issues, such as a representative of one of the local chapters of the National Federation for the Blind or American Council for the Blind, can help docents understand what a museum visit can provide for this audience and how best to accomplish your goals.

The docent(s) working with blind and visually impaired audiences should receive the same general museum training as other docents, with additional disability-specific training sessions. In our Agendas section, we have provided a more detailed outline of these training sessions.

Courtney Gerber Walker Art Center (1:50)

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Courtney Gerber, Manager of Tour Programs, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis MN on Training Docents for Disabilities


Judy Schmeidler Jewish Museum (6:04)

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Judy Schmeidler, Docent at the Jewish Museum in New York City with two perspectives on Museum Accessibility

General Training Themes:

Disability-specific Training Themes

Once a basic familiarity with the museum is achieved, other skills and training needs may include:

Types of Training Activities and Resources:

Set Accessibility Standard

Some of your trainees and speakers may be visually impaired or have other disabilities. So make sure that training spaces are accessible and all handouts are available in accessible formats.

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Fact Sheet: Questioning Theory and Strategies

Good questioning stimulates logical and creative thinking, promotes new insights, and helps you evaluate how much your audience has understood and where more information is needed.

Basic Types of Questions

The six types of questions range from pure recall to open-ended, increasingly complex thought processes.

Types of Questions to Avoid

•  Questions that lead to group answers.

•  Double-barreled questions, such as, Why did Andy Warhol use Campbell soup cans as the main subject in his work, and how was the public affected by it?

Good questions are prefaced by who, what, how, and where.

Tips for Good Questioning

Questioning is not an innate talent. It is a skill that must be developed.

Clarity of Purpose.
Once you establish a basic objective, develop your sequence of questions. Keep in mind the purpose of a question when formulating it, and develop questions that are essential to a well-rounded grasp of a problem or topic.

Write the objective and summary of the lesson as a question, preferably as a problem. Questions that present a problem encourage the class to think. From the beginning to the end, the students are made to consider the new work.

Questions should provide continuity to the discussion topic, and reflect the true purpose of a lesson and the content of material. This means that questions should be asked only when they effectively contribute to learning; be flexible. This involves previous planning, as well as quick-on-your-feet thinking.

Precise Wording.
Ask questions that are clear and simple. Avoid questions that are merely memory testing. Ask questions that are sequential. Questions and answers should be used as stepping-stones to the next question. This contributes to continuous learning.

Ask questions that are personal and relevant to students. Questions that draw on the life experiences of students will be relevant.

Vary the length and difficulty of questions . Observe individual differences and phrase questions so that all students take part in the discussion. Questions should elicit facts, as well as concepts and generalizations.

Direct the question to the entire group, pause to allow comprehension, and then call on the student who is to respond. Allow sufficient time for deliberation. Pausing for a few seconds allows everyone a chance to consider the question. The purpose is to stimulate each student to think about the question; thus learning is more apt to take place for everyone, not just the student who is called upon.

Guiding Discussions

Ask intermediate questions, providing cues or hints, or ask for clarification after the student indicates difficulty in responding effectively to an initial question. The technique is designed to lead the learner to the original question by using existing knowledge and understanding.

Follow up incorrect answers. Take advantage of wrong or marginal answers . Encourage the student to think about the question. Perhaps the student's thinking is partially correct, even novel.

Follow up correct answers. Use a correct answer as a lead to another question. A correct answer sometimes needs elaboration or it can be used to stimulate student comments and discussion.

Involve more than one student in the answer to a question. Such questions often involve several “reasons” or “factors,” differences of opinion, and so forth.

Call on nonvolunteers and volunteers. Some students are shy and need assistance from the teacher. Other students tend to daydream and need coaxing from the teacher to keep attentive. The need is to distribute questions among the entire class so that everyone participates.

Call on disruptive students. This stops troublesome students without having to interrupt the lesson.

Encourage students to ask questions of each other and to make comments. This results in students becoming active learners and in cooperating on a cognitive and social level, which is essential for reflective thinking and social development. Good questions stimulate further questions, even questions by students. The idea is to encourage student comments and interaction among themselves, and to refer student questions or answers to other students to promote discussion, even when directed at the teacher.

Change your position and move around the room. Teacher energy and vitality induces class activity, rapport, and socialization.

Progress Review and Evaluation

At certain points in the lesson's development, or when particularly significant questions have just been answered, question other students as to their evaluations of the response or challenge them to re-state the answer in their own words. This allows a valuable re-emphasis of the answer and enables the teacher to gauge how widespread understanding may be.

At the end of the lesson, review and summarize key observations and conclusions. For older students or adult groups, you may suggest further points for consideration or individual investigation.

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Sample Docent-evaluation Form

University of Michigan Museum of Art
Docent Program
Docent Evaluation


F=Fine R=Refine NA=not applicable

I. Structure

1. Was there a clear statement of the theme of the tour?

2. Did the objects selected illustrate the theme?

3. Was the tour well organized?

4. Did it include an introduction that created interest?

5. Did the transitions help tie the tour together and move the group smoothly through the galleries?

6. At the conclusion of the tour, was there a summary of what was seen and discussed?

7. Was there an invitation to the audience to return (informing the group of related museum programs)?

II. Content

8. Was the content of the tour chosen to be interesting and appropriate to the age group?

9. Did the docent give accurate information?

10. Did the docent include visual analysis as well as factual information?

11. If the docent used activities other than discussion, were those activities effective and appropriate for the audience?

12. Did the docent use open-ended questions to engage visitors?

13. Did the docent vary the pace of the tour (integrate inquiry, lecture, props/visual aids, etc.)?

14. Did the docent compare, contrast, and put objects in context?

15. Was the vocabulary, as well as the content, at an appropriate level for the audience?

16. Were terms explained as necessary?

III. Presentation

17. Was the docent welcoming and friendly?

18. Were questions or strategies used that guided participants to look at and respond to the object?

19. Did the docent notice group reactions and adjust to interest levels, attention span, and language skills?

20. Was the docent responsive to individual differences, modeling respect to art and artists of different cultures?

21. Did the docent invite questions from the audience?

22. Did the docent allow time for looking in silence?

23. Did the docent give the group time to think and answer questions?

24. Did the docent have good eye contact?

25. Could everyone hear the docent, and could the docent appear to hear the audience members and respond appropriately?

26. Was correct pronunciation used?

IV. Logistics

27. Did the docent meet the group and quickly begin the tour?

28. Was the tour well paced?

29. Were clear directions given to the group?

30. Did the docent move his/her group smoothly through the galleries, accommodating any unforeseen difficulties?

31. Did the docent allot time well and complete the tour in the specified time?

32. Did the docent manage the group so that others could still move freely in the gallery?

33. Did school tour docents handle any discipline problems effectively?

Copied with permission by the University of Michigan Art Museum

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Sample Agendas: Docent-Training Course

Below is a suggested structure for your docent-training course. Modify it to suit your needs. The training begins as a general docent-training course. After your docents become familiar with your institution and basic tour-giving skills, you can present the concepts of visual impairment and the tools to make art accessible.

Each session has four elements.

Introductions/Welcome: Beyond learning names, this element is important for team and trust building. Many of the training exercises require partners, and giving and receiving feedback from fellow docents. It should be repeated for the first couple of sessions. Also, when working with groups that include people with visual impairments, always introduce everyone in the group.

Objectives: The educator gives an overview of the day's topics and goals, presents any new materials or resources, and introduces the “expert of the day.”

Expert of the Day: Depending on the training themes, this can be a member of the blindness community, a curator, historian, scholar, artist, or educator. This may also be a good time to have a docent present a talk on a particular area of interest or expertise.

Practical Exercises: This is the essential part of the training, giving docents an opportunity to develop their skills and build confidence. Activities may include brainstorming, writing, selecting objects, practice tours, art making, and similar activities.

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General Training Themes

These training themes are appropriate for all your docents. They include:

General Training Theme: History of the Museum

General Training Theme: Engaging an Audience and Questioning Strategies

General Training Theme: the Museum's Permanent Collection

General-Training Theme: Exhibition-specific Training.

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Disability-Specific Training Themes

If possible, provide this training to all your docents, not just the docents who give specialized tours to people who are blind or visually impaired. These skills can be used with a broad range of audiences and help your docents meet the needs of all museum visitors.

Pay special attention to bringing in experienced trainers and accessibility advisors who are visually impaired. They can give your staff and docents a range of different personal perspectives on blindness, as well as an understanding of your local community of people who are blind or visually impaired and how to connect with them. Spend time practicing sighted-guide techniques, verbal description, and touch tours. Leave time for practice sessions and hands-on activities.

Disability-specific training topics include:

Disability-awareness Training

Mobility Awareness: How to Navigate the Galleries with a Tour Group

Accessibility Tools.

Learning Tool: Verbal-description Skills

Learning Tool: How to Give a Touch Tour

Learning Tool: Incorporating Alternative Tactile Experiences

Learning Tool: Tactile Diagrams

Learning Tool: Sound and Drama

Learning Tool: Art-making and Hands-on Activity Training

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Checklist for Training Docents

Disability-awareness Training Session:

  1. Research instructors. Find out any space or materials requirements, technical services required, and so forth.
  2. Identify participants, and coordinate time and date.
  3. Reserve the meeting space, and make sure it is accessible.
  4. Prepare information packets in advance, as participants may want to review materials in advance; have copies in accessible formats.
  5. Refreshments are usually welcome.

Staff Training:

After completing the above disability-awareness training, staff and docents can continue with basic training. Adapt knowledge, skills and experience to this particular audience's needs.

  1. Contact professionals at other museums with established programs for materials and advice.
  2. Provide meeting space.
  3. Prepare descriptions of tools for providing accessibility. (See earlier chapter in this book.) Provide samples where possible.

Docent Training:

After completing the basic staff/docent training outlined in the Agendas section, continue to train advanced docents. If possible, this should be ongoing multi-session training, with repeated practice sessions and activities, as this is the way to increase confidence and ownership of the program. After some time, a docent leader could be identified and independent practice sessions encouraged.

  1. Identify members of your volunteer audience. Solicit donations and museum “freebies” as thank-you gifts for these volunteers, such as museum passes, discounts to the store or museum events.
  2. Provide meeting space.
  3. Schedule multiple sessions.
  4. Write handouts, with background information on different objects in the collection.
  5. Prepare materials for hands-on activities.
  6. Complete and review evaluations of docent tours.

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Troubleshooting Tips: Training Staff and Docents

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Funding Options! Training Staff and Docents

See also Disability Awareness training and Accessibility Tools training for funding ideas for those trainings.

Low Cost

No Cost

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