Thursday, August 30, 2012

Facts, Damned Lies and Statistics: A 55 Year Stumbling Block

Why does an interpreter head out the door
each day? Is it to impart wisdom or offer
moments for reflection? / CC Tito Perez
I have to admit something: when it comes to interpretation, I'm making this all up as I go along. I don't have some magical cache of best practices stored up, waiting to deposit them week after week in posts here on the blog. Most of what I know about interpretation I've stumbled upon, either in the thoughts of others shamelessly stolen and added to my toolbox or as rough experiments based on my so-called common sense.

Sometimes it's far more instructive to find out what I shouldn't do as I frantically grope in the darkness trying to discover what I should do. If I line enough of those bad choices and other possibilities off of my list, eventually I'll hit on a formula that works.

As Thomas Alva Edison likely did not say in relation to the light bulb, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Researchers from Clemson University and Virginia Tech recently released a groundbreaking report on what makes good interpretation into great interpretation. Reviewers attended over 350 live programs in National Parks. The report is exhaustive as well as exhausting. I'm not one for statistics, so the meat of the report lies in the discussion and conclusions on pages 35-42.

What separates the mildly effective from the wildly effective? A large slew of things. But two major correlations were strong and loud in the data.

Visitors react poorly to "walking encyclopedias," who set out in their programs to impart facts rather than help visitors find a desire to learn themselves.

People don't like smart-ass know-it-alls. Back in college, I was the target of a Facebook hate-group: "The John Rudy is Smarter Than Me Fan Club." I am not making this up. The course was Slavery and the Atlantic World, and the slacker students in the back of the class didn't like the fact that I did my best to intelligently comment and ask meaningful questions each class period. So they lashed out.

I was a smart-ass know-it-all. I didn't deserve a hate group, but I was a certifiable ass. I wanted to prove that I knew my stuff, and force that newly acquired knowledge down the throats of anyone within earshot. I was cocky, brash and snide. If someone didn't care, I intended to flog them mercilessly into caring.

That doesn't work. It just doesn't. Ask me, I know that from experience. You cannot will someone to care. You cannot browbeat them into caring.

Let's bury "Walking Encyclopedias" and
"boring" in a common grave. / CC Cheryl Colan
So why are we trying to do that out in the field with visitors? The Clemson/Virginia Tech report classed 75% of park rangers as "walking encyclopedias," as human fact-fountains spewing a, "large volume of facts," at visitors. We had a derogatory term for that back in Harpers Ferry; it's called, "the firehose." You spray dumbfounded visitors with every single fact you know about this or that. They smile and nod, walking away neither having learned any of what you intended to teach them nor caring about the place any more than they did before.

Facts. They are not the goal. They should never be the goal. They are the building blocks toward a goal. If you're setting out on a program to educate the visitor, to teach them, to impart knowledge from on high as a human fount of pure factual sputum sprayed across an adoring mass of visitors, you're also setting out to fail.

Facts are simply a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. Facts lined up in a row, with intentional pacing, organization and choice can help visitors along to the real goal of interpretation. That's the goal that hasn't changed since the godfather of the craft Freeman Tilden penned it back in 1957:

"The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation."

55 years later and we're still screwing that one up royally.


  1. Capt. John, may I posit something learned from Ed Leadership grad school?

    The VA and Clemson report left out one crucial element. That is readiness level of the participant. Interpretation in particular is dependent on what the participant brings to the field with them. That is why when we (as in you and I) do Gettysburg weeks for teachers I plan a few things that make you, Cathy, and Lauren cringe. The reasoning is that the teachers do not have the readiness that we do (and I put myself in there very lightly).

    In so many ways interpretation is like teaching, you have to figure out where they are so you can give them what they need.

  2. Good post, John. You are correct. I don't care for the facts being forced down my throat, but I do enjoy a facilitator (4 tries to get THAT one spelled correctly!) that can answer my questions thoughtfully and w/out extraneous facts.