I just got back from a trip to Yellowstone National Park and it took me back to the days I worked at Colorado State Parks. I presented campfire talks, guided nature walks, designed visitor center displays, and developed environmental educational curriculum and programs for various school districts. You will find this type of instruction, which is referred to as interpretation, at parks, zoos, aquariums, museums, and historical sites. I know the word interpretation has different meanings but the National Association of Interpretation defines it this way:
A mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the
interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.
Over 50 years ago, Freeman Tilden wrote Interpreting Our Heritage, which is the foundation of interpretation today. He explains that interpretation exposes the visitor to the “Thing Itself”. Tilden defines interpretation this way;
Interpretation is an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings &relationships through the use
of original objects, by firsthand experience, & by illustrative media, rather than simply to
communicate factual information.
Imagine the learning experience you would have rafting down the Grand Canyon where you can see, feel, hear, and touch the immense power of rushing water beneath you. Now imagine reading about the Grand Canyon in a textbook with black and white sketches. It is not difficult to imagine these very different learning experiences. Connecting to the “Thing Itself”, reveals meaning that dispensing of factual information cannot.
Interpreters are educators but they also recognize that the mission of formal education and interpretation are very different. Interpretation is usually an elective or voluntary educational activity. In a formal educational setting, a student is usually required to attend school and pass proficiency exams.
So I have given you some insight into another meaning of interpretation, but I do have a reason. I believe the principles of interpretation created by Freeman Tilden can add dimension to classroom instruction. Maybe you already apply some or all of these principles in the classroom but it may spark renewed discussion.
The Principles of Interpretation;
1. Any interpretation (instruction) that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something
within the personality or experience of the visitor (student) will be sterile.
2. Information, as such, is not interpretation (teaching).Interpretation (teaching) is revelation based upon information.
But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation (teaching) includes information
3. Interpretation (teaching) is an art which combines many arts whether the materials presented are scientific,
historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable
4. The chief aim of interpretation(teaching) is not instruction, but provocation
5. Interpretation (instruction) should aim to present a whole rather than a part and must address itself to the whole
man (student) rather than any phase
6. Interpretation (teaching) addressed to children should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should
follow a fundamentally different approach.
Can these principles apply to classroom instruction? Many of you already do an excellent job of relating instruction to the personality and experiences of the students. You realize that teaching children should not be a dilution of adult education. Are you able to reveal meaning or do you sometimes revert to information dumping? Can instruction be more about the connections we make to reveal meaning? Is it possible to teach to the whole student? Do we teach to a student’s disability and constrict our view of the whole student? Is teaching an art? How can we teach using the “Thing Itself”?
Interpretation has and will continue to influence my philosophy towards education. The principles of interpretation are simple but the impact for learners can be profound. My current interests relate more to educational technology and instructional design. However, the field of interpretation gives me a unique perspective which is reflected in my practice. Technology is the instrument and teaching is the art.