Didactic versus experiential nature interpretation

As professionals, how we interpret nature to different audiences will depend mainly on two factors, namely our view of the target audience; and what we wish to achieve as a result of engaging with this audience. Within the field of nature interpretation several different traditions exist and this essay will present two of the main ones: The didactic and the experiential approach. This essay argues that the choice of approach to nature interpretation is not a one-time decision for a professional. Rather, interpretation should be tailored to the audience and the context in which it occurs.

Traditional programmes have been designed to teach people about nature with the intention of leaving visitors with a specific type of knowledge about the natural world around them, whether that be knowledge of habitats, certain species or intricate ecosystems such as coral reefs. This approach is known as the didactic approach and is essentially a piece of planned communication with roots in the education system. Although often dialogue-based and stressing the need to treat visitors with respect, during didactic interpretation, the interpreter has certain outcomes in mind and wishes to teach facts. Some of the visitors’ experiences or opinions could be deemed ‘wrong’ and get in the way of the message. (Hovelynck, 2001) At the core of the didactic approach is the idea that knowledge and cognition are central aspects and the desired learning goals planned by the interpreter or teacher are the reasons interpretation takes place at all. The experience of the visitor could be said to be a means to an end which is defined by the interpreter.

Laswell’s communication model from 1948 is often condensed into the sentence: “Who says what to whom in which channel with what effect?” (Lasswell, 1948) and allows for investigation of different elements of a piece of communication. If we analyse the communicative situation above using Laswell’s model, the answer to Lasswell’s question would appear like this:

Who Says what To whom In which channel With what effect?
The interpreter Offers evaluations, opinions and focus Someone who needs/wants to learn more about nature. Via planned verbal speeches or written displays With the aim of disseminating knowledge.

Opposed to the didactic tradition is the experiential approach, which emphasises learning-by-doing. Here the interpreter acts as a facilitator allowing and encouraging a wide range of different experiences to take place. The experiential approach is in line with the fundamental idea that knowledge is constructed and occurs in relationships between people and their environment. In contrast with the didactic approach, the experiential approach holds that the cognitive, emotional and physical aspects of experiences cannot be separated, nor can learning be divided into skills, knowledge, attitudes, context and so forth. Instead, they form a holistic whole with all aspects intrinsically linked. (Hovelynck, 2001) (Beck & Cable, 2002, pp. 47-56)

The power to define goals and objectives is not in the hands of the interpreter, nor is the interpreter the sender of the message. Participants will all have different experiences which they interpret and make sense of in different ways. Facilitating learning in this context will most closely resemble coaching and guiding people in finding out what things mean to them and what they can take away from a situation, and not so much about facts and a pre-planned curriculum. Instead, the interactions offer opportunities to wonder and reflect, and for individuals and groups to create knowledge together. A combination of action and reflection known as praxis is an important part of any experiential learning approach. This is often also termed learning-by-doing.

An overview of this approach can be seen below, again using Lasswell’s model.

Who Says what To whom In which channel With what effect?
The context of environment and people Offers experiences, input and puzzles To someone who is curious and investigative Via immersion in the situation With the aim of holistic learning and experiencing.

In summary, the two approaches understand their audiences and role differently. In the didactic approach, the listener is sometimes receptive, sometimes not. His previous knowledge can either help or hinder his understanding of the message, but the listener is expected to be the recipient of a carefully crafted message with a reasonably well-defined purpose. According to the experiential approach, knowledge is created in a social context and the audience must engage with the world around them to experience and create meaning for themselves via their meeting with actual problems. These active participants may have very different experiences that can colour their experiences; they are believed to be independent and whole beings who need an environment that facilitates learning.

Often the aim of nature interpretation is to instil a sense of wonder or a desire to protect the natural heritage into listeners, as the hidden meaning of a place is revealed.  (Tilden, 1977) The interpreter is expected to think carefully about the message she wishes to convey, gather accurate information and select carefully a limited number of elements to include in order to avoid confusing her audience. The interpreter should look for a way to connect with visitor interests and prior experience in order to successfully deliver their programme. The underlying assumption in didactics is that the interpreter holds the knowledge and expertise, and that a single, predefined meaning exists or can be selected by the interpreter on behalf of the listeners. In experiential education, the meaning is hidden in the sense that it has not yet been created in the minds of the experiencing persons.

Johan Hovelynck, professor at Leuven University, argues in his article ‘Beyond Didactics’ that many so called experiential approaches are still too close to the didactic approach. He points out that a desired end goal is more or less obviously sought by the facilitator. He argues that a truly experiential approach would allow participants to define for themselves what they wish to learn and what they actually do experience. Predefining an experiences is not possible as it is not possible to observe it before it takes place. The pressure to do so shows how experiential education is still hostage to the didactic approach it tries to be an alternative to. (Hovelynck, 2001) Hovelynck’s view is that experiential learning is about meaning-making and which is in line with the multiverse idea held by for instance radical democratic movements. Hovelynck is clearly trying to get experiential education to return to its roots by pointing out the ways in which it is still failing to differentiate itself from the norms of the didactic approach, but to some degree, he fails to address the fact that in many cases, a certain type of information is needed in order to persuade politicians and obtain financial support. With an increasing pressure on teachers to articulate very clear goals, it can be difficult to fit true experiential learning into the context of schools. In all these cases, there is a strong focus on being able to verbalise specific outcomes, whether financially or in terms such as skills, knowledge and other separate aspects in a way which requires a more atomistic view of the situation than many supporters of experiential learning are able to identify with.

The requirement to be able to formulate outcomes in specific and quantitative terms is one that I have certainly met during my internship when working with grant writing and trying to influence the decision makers on a political level. Evaluating proposals is certainly easier when hard facts can be compared but as the saying goes: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. In other words, by focusing solely on the quantifiable elements, we risk ignoring the significance of personal experience, conundrums and learning things thoroughly and truly by engaging with the real thing itself. It is a very real challenge when designing programmes and writing grant proposals to ensure that there is a suitable mix of hard data and a strong narrative to explain why things matter and should be prioritised but it is clear that projects without a strong programme theory will not be favoured, and occasionally, an initiative will simply not make it past the idea stage because it cannot be described in sufficiently clear terms with respect to goals, actions and outcomes even though there may be significant intangible benefits from it.

According to Sam H. Ham, a representative of the thematic interpretation approach, no research supports the idea that knowing the same things as an interpreter will make you care the same way he does. Only a person’s own thinking and experiences can make him care. Ham puts it this way when talking to an audience at the Nordic Seminar on Heritage and Nature Interpretation: “I can’t pound knowledge into your head, all I can do is facilitate a process wherein you do your own thinking and create your own subjective knowledge of the world. The only caring… any of us is capable of doing must come from the thoughts that we ourselves think between our own two ears.” (Ham, 2013)

I think, therefore, that it is a case of tailoring your message to the needs of the audience, which in case of input to a political process or grant proposals will mean that it is important to be able to at least state the probable outcomes of a project or programme with some confidence. In the case of direct interpretation to the general public with the aim of causing people to care about the environment or heritage, allowing them to form their own opinions and connections will be preferable. These two things do not need to conflict. In my opinion, interpretation is a continuum and the approach chosen will depend on the desired effect of the communication as well as the interests and needs of the audience.

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