RK&A at 30: Learning to Listen and Ask Deeper Questions

This blog post holds a lot of meaning for me. Not only am I thinking about the 30th anniversary of RK&A and all of our accomplishments, I’m also reflecting on my time here as I prepare to move on to another institution (I’ll be working at the Detroit Institute of Arts!)  In other words, I’m considering not only what our team does, but what that work means to me.

I was inspired by Emily’s last post about the delightful messiness of communication.  It got me thinking about communication skills I’ve been practicing during my time at RK&A – specifically, asking questions and active listening.  In my experience, listening and questioning lead to more effective communication and a better understanding of the purpose of our work.  Understanding the “why?” is crucial in our work, which is the reason we so often use an inquiry-based approach in our projects.  Whether we’re guiding clients in the process of creating an impact framework or conducting a one-on-one interview with a visitor, we’re always trying to find the deeper answer.

A great example of a project that truly tested me in this practice was the NAEA-AAMD Research Study.  This project had inquiry baked into every layer, but I’ll give a few examples.  First, we had to ask ourselves what are the behaviors we’re looking for or language we’re listening for during a field trip which would demonstrate that an educator is supporting students’ capacity for critical or creative thinking?  This methodological question alone required a lot of reflective thinking.  Second, we observed museum docents present inquiry-based programs to students during their field trip experience.  Specifically, the docents asked questions to lead students down a path of observation toward interpretation.  For example, the docent might ask students, “what do you see?” followed by “what do you think is going on in this artwork?” and finally “what makes you say that?”  This meant the docents generally asked the students more questions than provided answers.  Third, we asked the students who participated in field trips about their experience.  This often required asking “why do you say that?” to encourage students to open up about the deeper meaning behind their answers, which sometimes resulted in students sharing vivid and detailed memories about their museum experience.

Again, these skills – listening and questioning – are essential to what I do every day in my work.  I’ve learned to push past surface-level or single-word answers and ask for clarification in order to better understand the meaning visitors make in a museum experience.  I’ve asked clients to explain why it’s important for a visitor to leave the exhibition with a changed attitude and how exactly that change will occur.  Because ultimately, what we’re searching for in our work is the answer to the question: “to what end?”  What truly motivates museums to provide educational programs? And why did this visitor change their attitude after participating in the program?  These are the questions I’m always asking in search of truthful answers I’m always listening for.  To be sure, these are hard questions with sometimes messy answers, but for me there are often surprises and rewards in the deeper answers.  And these are skills I’ll take with me as I continue on my journey in the evaluation field, and in life.

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