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HOW TO - Reflect Like a Ranger

The purpose of interpretation is not to tell visitors what they think the important information is or how people should feel about what they are learning. The purpose is to facilitate connections between visitors, the park, and the interests and experiences of the visitors. It’s not telling them what to think, instead, it's all about helping them to think by providing opportunities. Reflection, or the cognitive processes we use to make meaning of our experiences, is key to learning not just at national parks, but in the classroom as well as in life. This is why John Dewey once said, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”

It is no surprise that many rangers see themselves as facilitators of the experiences that provoke reflection. These techniques described below are used in national parks to help visitors think about what they are experiencing and they can be used in your own classroom as well. 

Open Ended Dialogue and Questioning - ORACLE

Discussion and dialogic questioning are tools commonly employed by rangers to help keep visitors invested in programs they might otherwise choose to walk away from, but it involves more than just lobbing questions at the audience. The questions rangers ask connect the theme of their program to the visitor through lived experience. For example, when visiting Theodore Roosevelt Nat’l Park, a park ranger giving a program on Prairie Dogs could have just launched into his talk about the dynamics between different animals who inhabit different coteries, or towns. Prairie Dogs from different towns can get territorial, and while he could have simply said this, he instead asked, “Has anyone ever had a bad neighbor?” This prompted a lot of participation since it was a situation many people could relate to, and soon his participants were more invested in his program.    

This kind of question and discussion technique is known by the acronym ORACLE which stands for “only right answers come from lived experiences” This is an important concept as it reminds interpreters that they should be asking questions that require their visitors to draw on their own lived experiences and then use those answers to discuss themes. By asking program participants to reflect on their own experiences, it helps them make connections between themselves and an unfamiliar topic. 

When you teach your next topic, lead with an open-ended question that invites more buy-in and participation by connecting to something familiar to your learners. 


The majority of national park facilities were constructed over 20 years ago, which doesn’t seem like a long time until you begin to consider how historical, cultural, and scientific information can evolve or change as new information becomes available or as societal beliefs shift. Elements or perspectives can be added or evolved, something you see clearly when you look at two park brochures from two distant periods. 

Sometimes these changes are not compatible with static visitor resources like a park museum, or installation at a visitor center that needs money as well as updating. But some park units are keen to spot opportunities while they wait for the dollars to trickle in for refurbishment. Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in North Carolina was the first military park to commemorate the American Revolution, so innovation is baked into its DNA. The park visitor center and most of its exhibits were constructed over 25 years ago, meaning that in addition to historic inaccuracies, there are a lot of omissions when it comes to perspectives. The experiences of indigenous peoples and those of enslaved Americans were mostly absent in the original design, but the park embraced this issue and instead of hiding the issue away, they brought it to the forefront and made it an opportunity for deeper learning. Through a series of specially created laminated placards that prompt reflection, they prompt visitors to reflect on the implications of information with new perspectives.

You can do the same thing in your classroom or during a visit to a local museum that might also be outdated. What perspectives are missing that would add value?

Thematic Guides

Reading for information is a common method of building knowledge, but unless it is accompanied by synthesis it doesn’t do much to build understanding. Reflecting on the meaning of information through processes like categorization builds this understanding much better. This is often why parks present their ranger programs or their roadside exhibits through the lens of large themes like freedom, sacrifice, or other big, intangible ideas. 

A prime example can be found at Steamtown Nat’l Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In addition to the enormous collection of rolling rail stock they have a robust history center that traces not just the area's history, but the development of the railroad industry and its impact on the United States. One of the things that they do very well is interpreting and connecting this history through themes like technology, change, or labor. Visitors who go through the museum and tour the park are continually introduced to these themes, helping them to make sense of what they are learning and to focus on the aspects of it that are most important to their interests or learning purpose. The museum addresses this theme of technology by showing the implications of changes like how locomotives converted over from coal-powered to diesel, and moments when the labor movement pushed back against the rife corruption within the ownership of the industry.

In a setting like this, instead of providing a worksheet, provide a more open-ended organizer with the theme at the top. As your students go through an exhibit or a block of text, they can record the different things they find that relate to the themes, and then review and reflect on the information in groups. Maybe it becomes a short essay, is developed into a guidebook, or is related to a novel that they may be in class.


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