Interpretation Can Target Everyone

By Joel Christensen

Interpretation is an unusual form of communication in that it melds knowledge with feelings in order to touch the hearts and minds of people. There are proven methods of capturing the interest of people that have been researched and perfected over the years.

Recent studies regarding the human brain-mind system have demonstrated the importance of the interaction between our psychological and physiological make-up. The results of these studies and inferences that can be made from these studies have far-reaching and important applications to interpretation.

Basically, interpreters will find that these physical, psychological and educational studies provide a great deal of information that will allow us to focus on more effective methods of presenting material to the public. This new information provides us with a better understanding of how people learn and from that understanding we can help our visitors receive our messages more effectively.

Several studies have helped define the learning modalities and learning styles that people exhibit. Learning modalities are the ways in which our brain-mind systems are best stimulated. Learning styles are the way in which we, as individuals, best perceive experience or information, plus our method of acting upon that experience or information. The learning styles are influenced by our learning modalities.

Researchers have labeled the learning modalities with various names, but most agree that there are four major modalities:

  • Visual modality
    The input and output of people who learn best in this modality involves visual/spatial expression. These people learn and express what they have learned through art, sculpture, graphics and mapping.
  • Auditory modality
    Patterned sound such as speech, music, and song help these people learn and express themselves. Awareness of rhythmic patterns also falls within this modality.
  • Kinesthetic modality
    Patterned movement such as dance helps these people learn and express themselves best. Gesturing, posturing, touch and physical action expressed by the body as a whole are used to excite the mind-brain system.
  • Symbolic/abstract modality
    Abstract codes or symbols that have no meaning by themselves, but their meaning is derived from real things or imagined things. Reading, writing and arithmetic are the building blocks of learning and expression for people in this modality.

Many researchers add a fifth learning modality called the Synergic or Cooperative modality. A common example of this modality would be the combination of symbolic/abstract and visual. In this case, the person learns best by receiving information in the form of words, and then expresses that in the form of drawing and sculptures.

Our learning styles are also influenced by differences between the function of the left and right cerebral hemispheres and their influence on behavior and learning. Evidence indicates that the left cerebral hemisphere is usually responsible for logical, linear, and sequential thought. Speech seems to be the outlet for the left portion of the brain. The right cerebral hemisphere usually controls initiative, visual, spatial and emotional thought. Drawing and dreaming are outlets for the right brain.

In addition, brain studies have shown how the brain stem and limbic areas of the brain influence how we react to learning under various conditions. Essentially, the brain stem protect us from physical harm while the limbic area protects us from emotional harm. We also know that as we file facts in our brains, we also store emotions, odors, sounds and visual cues, taste, and tactile sensations along with the facts.

Good interpreters have intuitively used all of this information in their presentations, but few have ever been able to explain to others why their programs work. For example, an interpretive hike in bear country can often hold perceived, if not real, threats to visitors. If the interpreter does not put these people at ease about the physical threat, the visitors will be thinking’ with their cerebral hemisphere. On the other hand, interpreters who constantly put audience members on the spot may be embarrassing these visitors. These audience members are thinking’ with their limbic areas and are thus spending more time protecting themselves emotionally than absorbing information presented during the program. In both cases, the interpreters have failed and the visitors leave with a bad taste in for interpretation.

Traditionally, interpreters, school teachers and others involved with getting information to the public have geared their presentations toward the left brain or logical, linear thinkers. There was little room for intuition and dreaming. Fortunately, in many places there has been a gradual shift in presentation techniques to all for more right-brain emphasis. The use of interpretative drama, fantasy and what used to be known as airy-fairy’ stuff have found a solid place in good interpretive presentations.

In addition to the physiological and psychological studies, recent educational studies have identified four learning types. 1 The first type, innovative learners, are those who perceive reality as personal life experiences. They must know why’ they have to learn something and how it relates to them. The second type are analytic learners who see reality as facts and information. Books and experts are their best friends. Practical learners, the third type, perceive reality as whatever works. They try to relate information to real life situations. The last type are the dynamic learners. They see reality as what is there at the moment. They usually use intuition to solve problems or extend information. They enjoy creating and then teaching to others.

In every audience all four types of learners will be present. The traditional approach of interpretive programs was to aim the presentation at the analytical learner, for whom reality is facts and information. For years, interpreters have left out the other three learning types. Perhaps this is one reason more people do not attend interpretive events they can learn more by themselves than from an interpreter who does not speak their language.

Additionally, a potential audience for an interpretive event will have the right, left, and whole brain thinkers. It will have visual, auditory, kinesthetic, symbolic/abstract, and synergic learners. To complicate matters even further, there are endless variations and combinations of these thinking and learning types. For example, you may find a tendency toward right-brain thinking using kinesthetic modes on a dynamic level or left-brain thinkers who are analytic learners using auditory modes, best, etc., etc.

Short of giving each visitor a battery of physiological, psychological and educational tests, how can interpreters deal with the complexity of thinking and learning types that will be present at their programs? How can an interpreter plan presentations that will be meaningful to all of these individuals? How can interpreters involve so many different learning styles in one presentation?

Look to nature. In the natural world, diversity is the key to a healthy ecosystem. Since the audience has a diversity of learning and thinking types, then diversity in programming techniques can be your key to a successful interpretive presentation. Plan diversity into your programs even when it may not be possible to provide for the needs of all learning and thinking types. Try to reach as many as possible whenever possible. This of course is more easily said than done.

A few examples of things that can be done to involve more people in interpretive presentations are listed below. By combining some of these suggestions in creative ways, you will be meeting the needs of a large percentage of your audience. You will also be accomplishing one of the major objectives of any interpretive event: getting the audience involved in the presentation.

Involving the learning modalities

Auditory Mode

Use music and sound effects. Use speech. Close eyes and focus listening. Listen through a funnel or a tube. Use common sounds from most people’s childhood days to create moods or recall emotions and information; locomotive whistle to a train running a track, steamboat horn, calliope music, old-time piano, period music, etc. Use sounds from nature like falling rain, waves breaking on a beach, water in a stream, wind in the trees, etc. Use sounds from cities or small towns to develop moods. Have people make sounds that remind them of things you are looking at or talking about (remember the old lion or bear hunt game’?). Now you add to this list and the lists that follow.

Visual Mode

Use slides and other A/V presentation techniques. Pictures, drawing, graphic designs, and printed words can be used. Look at familiar things in new ways; you might look up through the branches of a tree, lie in tall grass and look up, use a magnifying glass to look at things, look at things through binoculars, focus on objects through a tube, look at the negative space between things rather than at the things themselves. Focus a light on one object and then look at that spot, reverse this and ignore the light spot. Look into a campfire during a storytelling presentation. Blur the eyes and look for shades of green in the forest or shades of grey on the rock face. Look for faces of other shapes in the rock profiles of mountains. Look for animals in the shapes that clouds present. Use props of the real things, skulls, etc. Use props that represent the real things, a double-decker sandwich to represent the sediment layers found in the rock. Use mime, puppet, masks, shadow dancing, etc.

Kinesthetic Mode

Have everyone move like the crab you see on the shore hike or the spider on the forest hike. Use dance in all its forms. Move like anything being discussed or how you think it might move if it really does not move in real life. Touch the things being discussed; water, ice, flowers, leaves, whatever. Compare things by touch; fur from different animals, texture of bark from different trees, etc. Lift, move, manipulate objects. Play catch. Mold with clay, sand, soil. Draw with crayons or plant parts. Make sounds using objects. Blindfold and then touch things. Use the tactile sense to recall emotions and information: remember how cold your hands got when you made a snowball without your mittens; remember what it felt like to walk across hot sand, on pebbles, on grass; remember how it felt to ski down the hill for the first time. Walk barefooted. Imagine what it feels like to be a piece of sand washing back and forth along the shore, or a rock being tumbled down a stream.

Symbolic/Abstract Mode

Use handouts, teach sign language’ or use real Indian sign language. Write poems, stories and descriptions of plants, animals, rocks, etc. Read as a group or make up a story as a group. Sing from a song book. Make up a song book about environmental problems, natural or cultural history. Give them further readings to do at home. Use word association and audience participation.

Involving Right-Brain Thinkers

Generally, anything that uses the sense will bring the right-brain into play. Use the suggestions outlined and try the visual and kinesthetic modes above. Use directed or guided imagery activities. Fantasy and metaphor are gateways to the right-brain. Using drawing, imagination, and other creative activities move an audience into right-brain thinking. Remember than when involving right-brain thinking, content becomes less important than feelings and emotion, but do not leave out all of the content. Use drama to make the audience laugh and/or cry. Use remember’ to create moods, recall emotions and information: remember the smell of breaking bread; remember the odor of the campfire smoke on your clothes when you got back from your trip; remember the odor of coal smoke hanging in the winter air over your childhood town; remember how cold the lake was the first time your jumped in at camp. Vicarious identification with characters in drama, storytelling, or film and anthropomorphism can be used to evoke right-brain images. How would it feel to be the rabbit being chased by the lynx? How would it feel to be a rock at the bottom of a glacier? What does gravity feel like? Become the things being talked about; become a ball in the game of catch; become the bat flying in the night air.

Involve Left-Brain Thinkers

Use lectures, discussion, worksheets and words. Do what most interpreters have always done in the past, or simply use the techniques that your high school teachers used. Lecture and other traditional teaching techniques have an important place in interpretation since a large number of your visitors are left-brain thinkers. Remember that almost all of us have been trained in left-brain thinking and that most of us can function in this learning style.

Involving the Four Types
  • Innovative Learners
    Explain why it is important to learn something, but do not get preachy.’ The information you present must be directly related to the individual’s life. In some cases, simply giving the reason for doing something is all it takes to satisfy innovative thinkers. If your program is on water, ask how many ways they used the water yesterday. If your program is on glaciation, either ask or explain how glaciers affect us today. If you have a history topic, relate the past to the present. One things to remember when involving innovative learners is to make the why’ come at the beginning of the presentation whenever possible, otherwise these people may not listen to the rest of the presentation. Innovative learners learn by listening and sharing ideas. Social interaction is important to these people.
  • Analytic Learners
    These people enjoy fact and lots information. If you think back to your school days, these were the people who got the best grades. Make certain that your facts are presented accurately and clearly. Use lectures, discussion, films and other A/V techniques. These people seek out experts in their field of interest, so guest speakers and consultants with well-known expertise can be used effectively. Remember than an expert could be as close as your park warden or ranger or, for that matter, you the interpreter are often considered the expert. In the organization of your presentation, involve these learners right after the innovative learners have been given their why.’ Analytic learners are more interested in the information than in people.
  • Practical Learners
    These people like to try out and do tings. Use the facts and information that you aimed at the analytical learners to do something. Have the audience use a butter churn to demonstrate a history concept, melt a piece of glacial ice and determine how much water is obtained, or measure the flow of the stream or the height of the tree. Do things rather than talk about doing things. Practical learners try to relate what they do to real life situations.
  • Dynamic Learners
    Generally, these should be the last learning type that you include in your presentation. These people enjoy creating, teaching other what they have discovered and finding new applications for what they have learned. Poetry, dance, skits and artwork activities allow the dynamic learners to express themselves and to better retain the topic information. Write a chinquapin poem about glaciers. Play a part in the history skit. Draw pictures of the animals or plants that live in the lake you have been discussing. Dynamic learners often reach the correct solution to problems by using intuition rather than logical justification.

Stop interpreting to just the converted. Start bringing in those that may not be interested in interpretation. One of the best ways to do this is to use entertainment as your mode of delivery. Think of it as entertaining your audience with information.

Music, song, dance, puppets, interpretive theater, and many of the ideas brought out in the paper will help you reach a much wider audience. Last, but not least, always go out there with a smile on your face and in your heart they both show.

Mr. Christensen is the Manager of Interpretation and Education, Kananasikis Country Division, Alberta Recreation and Parks, P.O. Box 280, Canmore, Alberta, Canada TOL OMO.


  1. McCarthy, Bernice. The 4 Mat System: Teaching to Learning Styles with Right/Left Mode Techniques. Oak Brook, IL, Excel, Inc. 1980.


Bruner, Jerome. On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand. New York, NY; Athemuem, 1962.

Maslow, Abraham. The Psychology of Science. Chicago, IL; Regnery, 1969.

McCarthy, Bernice. The 4 Mat System: Teaching to Learning Styles with Right/Left Mode Techniques. Oak Brook, IL, Excel, Inc., 1980.

Piaget, Jean. Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. New York, NY; Norton, 1962.

Samples, Bob. The Metamorphic Mind. Reading, MA; Addison-Wesley, 1976.

Personal Conversations

Bill Hammond, Environmental Education and Curriculum Co-ordinator, Lee County School System, Florida.