On an inquiry-based tour, all visitors have an opportunity to observe, form opinions, and develop an understanding of the art. Inquiry teaching, or instruction through questions, encourages museum visitors to really look at and engage with artworks. Inquiry activates curiosity. Questions invite visitors to discover more about artworks, analyze artists’ intentions, examine their own responses and attitudes, and share with others. Questions spark curiosity and engagement. It is not enough to simply hear information about art; people remember best when they have helped to construct the meaning. Before moving to questions about the art, allow the visitors time to look at the art.

Being able to answer questions and talk about art empowers both children and adults. As a guide, you play the role of facilitator, and facilitation is a dynamic process. By asking questions and leading discussions on your tours, you involve visitors in the learning process. By encouraging visitors to generate their own ideas and construct meaning on their own, you help them develop skills they can use to become independent learners in the museum.

There are other good reasons to use inquiry on your tours. If you begin your tour with thoughtful open-ended questions, you learn a lot about your group—attitudinally, intellectually, visually, and verbally. The use of inquiry creates an atmosphere of trust because it demonstrates that you are genuinely interested in what the group thinks.

As mentioned in the section on Tour Preparation, participation encompasses more than voicing a response. While open-ended questions create opportunities for discussion, not all visitors will be comfortable with voicing their ideas, so inquiry inviting nonverbal participation (e.g., answering with thumbs up/down or a movement) also should be presented on the tour.

Scaffold questions

Inquiry will be most successful if you scaffold your questions. Begin with basic observation questions or exercises that encourage visitors to look closely (e.g., Describe what you see. What’s going on in this picture?). Take multiple answers, then follow up responses with a question that asks them to support their responses with evidence from the artwork itself (e.g., What about his expression makes you say he is sad? What do you see that makes you say that?). This can often be further followed up with a question that asks them to think about their explanations (e.g., Why might the artist have painted this way?). By scaffolding questions, you encourage tour participants to look, explain, and generate ideas.

Tip: When you have a group that ranges in age and size, ask those who are tall what detail they first notice from their vantage point, then ask those who are short what detail they first notice. This is a strategy to keep the kids or younger people involved on the tour. The whole group is often surprised at the details someone notices from a height of three feet versus six feet!
Tip: On public tours, scaffold your approach with the tour stops. The first couple of stops could be a mix of quick, simple descriptive and associative questions to put the group at ease in offering their thoughts and ideas. Reiterate that there are “no wrong answers” on the tour to put people at ease.

To learn more about scaffolding as an instructional technique, see this link.

Wait time

We all process information at different rates. An inclusive tour builds in wait time, allowing visitors to look at the art and construct some meaning in response to the question asked. It’s good to remind ourselves of our own familiarity with the art, and how, when seeing it for the first time, we needed more time to visually understand it (e.g., we needed more time to see that second cat in the Bonnard painting!). Wait until more than one or two people have their hands raised. Building in wait time allows for more visitors to participate, and it also helps prevent you from answering your own question if you tend to jump in when there is silence.

Accept multiple answers

If you encourage multiple answers with your open-ended questions, then leave enough time on your tour to hear from your group. Avoid shutting down the discussion after receiving one answer in order to have enough time to convey one of your key ideas about the artwork.

Be active in facilitation, making an effort to hear from all in the group during the tour. When you have one to three people dominating the conversation, move away from that dynamic by asking “Who haven’t we heard from?” or “Who hasn’t had a turn yet?” If the timing allows, use a pair-share opportunity, then ask some visitors who haven’t spoken to share their thoughts. It takes effort to break away from dominant speakers, but the effort is worthwhile in the level of engagement developed with the entire group.


An important part of inquiry-based learning is actively demonstrating that you heard and understood responses to questions. Paraphrase responses you receive. Paraphrasing allows all in the group to hear the response and is a dynamic expression of your engagement. It also lets you make connections between observations from the visitors. For example, “So you feel that the man is sad, too, but you believe that he is sad because of the dark colors the artist used.” When paraphrasing, position yourself to the side of the art and face the group, so all can hear what you are saying.