Museums: creating moments of deep learning and connection – a poignant example…

Museums (along with their Gallery and Library counterparts) hold a significant and important place in the learning landscape.  They can provide meaningful experiences not easily created within conventional classrooms – the opportunity to emotionally connect learners with significant concepts in a way that elicits deep, and potentially transformative, thinking.

These moments of emotional connection, deep thinking and learning do not simply happen.  They are designed, curated, experiences.  As a professional museum educator who has designed and delivered many different learning experiences, it is a desire to create these moments that drives me.  I love seeing the wide eyes of shock and disbelief as a learner faces a challenging idea.  Or the heartfelt question as they try and reconcile a new concept that doesn’t fit with their preconceived ideas.  Or even the serene look of someone that connects their own story to a bigger picture.

Often though, I don’t get the opportunity to really see the impact these moments have on the audience.  For school groups, much of the reflection and unpacking of new thoughts and ideas are done after the visit.  There is also the challenge of ensuring the deeply emotional moments, the ones that can lead to the most significant learning, are safe.  That they don’t leave the audience, particularly children, with unresolved distress.

When I deliver the two day costumed school experience at Sovereign Hill I aim to create as many of these deep learning moments as possible, while still balancing the diverse needs of the children to ensure they have a positive experience.  I endeavor to provide as much ‘learning fodder’ as possible so that teachers can delve deeper into a range of concepts when they get back to school.

I have previously written about how I have provoked thinking about gender roles.  I have also written about the challenges of addressing sensitive topics such as racial discrimination.  I really want the children to consider some of the more challenging realities of history and how it may have impacted on societal norms today. I want them to come away with questions and reflections, not simply facts and figures.

This week I witnessed one of the most profound learning moments I have ever seen.

I had the pleasure of hosting a highly engaged class of year 5 students and collaborating with their dedicated and skilled teacher for the two day program in my replica 1850s classroom.  As the teacher and I reacquainted (we had also worked together the previous year) she told me about their recent learning focus on human rights and propaganda.

After considering this for some time and getting to know the students I saw that this group was in a great position for delving into some heavy content. I proposed to the teacher that we challenge the students to face some of the racial discrimination present in the 1850s.  I asked if she felt comfortable with her class, which was very multicultural, being confronted with some difficult material and if she would be happy to guide them in a debrief afterwards.  We were both keen and felt they had been well prepared by their prior exploration of human rights and propaganda.  We discussed some ideas for the debrief and planned to run the lesson as the last session of the day.

Catechism

So, with both the students and I in our 1850s roles, I had them read a lesson on ‘Government and Laws’ from A Catechism of the Rudiments of Knowledge, specially adapted for Australian beginnings, for use in schools and families.  This book is a facsimile of the original from 1861, copied specifically for use in our Costumed School program.

For the lesson I read the questions aloud and the children were instructed to read the answers aloud together in unison.  The content included a discussion of ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’ nations.  I stayed in role throughout the lesson and as we packed up for the day.  I found it incredibly difficult.  I felt pain for the students confronted with such disparaging ideologies about, in some cases, their own cultural heritage. It was made even more intense by not only having them listen to the content but say it aloud.

Catechism page 50Catechism page 51

As I wanted to stay in role between day 1 and day 2 I did not participate in the debrief, instead I listened in from the adjoining room.  What I heard brought me so much pride and joy.

The students showed an incredible amount of thought and insight.  The intelligent connections they made and their empathy and strength was heartwarming.

When the teacher asked the students how the lesson made them feel they responded with comments such as:

Emotionally one children said “Heartbroken.  I felt sorry for the children back then.”

With a tone of determined protest another said “I didn’t say it.”

“I must have been so awful for the Chinese children.”  Which followed with a discussion about who would have been given the opportunity to go to school.

In response to questions about who would have produced the text and why, they said “the Government” and “because they wanted to make them believe that.”

And then, as they thought about what had changed between then and now:

“Because people came out of the shadows and spoke up against what wasn’t right.”

“Because the Australian Government is more diverse.  There are Chinese and Aboriginal people in the Government now.”

All this came from 10 and 11 year olds.

I had a major moment of ‘yes! this!’  This is what I want the students to be able to get out of the experience.  The unique opportunity to live the past and understand the context and reality of systemic discrimination was incredibly powerful for these students.  To have the opportunity to witness their emotional reaction, the questions and reflections they had and the insightful connections they made was a great privilege.

At the end of Day 2, when we all broke role for final discussion and debrief, I had the opportunity to reassure the children that the role I played was not a reflection of my own beliefs. I also told them how impressed and inspired I was by their discussion. We had further discussions around gender roles and discrimination, children’s rights (or lack there of!), and how education has (mostly!) changed from learners being told what to think to encouraging them to think for themselves.

I hope that many more such examples are happening back in the classroom.  It has inspired me to develop ways to support more teachers to utilise their experience in the Museum to unpack some of the more challenging concepts and guide their students in inquiries where they can make these powerful connections. Making these deep learning moments connect to their lives and endure well beyond the visit.

Provoking thinking about 19th century gender roles

In the recreated 1850s classroom where I teach, I immerse modern students in an experience of what school and life may have been like for children on the gold fields.  We aim for historical accuracy as much as possible, but also make accommodations to meet the contemporary needs of children, as well as modern legal and moral rights.

Gender roles and discrimination in education are something that very quickly become apparent as children step into the role of 1850s children.  They are divided by their gender for clothing, lessons and rules.  In my school, the girls are not allowed to run or squat on the ground to play marbles.  They must learn needlework while the boys learn technical/mathematical drawing.  They are also excluded from discussions about jobs for their future, due to its irrelevance to their expected future roles as wives and mothers.

Interestingly, not being able to run seems to elicit the loudest protests and mutterings of disbelief.

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Accuracy and reality in historical interpretation – a reflection on ideas of inclusion, representation and relevance

I can still clearly recall my excitement when I travelled to Melbourne, from my job teaching in Katherine (NT), for my second interview at the State Library of Victoria, where I was to be offered the position of Education Officer – Medieval Programs.  I had met a range of interesting and inspiring future colleagues, I had been taken through the amazing maze of buildings that made up the Library and I had even handled a Medici Manuscript.  Before I had even begun, I was completely sold on this new professional path I had taken.

I have a great personal interest in Medieval History and I was delighted to be able to spend my working hours playing the role of storyteller to others.  I loved finding the fascinating, obscure and shocking stories and capturing children’s interest by retelling them with as much drama and intrigue as I could muster.  What’s more, this role opened to me a new avenue to use my skills in Education and open the minds of children to new ideas, an idea that had romantically motivated me to enter the teaching profession in the first place.

At the conclusion of the State Library’s Medieval Manuscripts exhibition, my role became more focused on Victorian and Australian history, and other programs relevant to the Library’s collection and services.  I was enthusiastic in delivering the mission to make students feel like it was their library: relevant, useful and accessible to them.  I also considered myself progressive and willing to share the difficult and uncomfortable stories as well as the fun and happy ones.

But since those first months working in the cultural sector I have travelled a path of my own personal and professional learning and now, 11 years on, while I still love and believe in the sector I work in, I have a more complex and less romantic idea as to my role, responsibility and influence.

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Video Conferencing Museum Education Programs

Reflections from Perfecting the Blend Conference

paper-planeOn Friday (7th December) I attended a small part of the Perfecting the Blend Conference held at the impressive Earth Ed Centre at Mt Clear College here in Ballarat.  The whole conference ran for a full two days with a huge range of presenters talking about the innovative and seamless use of technology to support learning.  Unfortunately I was only able to attend two sessions on Friday afternoon, but they were a good opportunity to look at how Museums are using Video Conferencing to deliver Education Programs.

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Education in Museums

Education in Museums – Reflections from Museums Australia Conference

Last week at the Museums Australia conference in Adelaide there were a number of presenters that spoke about Museum Education (broadly referring to museums, galleries, libraries, zoos, historic sites etc.) – about engaging school audiences.  Despite being an Museum Educator myself, I intentionally did not go to all education-related presentations, with the aim of looking more a the big picture of what is happening in Museums.  However I did go to a number of Education streams, particularly on the first day of the conference.  From these presentations I came to some general thoughts and conclusions about what is happening in our sector…

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Mobile Devices for Learning on Excursion

Mobile Devices for Learning on Excursion

Mobile devices have great potential to transform the excursion experience of students, making it more relevant, personalised and richly informative.  Traditional museums are sometimes limited to panels and labels for providing information and context to their collections, while outdoor museums, like Sovereign Hill, are sometimes limited by the absence of explicit information on panels and labels.  While museums are engaging in innovative and enriching interpretation techniques on top of this, mobile devices offer a broader, and simultaneously more explicit, interpretation experience.

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