A trip to a local museum this week provided to me some perfect justification of my beliefs in the importance of local history, of the primacy of a knowledge-basis, and of how history at primary-level continues to be wildly misunderstood by those obsessed with discovery-based learning.
Appropriately enough, it was at the ‘Discovery Museum’. Organised by my parallel teacher, she did all the hard work – organising a trip and jumping through all the form-shaped hoops does not look like fun, and as I continue to struggle coming up for air in the sea of work, her crib notes on each of the exhibits saved me from flailing around attempting to control 30 children whilst trying to figure out what they were supposed to look at. The patience and guidance others give me on a regular basis, my parallel teachers especially included, are a daily lifesaver – quite how they have the patience for me every day I’m not sure, but I am eternally grateful.
In the end, the trip was largely a success. An exhibit on ‘Newcastle Through the Ages’ ticked every box about local history that I (and the curriculum for that matter) care about – grand scale history was brought home by understanding how it affected the local area, silly misconceptions (like the idea that it wasn’t Scotland that ever fought with England, it must have been the Nazis in the Medieval period) were debunked, and a sense of chronological scale was slowly being imparted to the children. The ‘journey’ through time, once made explicit, started to make sense to the children – in just 40 minutes we discussed all sorts, from the Civil War, to the nominal ‘New Castle’, to the effect the printing press had locally and nationally. We ended with the link to our topic, a short WW2 section, which gave real-life examples of how the war affected the city. Ties to the city and to local areas were being made in front of my very eyes, which was a joy to see.
So far, so good. An exhibit solely on two local regiments dating from the 1700s helped further, as children got to learn about the sacrifices of local men as they fought global battles, which extended into modern day Afghanistan. A proud moment had to be a child identifying a lion and a unicorn on a military drum and identifying what the symbols meant – they related it both to the Queen, and to what they see on their passports. A brief look at a giant map of the Tyne led to some excellent discussion about why Newcastle would ever be bombed in the first place, the role of industry in the area, and why major cities tend to be built around rivers (along with the bizarre insistence that the Thames is a river in Newcastle, with half the class running over to look for it somewhere on the map).
The disappointment was in the object handling session run by the museum, which cost quite a bit of money for the school. The children were left with historical objects running as a carousel session and with next to no prompting were told to guess what they were – little guidance was given, no basic knowledge was provided, and there was little interaction with the children. Children were given the answers in the end, but there was no reason provided for the children about why they were doing what they were doing, and the objects weren’t made tangible for the children.
A particularly disappointing moment came with the all-too-brief questions and answers session with the museum expert. During one of the only moments where she assessed prior knowledge, she asked when the war began – most of them said 1939 correctly and even said the invasion of Poland, which was a pleasant surprise, but one blurted out that it all began with Germany losing the First World War and being unhappy about it, with quite some explanation about losing land and feeling embarrassed. This was an incredible answer – I don’t take Topic, but had briefly mentioned this during a Literacy lesson, and I know the PPA teacher taking them for it had mentioned it in passing too, so for a middle-ability child to give such a well-argued, thoughtful, and clearly in their own words answer was lovely.
The staff member’s response: ‘well, it’s not quite that simple’. They moved on all too quickly, spoke a little about gas masks and other objects, and did not provide links to core knowledge. It seemed that this answer deserved praise, and for exploration of wider history. This did not occur, assumably because the whole session was not about the children learning about the war, but instead having fun with objects in the hope they might discover something along the way by themselves.
It felt like the whole thing was exemplary of what was wrong with History at primary-level, and after all the hard work of myself on the day, and my parallel teacher in the lengthy preparation, to provide a day that ticked many curriculum boxes and brought history to life through local connections, was slowly undone by a session that did more damage than good.
Perhaps the museum needs to pay closer attention to the direction of travel in the curriculum – it seems bizarre that they did such a good job with local history for the general public, but for schoolchildren (who I argue need the local connection even more to make connections to grander history) the exhibit was the usual non-history ‘source analysis’ that used to pass as history at primary level.
The main positive was, during such an early phase in my career where my focus is on actually teaching rather than grand ideas of fulfilling my ‘vision’, that I had a day where I could test the waters, and that the responses from the children were very good. It has made me more aware of the role of museums in promoting this local history. It also seems to point to the power of the curriculum, as I discussed a little in the last post – the museum can (quite lazily) do the object handling session and pass it off as educational, but schools have to consciously make the push for local and national history because of what Mr Gove jammed in.
Perhaps museums could raise more money, and stop smart aleck history grads like me moaning, by paying closer attention to where primary history in general is going…