Programmes for School Groups: Education or Interpretation?

Recently I had a very good discussion with an esteemed interpreter colleague.  School programmes, they argued, are education, not interpretation.  In their view, there were a few defining factors for this: School visits are not ‘leisure’ activities, the latter, again in their view, being a defining aspect of interpretation.  School visits also have to support a curriculum, and this, they felt, placed them firmly within the realm of education.  Finally, in order to make a school visit work, teachers (as the guardians of the curriculum) should be involved, they argued and declared this to be another argument for why school programmes are not interpretation.

I agreed with every one of their points: school visits do take place during school time, not leisure time.  School visits must support curriculum aims otherwise there is little point for a teacher to bring the children on site.  And in developing school programmes, teachers should be consulted.

Except, none of these arguments to me mean that school visits are not interpretation.  In fact, they prove quite the opposite.  Let me explain.

1) School visits must support curriculum aims

Interpretation always supports aims.  Every good interpretive plan has SMART objectives [1]: for learning, emotions, behaviours, management messages… These objectives are matched to the resource and the management’s aspirations for it.  To support curriculum aims is no different.

I imagine the objection lies in the misconception that a site’s story has to be forcefully bent and violated to fit a narrow curriculum goal.  The truth is far from it.  In fact, in the UK curricula have now reached the point where cross-curricular learning, self-selected learning and learning-by-doing are at the very core of their delivery.  Rather than teach facts with no regard to the larger truth (which I suppose is what education in the above argument is accused of) there are striking similarities between the new curricula and the principles of interpretation (Tilden or otherwise).

Having planned and/or delivered school programmes in all my interpretive roles to date, I know that what teachers are looking for in bringing pupils to a heritage site or museum is an experience – just like any other visitor.  In fact, a rather un-experienced colleague of mine, in terms of interpretation, but who has a background in teaching, has recently encountered just that rejection by teachers of the school programmes they developed: they failed to convey the spirit of the site and instead followed too closely a subject-driven curriculum.  This, the teachers complained, they could do themselves in the classroom.

This leads me to point 2.

2) School visits are not leisure activities

And yet, the expectations that teachers as well as pupils have when coming to a heritage site are virtually identical to those of any other visitor.  Let us not get confused by the (still fairly recent) recognition that heritage sites and museums compete largely on a leisure market.  Visitors are still perfectly aware that they come to a site with a history. In fact, it’s that very history and the site’s heritage values that visitors come to learn about and experience.  Naturally they don’t want to be lectured at for they have no ambition to pass an exam afterward [2].  However, when asked they are equally frustrated if they walk away from a site feeling they have not added anything to their exisiting horizon, emotionally and intellectually alike.

Following on from point 1 above, teachers – and pupils – therefore come to a site for a different experience from that which they can have in the classroom.  They very much come for that famed ‘first-hand encounter with the thing itself’ which many interpreters still consider to be the defining aspect of what makes interpretation (incidentally, I disagree with that purist notion).  Teachers will of course use the experience gained on site in teaching the related topic or subject but the characteristics they expect their visit to have are the same as for other visitors.

And this leads me to point 3.

3) Teachers need to be involved in the development of school programmes

So do our stakeholders and target audiences!  I’ve argued before (here for example) that interpreters must not base their theme and media selection on their private preferences.  Evaluation should also be an ongoing part of any interpretive planning, and that means evaluation with stakeholders and target audiences.  Without it, interpretation is likely to fail in reaching its objectives.  In this sense, school programmes do not differ from any other interpretive provision, only here our target audiences are teachers and by proxy pupils.

I hope you can see why in my firm opinion school programmes are just another form of interpretive provision.  In fact, any time I see a job advertisement for a Learning Officer with ‘preferably a teaching background’ I shudder.  In order to develop and deliver successful school programmes the person responsible needs to have the same qualities as any interpreter: they need to understand the meaningful story behind a resource (i.e. historical event, building, object), they need to understand the needs of the target audience, and they need to find the best way of matching the two through best practice media choices.  These are skills quite different than those required for teaching.

Furthermore, it seems unwise to me to define interpretation by external factors, such as ‘on-site’ or ‘during leisure time’.  Heritage interpretation is a methodology used in a specific sector and for a specific purpose: to create a meaningful connection between heritage and visitors. [3]  As such, interpretation defines itself [4].



[1] SMART = Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timed.

[2] It is worth highlighting however that just as the curricula in Britain have changed to move away from what may safely be called the uninspiring and monotonous recital of facts, so has further and higher education realised that this is best practice.  There is such a thing as a poor tutor.

[3] I am fully aware that without the addition of ‘heritage’ I am effectively saying that interpretation can be used to create a connection between x and people.  And that is precisely how I see interpretation.  In the business context, interpretation will go much further than (good) marketing or especially PR.  The former seeks to create a connection only as desire so as to sell a product, while the latter is interested only in good-will. Interpretation, however, seeks to involve the individual and change it – do you see the potential for use in a business context?  If interpretation here seems manipulative to you, I can only refer you back to my previous blog post I’ve mentioned before.  Interpretation yields great power.

[4] After all, we all have seen provision at sites that was so awful as to make our interpreter’s eyes brim over with tears.  But it’s on site and visitors will see it during their leisure time: does that make it interpretation?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s