Posts Tagged ‘school programmes’

In a piece on The Conversation UK earlier this month, Jacqueline Baxter of The Open University argues that all teachers should have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) [1]. Her piece reminded me of the fact that in many museums, QTS is the required qualification for museum educators – the people that deliver the programmes for schools.

Now, museum educators aren’t teachers in a school classroom. In surveys that I have done in various roles, teachers bringing their classes to a museum or site have said that they want the children to experience something that they can’t give them in the classroom. A school trip is a huge administrative and financial burden for schools, so the value for the children has to far outstrip the effort. In our surveys, teachers have expressed that they want the children to experience the museum (or site), see the collection, handle artefacts, become immersed in history with opportunities teachers simply can’t offer in school.

And yet, I continue to see school programmes delivered as structured sessions in ‘education rooms’. Even where children are taken out into galleries, all that changes are the surroundings – the management techniques, the way that children are expected to behave, the way that they are invited to learn often stay the same as in the classroom. Educators count down to ‘stop talking’ with primary classes, children are sat down and asked questions, which they must answer by raising their hands. More often than not, the programmes don’t extend into the galleries at all. Teachers are expected to take classes there on their own, with resources that are often little more than historical background information, and possibly a ‘quiz’. [3]

I think museums can do so much better than that. Interestingly, at heritage sites the dynamic seems to be consistently different. When I was at 1066 Battle of Hastings two weeks ago, for example, I twice observed school groups going around with costumed interpreters. The children got dressed up, learnt to wield weapons, and re-imagined parts of the battle right above the battlefield itself [2]. Yes, they were expected to follow rules (they did get a bit excited by the battle re-enactment, and who can blame them?), but there was none of that tightly controlled discipline that seems aimed at supporting intellectual learning. This was hands-on, immersive and, judging from the children’s reactions, fun.

I don’t know if the interpreters at English Heritage are qualified teachers. If they are, they certainly have learnt to be interpreters rather than teachers. And this is why I would argue that museum educators should have interpretation as their required qualification, not QTS. Interpretation teaches us about learning styles, communication, managing groups, and working with children. We don’t need to know about classroom discipline or assessment. In fact, I believe it is this training in classroom techniques followed by formal assessment in the discipline the teacher is trained in that is responsible for the classroom programmes offered in so many museums. While interpretation encourages us to think creatively about ways of engaging people with the heritage that is there, QTS is ultimately about making sure children succeed in passing tests. And it shows. [4]

[1] Academies and free schools in England can hire teachers who do not have Qualified Teacher Status.

[2] This was one of the Discovery Visits that English Heritage offer. Note on their website the emphasis on ‘out-of-the-classroom experience’. Because that is what it is about.

[3] Obviously, teacher resources are necessary. Not every teacher wants a formal programme, nor can every school be accommodated. Teachers do ask for resources. What I would suggest, however, is that the resources are structured in such a way that teachers themselves can step outside their usual role (something that incidentally will also help children pay attention, as it’s not ‘the same teacher doing the same thing’). They should contain more than information, and a few suggested questions and ‘search’ activities. In effect, the resources should present a fully structured programme, supported by in-gallery resources, that teachers can quickly access, understand, and guide themselves.

[4] Perhaps it would help if we dropped the ‘educators’ label altogether. Let’s call them anything but educators. Education as a concept sets us on a specific path that just doesn’t inspire in museums and heritage sites – even for school groups. Teachers are great at educating pupils, and schools (and colleges and universities) are set up for education. Outside of these places, let’s stick with ‘informal learning’, unless we’re entering into a more formal agreement, which is usually with Further or Higher Education institutions, to provide part of a course, or a formal placement. But that’s not a school programme.

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The Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) is well established across Britain.  In the words of Ofqual, the body that administers the framework, it aims to provide ‘a simple yet flexible’ qualifications system that is ‘inclusive, responsive, accessible [and] non-bureaucratic’.

What does it have to do with interpretation, you wonder? That’s simple: it’s another way of engaging audiences…deliver public benefits….use heritage more widely and more effectively.  And yes, make a bit of money too.

These are all matters of huge importance to most heritage organisations these days, and definitely the publicly funded ones.  At my site – a true regeneration heritage project run by a Local Authority – they’re practically written down as performance indicators.

The QCF offers real opportunities for us here.  In idealistic terms it seeks to recognise practical learning and give it accreditation in the form of awards, certificates and diplomas.  Put more realistically, it seeks to provide routes of learning better suited to those that don’t thrive in the more formal education system.  Schools in particular are really interest in QCF for this very reason, but it also works for organisations supporting people to get (back) into work.

It is at this point that QCF is perfect for programmes at heritage sites and museums.  We don’t actually have to change anything about our approach: Practical, flexible and accessible learning may just as well be terms gleaned from a 21st century book on interpretation.  The interpretive mantra of using the resources (read: practices, remains, objects) that are there to facilitate people’s engagement with heritage values is basically the radical rethinking of learning that the QCF wants to promote.

There is an element of rigour in this, however, that might be unnatural to some interpreters.  In order to get accreditation for your programme, you have to think about creating evidence of the learning that participants have achieved.  I don’t mind this at all.  When I put together our first QCF programme recently, I felt that it’s quite similar to writing objectives into a more traditional interpretive medium (and I’m a firm believer in establishing objectives).  So in a way, a QCF programme simply has the evaluation built in from the start – perfect!

But, you may say, is this not education, rather than interpretation? I’ve actually blogged about this over a year ago here, and I’d like to highlight an example I gave in that post.  The example is also a great argument for why it should be interpreters doing this (at heritage sites) rather than teachers (who would be the more natural choice if this were in fact ‘education’): the Learning Officer that worked with me at the time was by profession a primary school teacher.  The ‘programmes’ they developed for schools were soundly rejected by teachers. The teachers said that they could do this themselves in the classroom – there was no reason why they should bring their students to us.

My colleague had not applied (how could they?) any interpretive principles that would have made the programmes relevant to their target audience of teachers, their students, and their particular (learning) needs.  The teachers wanted to bring the children on site to interact with the environment and engage in a more active, practical way of learning than what they could provide in the classroom.

Interpreters can do that.  They can create precisely the types of flexible, accessible and engaging programmes that QCF is looking for. QCF is not about education – it’s an alternative to education.  Perhaps ‘learning’ is the right term for this, and in fact, QCF calls participants ‘learners’. It is a tiny step from a live interpretive programme to a QCF course.  But it places interpretation right at the centre of current organisational and policy objectives.  I say, let’s embrace that.  Let’s claim that key role and communicate to our line managers and funders: we can do this because we’re professional interpreters.  It’s an interpreter you need for the job.

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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?

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