Sunday, 4 June 2017

Museums - that's for old people

It feels like yesterday that I started at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds - here we are, 4 months later, having met close to 3500 children, their teachers and whānau... It's been an incredible journey of learning for both my colleague and I who started in this together.

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Not only did we need to learn the obvious like details about Te Tiriti and the way our nation Aotearoa / New Zealand began, there is a lot of complexity running successful education programmes at historic sites (not saying that we have been successful in all instances, but we are certainly trying very hard). My colleague has described aptly feeling like a wheke, an octopus, stretching out tentacles to build relationships with students, teachers, whānau, the other staff, the other visitors, delivering an effective learning programme all while keeping the children safe and looking after herself - and within 3 hours (note how, like for most teachers, the looking after self comes last?). One of our biggest challenges is that we just have the one opportunity to get it right.

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For those that don't know, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds come under the Waitangi National Trust, established from the very generous donation by Lord and Lady Bledisloe (here you can read more about the trust). There is a lot of emphasis on education in our organisation, and I had a hand in formulating our education vision:
To provide learners of all ages and from all backgrounds with world class opportunities to critically engage with Waitangi, the place, with Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the Treaty of Waitangi and with the history of Aotearoa / New Zealand as a nation.
Sounds good, but what does this actually look like? While we had no immediate predecessor on hand to induct us into the world of 'museum education', we had lots of help from staff that had been here before us, so we started out with resources on hand and modified these to make them less 'transfer of knowledge from us to students' and more 'students reflect on what they see and on the relevance to them'.

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Our school visits last for 3 hours, and we often have a visit in the morning and one in the afternoon. At the beginning of the year we had little time to connect with teachers before their visit, so our programmes were less personalised than we liked. However, after meeting with about 3000 students, we had fallen into a comfortable routine - and if you know me, comfortable usually is a sign for me that things need to change...

Little nudges came from different sides, discussions with our Advisory Group (a group of local teachers and principals), with visiting teachers & principals, with other staff members here at the Treaty Grounds, with the designers of our upcoming exhibition in the Treaty House, meetings with other education providers around Northland, from our own experiences in the classroom etc. We had already visited some of the other local historic sites, and two weeks ago we had the opportunity to visit Te Papa's Hīnātore Learning Lab, the He Tohu Exhibition at the National Library and museum educators from Auckland's War Memorial Museum.

Some of my realisations and questions (in no particular order):

  • Most young people see museums as places for old people. Why would you choose to go to a museum when you can search completely digitised collections on Google?
  • Some teachers see museums as places where you (only) gather information and facts.
  • Bringing the learning to the students applies as much for historical places and museums as for classrooms - and they spend a lot of time online...
  • Personalising learning is vital to make a visit successful - who wants to pay a lot of money to travel here and then not take away what they came for? Even better, take away more than they expected...
  • Integrating multi-media and digital technology in an exhibition does not guarantee that it caters for different learning needs (see my posts on UDL).
  • Our grounds are starting to offer more than we could possibly cover in a 3 hour education programme, especially when you include kai breaks, a run around, maybe a cultural performance etc. However, is it actually appropriate to cover everything in one visit? Why would anyone ever want to come back if they feel they have 'seen it all' before?
  • What about our visitors from further afield, who will likely only come once; how can we ensure they 'see it all' and thoroughly in the time available?
  • There does not seem to be a 'child friendly' online resource about Te Tiriti etc.
  • How do we design our programmes in a poutama approach that offer more complex learning the older the students get?
For now our first step is to truly personalise visits, and we already had some very positive feedback on this. We are also going away from the 'traditional' worksheets and are offering students choices about what they are focusing on during the visit, while linking it to the NZC and to the way they get assessed for NCEA. Without reliable and fast internet for visitors in place, using digital technology during the visit is still fairly limited at the moment.

It was great to meet other museum educators on our recent trip and have a glance at what they are doing. I was most fascinated by their use of digital technology within their programmes:
The Hīnātore Lab (read more about that here) obviously was 'right up my alley', using various digital technologies to help students engage with the museum exhibitions: How about designing and 3D printing your own mouth piece for a pūtātara, or your own waka hourua? I have plenty of ideas of what we could do, even without wifi, starting from photo collages to stop motion animation to movie clips etc. There remain plenty of questions, though, like are schools prepared to bring their own devices, are they set up for what we need to do, can we trouble shoot problems on the spot, and, very important, do we have enough time???
In Auckland we got to meet with the educator in charge of the Gallipoli Minecraft project, you can imagine that I would love to try something like this in our context... I don't think I have to remind anyone that I am NOT thinking of using digital technology for the sake of technology, but to transform learning (see my posts on RAT and SAMR). 

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However, there are existing expectations and perceptions that might need shifting: What do teachers think is the purpose of a school visit to the Treaty Grounds? As we discussed with our Auckland colleagues, schools don't necessarily know what else beyond gathering facts and knowledge could be offered at a museum. How can we change existing perceptions?

We have encountered some existing perceptions of a different kind which we are slowly shifting. Some of our schools have been surprised that they now need to pre-book their visits and that there are limits on how many students we can cater for per visit, also that they need to be accompanied by member of our team. We have had to turn away a few groups which always saddens me, but usually we are able to come to an arrangement (different day) that works for everyone. The reason for this is that our grounds are very busy, especially over the summer. The new Health & Safety at Work act requires us to look more closely at how we are looking after the safety of all our visitors. We are catering for a large number and wide variety of visitors on any given day, and we rely on the admission charges to fund what we are doing. We are starting to see schools take note of this and book further in advance which is really helpful.

Probably the most important perception to shift lies with the students: Museums are no just for old people, they are places for personalised and active learning for everyone.

Watch this space...

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