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Film: How can Museums better support Teachers

This presentation from Dr Sarah Rusholme at Wellington Museum Trust shares the work that she has been doing with thirteen nationally significant institutions in New Zealand to improve online assets for teachers planning a trip to a museum. This presentation was made on 19th April 2016 at MuseumNext Dublin.

Sarah: [Nai Mai Harimai Kiti Opiko Oti Eko Amari] Welcome, everybody, to the head of head of Maui’s fish. Now, Maui is a mischievous, stubborn character from Maori mythology. He is very naughty and his brothers one day were heading out fishing into the harbour out to sea and they really didn’t want Maui to come with them. Maui was just that kind of guy. He was going to spoil it.

so Maui snuck off, he grabbed the jawbone of his grandmother, which he’d carved into a magical fish hook, snuck into the waka, into the base of the canoe and hid there. His brothers did all the hard work, paddling out into the middle of the sea, started fishing and just when they’d started to get into their groove, Maui burst out. He chucked his fish hook into the water and it snagged on something deep under the sea, and he pulled and pulled and pulled and pulled out the biggest fish the brothers had ever seen, huge, and that became the body of the North Island of New Zealand.

And while Maui, who had to go off and appease the sea god, Tangaroa, for pulling out this enormous treasure from the bottom of the sea, he told his brothers, whatever you do, just don’t touch it. So of course his brothers scuttled over and they started carving off chunks of the fish, and they carved out chunks that became the topography of New Zealand, the dramatic mountains, the ravines and the revers and created what we see today in terms of North Island. And South Island? That’s the upturned waka, the upturned canoe, and little Stew island down at the bottom, that’s the anchor stone so that’s New Zealand, and this is [Te Ika a Maui] the head of Maui’s fish, Wellington, and the beautiful Wellington harbour, that’s the gaping maul of that fish.

So, Wellington, home of culture, creativity and character-building weather, and home to the organisation I work for, which is Wellington Museum’s Trust. We’re an arms’ length organisation of Wellington City Council so an independent trust, we’re a sovereign state, if you will, and we look after six of the council’s cultural institutions, from a heritage cottage, an observatory, a contemporary or non-collecting contemporary art gallery, that’s important, and Wellington Museum, which is the keeper of the stories of Wellington Museum. Together we’ve got about 80 staff. We welcome about 700,000 visitors every year.

As that council controlled organisation independent trust we really value our diversity. It’s enshrined in our values that we internally have this cross-fertilisation across our different institutions. We value the breadth and the depth of our experience internally and we treasure our agility, our ability to move quickly, to flex and respond to opportunity, which is something that many of our contemporaries in the city in terms of cultural institutions, struggle to do. And that, we think, gives us the competitive advantage.

And Wellington’s also home to these places: nationally significant institutions. The capital is peppered with them, from parliament to Government House, National Archives, Supreme Court and heaps more. These, as the capital city, are the places of democracy and decision-making. These are the bricks and mortar manifestations of our colonial past, our place as a dominion of the crown, and then now as our progress as a self-governing nation, they mark our journey.

They are hugely dominant in our skyline and each of these places has its own learning programme. These tend to be run by one or two staff. You kind of think that these enormous places would have teams of staff and be actually embedded, enshrined in what these places are about but in truth, those one or two staff tend to work in isolation, they tend to be embedded in government departments, and government departments have got other things to worry about. They’re not going to be worrying about the kids coming through the door necessarily, they think it’s nice but it’s not high on the menu of priorities. So this is a story of how the Wellington Museums’ Trust, these national institutions and some other partners got together to make some changes for our city.

So throughout the year, the city is full of scenes like this. These are groups of young learners; they come to Wellington, the capital city, from all over New Zealand, they come for day trips, they come for a couple of days and they come for generally week-long city camps. They’re taking advantage of the fact that Wellington, the city, is safe, it’s walkable, it’s really compact and kids and teachers feel comfortable there, which is a fantastic thing for a capital city to have. And our CBD is packed full of learning experiences. There’s museums trust organisations, there’s 13 nationally significant institutions and a whole host of other places, all within about a 30-minute walk of each other.

But in 2012, the Wellington City Mayor realised that, despite thousands, tens of thousands of these young learners coming to visit us and visiting multiple sites, we didn’t really know the ins and outs of what the barriers and motivators where, how they were getting there, where they came from, where they visited, where they stayed and how they made those choices. So we surveyed over 300 teachers from across New Zealand, and then we interviewed 20 teachers, some that were regular visitors and some who’d never ever brought a group to the capital.

And what the research revealed, as well as a detailed understanding of this crucial community and the way that they behaved, was the value that teachers placed on a visit to Wellington as a source of rich learning opportunities, as a place of inspiration and aspiration for those students. And we realised that we didn’t really understand the challenges that teachers were facing when they were making a decision to bring a group to Wellington.

And from what teachers told us the big barriers were easy to sum up. Focussing on that big 13 of national institutions, according to teachers they were kind of operating in isolation. Teachers were bringing kids to places like parliament, the national library, the national archives with the same big learning goal in mind but those places were offering programmes that didn’t really connect up so we weren’t really talking to each other.

The other thing is that we weren’t really talking to the teachers as a whole, as a city. If you’re coming hundreds of kilometres from the top end of North Island or the bottom end of South Island, you might not know what’s happening in Wellington, you might not know where to go, where’s the place to be, where’s the park that you can take your kids for a game of touch after I’ve had a long day visiting stuff, where’s the swimming pool, because you know they’re not going to have a shower but you can dunk them in to make them kind of socially acceptable for the next few days of your city camp. We weren’t really doing that for them so we weren’t helping them to really get to grips with what we could offer them.

And content-wise – sometimes we’ve got overlapping and sometimes there were yawning gaps. We needed to make them, help teachers make better choices in terms of informed itineraries. And they also told us that our contact wasn’t responsive either. Big things were happening that would affect how they would programme in a visit to parliament or a visit to the Holocaust Centre, for example, but we weren’t necessarily fleet of foot enough to respond to that.

But the biggest barrier of all was cost. And despite thousands of young learners coming to Wellington every year, we found that we had schools within our own region, so within Wellington itself, a few kilometres down the road, kids who’d never come to the capital city, never come to the heart of the capital. Some had never seen the harbour. They’d never been to Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum of New Zealand, sits in Wellington. And we found that, and in fact the mayor’s office found that absolutely astonishing.

So this uncovered for us a big opportunity. Ahead of us lay 2015, which was 150th anniversary of Wellington being the capital of New Zealand, and the 100th anniversary of the Anzac landing in Gallipoli, and the research that we’d done, and these two events coming up gave the museum’s trust, a lever for the first time to bring together the learning staff from those 13 nationally significant institutions, to get them all into the same room so we could share the findings from the report and talk about what we could do to make our programming more connected, make our offer, our big offer more cohesive and to also think about some of those barriers.

We, as a museum’s trust, as a result of that first meeting, brokered a group we call the Project 15 Group, 2015 Group. It kept those people coming together – coming together to talk about those issues and to address what they were doing. It was the first time that that group had met, so the first time some of them had actually encountered each other, and the first time they had heard about each other’s learning programmes in some cases.

And the group had banded together by that common desire to address some of the issues that teachers were raising with us to respond to this increase in demand we knew we were going to see in 2015, because those two events, the anniversary of Gallipoli, in particular, were going to drive volume to our visits and we knew that teachers were going to be inundated with resources and requests to teach on those subjects. And we wanted to create a more connected learning programme directly linked to the concepts of citizenship and commemoration, which with the teachers, the topics that teachers told us they wanted to see Wellington teach because that was the place to bring their students to learn about it first-hand, and these were the stories that Wellington was uniquely placed to tell.

So the groundswell of Project 2015, which was a cheeky little pilot, something that Wellington City Council gave me a few thousands to set up, created that momentum, and it gave the group a growing trust and a confidence, and we started to see little organic projects budding off from that, people starting to join the programme because they had that rapport established. And again, because the museum’s trust has that arms-length structure and that ability to move, we kind of persuaded this group that we could make a funding request, a bigger funding request that addressed that big barrier, that barrier of cost.

And we were successful in getting funding to provide 153 busses for the lower decile schools for those low, schools from low socioeconomic areas within our region who hadn’t got the wherewithal to visit Wellington themselves, and we wanted them to come along, to learn about the concepts of citizenship and commemorating and to visit two or more of those nationally significant institutions as they did so.

And I think for our consortium, for that group of 13 national significant institutions, this was a watershed. Yes, they were working together, yes, they were having conversations but now they were bound into a structure and a thing they really believed in and that was quite a powerful the moment.

So clearly the gatekeepers for us in this project were the teachers. You can’t just stick an offer of 153 busses out there and expect them to ah, yeah, that’s awesome; I’ll have some of that, because that’s not how it works. Teachers are the most time-poor people you will ever meet. It’s extraordinary. We had to put into play a kind of a hard communication strategy but then a soft communication strategy; it was all about talking individually one-on-one, going to see principals, going out to the schools themselves, talking to teachers that we knew were interested from contacts we had that we’d made, to persuade them that this wasn’t some hard sell, this wasn’t a government initiative that we were going to suck them into and then steal even more of their precious free time. It was a really complex, delicate, sensitive set of conversations that we had.

Alongside all of those conversations that we had with the 56 schools that got involved in this project, we also set up teacher PD so we broke down some of their barriers that way. Some of their barriers were around I just don’t have time for this, I don’t quite know what I’m doing, I don’t quite have the confidence to teach about the concepts of commemorating citizenship in the way that you are kind of expecting me to do so, so we provided that structure and that help as well, which was really powerful.

And a crucial element to the project, to 150 years, 150 busses, in particular, was something that I have always wanted to do as a museum professional, and that was to build in a research strand right from the beginning. So many times I’ve sat and thought I wish I’d bloody well put some research into this project right from the get-go but we brought in another partner; we brought in Victoria University of Wellington. We got their school of education to build a research question around what we were doing, and we, in doing so we kind of signalled that this was us in it for the long term. We were hopeful that this would answer questions for teachers, it would answer questions for bigger stakeholders and it would answer questions for the informal educators who were associated with this project because who doesn’t want to improve their practice.

So I’ve mentioned concepts a few times already. The research around this project is based on that idea of teaching concepts. Oftentimes, what we see in terms of learning in a museum or informal education setting is around topics and facts so the kind of trail sheets, tickie-box, I have seen this, collections of stuff and things. What we were hoping to do was to look mindfully at the impact of visits on children’s conceptual understanding. How they were thinking about things like there were themes like identity, nationhood, heritage, commemoration, celebration, those overarching umbrella terms, how they were elevating their topics and facts, factual understanding into something bigger.

And as soon as you get the concepts in play, you can start to connect them, you can get into a ‘so what’ space, you can start to ask some bigger questions, you can start to see a bigger picture, and once you’ve got that, hopefully you can elevate that learning into a space of perspectives, a space of now what, whose worldview is this, whose perspective is this, why am I not here, what are the silences, what are the absences and what does this mean to me as an individual, as a learner, and that is what we’re trying to do – to look for evidence of critical thinking and evidence that the children were analysing the places, their status in society and how they supported democracy, decision-making and change. That place right at the top of Erickson’s model is where students are invited to read and re-write their world and that was what we were wanting, a participatory response.

So 13 lower decile schools involved in the project, in the research strand of the project I should say. There were 56 schools in total. Because we’re targeting lower decile schools we’ve got a highly, highly diverse student group participating. We took work samples, pre-imposed visit 291 participants, we gave them an exercise, we asked them to think about the connections between the national institutions they were visiting and themselves, their school, their communities and the state. We asked them to do that before they visited and then we asked them to do it again after they visited, and looked at how the visit had changed their thinking. And then we did post-visit interviews with students, 136 students and that was fantastic, that brought in the student voice and was a really rich source of information and we also spoke to the teachers.

I have to say that change agents is the resource that we’ve worked with initial group of teachers to support and scaffold teachers bringing students into the capital all about concept-based learning – how do you elevate beyond those facts and figure based learning? So we were looking for learners making connections to those bigger picture ideas, those real-life connections.

And, of course, the results taught us a great deal. A visit to a cultural site had a profound impact on young learners. There was a huge impact that the funding had made, just the fact that someone had offered them this gift was seen as huge and the teachers, in particular, commented on how that had made a huge difference to their attitude to this unit of work. And for the vast majority of the schools involved, that funding made the difference between them coming and not coming.

And there was a big impact on the young learners as well. For them, a visit was stimulating both emotionally and in terms of being able to make real-life connections to their classroom learning, that sense of place, that extraordinary experience you get when you first set foot inside one of our cultural institutions, one of our places, which can be positive and can be negative but that opens a gateway into more learning.

And this was borne out by the analysis of work. When we did the interviews, when we coded them, there are chunks of talk that run through, and this is a graph showing how those chunks of talk related to each other. First of all, huge chunk of it is about connections to particular features. It’s about memories of objects, the panelling in a committee room, the hairs on the arms of the statues in ‘The Scale of our War’ exhibition at Te Papa. And that’s great, that’s the stuff that sits at the bottom of Erickson’s model, [scrolling] that that banking knowledge part, and it forms the basis for the fascination which is the key to moving learning to the next stage and it’s what you want, but not at the expense of a critical step.

And the next thing was the emotional connections, and these were huge. Bearing in mind this was happening in 2015, the vast majority of students were going through two major [Dip-Dip100] exhibitions about Gallipoli and the huge impact that had on New Zealand, and I have to say that some of those exhibitions, they are emotionally draining, they are in some ways manipulative and they present some challenging material to young learners which really did come out in the interviews that we did.

And while an emotional connection is important to create that sense of relevance and an effective domain engagement with subject matter, we need to consider, as museums’ professionals and as teachers, what the potential negative outcomes of that emotional overloading can be. We had students and teachers telling us that it was too much. They couldn’t think. They were overloaded. They needed time and space to decompress as well, and it’s the same to a certain extent in the Holocaust Centre as well, that we tell them all this overpowering stuff, this confronting stuff and then we herd them through a very tight exhibition which is based on a timeline and we give them no space to reflect and to process and to question the emotions they are feeling and how that then spins out into what they feel and what the ‘so what’ and the ‘now what’ dimensions are.

And what we saw was that conceptual connections, they were happening, but they weren’t happening at the level that we’d hoped. There was some connection happening but they were harder to find, and what we did see is they generally happened when a teacher and an educator at a place of national institution had set a clear focussed enquiry question, and when a teacher used a carefully curated set of resources to guide their practice and they had been assisted in that by one of our staff.

So while students’ connections to aspects of exhibitions and their effective responses are necessary dimensions of learning, they’re not sufficient by themselves. Deeper learning across multiple institutions involve students having opportunity to explore conceptual understandings, to challenge assumptions and then to notice their emotional responses, not have their emotional responses over way and unbalance everybody else.

So just a quick example – you can see this sits very squarely at the bottom of that pyramid of engagement. This is a student set of responses to two of our WWI exhibitions. You can see it’s a laundry list – what stuff we saw and what the staff did, sits very much at that level. And this sits higher up. This is more in that ‘so what’ type category. It’s a voice for students. You can connect values and perspectives and remembering the past, that’s three conceptual things right there because if somebody really valued what people were doing in WWI they’d remember WWI a lot, and if someone thought being a pilot in WWI was really important, then they’re remember WWI from a pilot’s point of view. Also personal significance, it’s how you remember the past as much as you found it significant to remember it so if you didn’t value WWI at all, and you didn’t think about it as a significant event, you’d go ‘who cares about Anzac day? I’ve got better things to do’. So you can see moving up that pyramid.

And so how do we, as museum professionals, avoid initiating visits by young learners which are a mile wide and an inch deep? We should help teachers and help our education staff, our learning staff to establish clear conceptual [photo] for visits, have a really clear idea of what teachers are coming to learn about, what their students need from us. We should absolutely engage the effective domain that emotional response. That’s a gateway. But when it happens too deeply, too much, you’re occluding the opportunities for learning, you’re just blocking stuff out, and empower everybody to elevate above facts, information and detail.

That stuff is important, it’s the beginning, the foundation for fascination but critical thinking is also the gateway to critical thinking. The partnerships that we saw between informal and formal educators were so helpful, they were so powerful. When a teacher trusted a member of staff in a museum then all sorts of interesting things happened. When there was a great relationship and an interplay there then visits were tailored, things were responsive and we saw the learning deepen greatly.

And then connecting experiences across institutions and classrooms. Young learners generally don’t come and visit you in isolation. They are visiting other places. They’ll be continuing their learning in the classroom and oftentimes we just think of the visit to us. We don’t think about what they did that morning, what they did that afternoon, and what they’re doing in that grander scheme of things across their whole term, across their unit of enquiry, and making those wider connections is what teachers really appreciate.

Stimulating critical thinking, encouraging the analysis of presences, absences, silences: In New Zealand, as a relatively, as a nation that’s relatively recently been through bloody contested wars about whose land this is being colonised, we have plenty of places where not all parts of the story is told, and we’re not necessarily challenging our visitors, be they young learners, be they any visitor, to dig deep into why this thing is here and why this thing isn’t here, so recognising those personal, social historical perspectives. And empowering everybody to consider those issues, the decisions that were made and the possibility for social change.

So to end, I bring you back to Wellington Harbour and the poetry walk at the waterfront. This project which came from a tiny pilot is now entering its third year. 150 years, 150 busses was last year. This year we’re doing it again. We’re taking a deeper view of the ideas of citizenship and nationhood that will be surfacing among our young learners. Our piece of research this year is all about the power of partnership, not about that big consortium led by the museum’s trust with those 13 national certificated institutions, but the partnerships that happen between our staff, between the learning staff at the national institutions, the museums involved and the teachers, and how we can learn from each other to improve all of our practice.

And from a Wellington Museum’s trust point of view, being at the heart of this consortium which is changing the way that we look at the way that we teach, and is changing the way that we aspire to teach, when you’re thinking about the institutions involved, those places of democracy and decision-making and also that bigger desire to do something better for our city and to create a generation of young learners who are curious, who are motivated, who do see social action as part of their future. We have a very strong role to play in that and I think that has been the big success of this project.

Thank you.

This presentation about How Can Museums Support Teachers was presented by Dr Sarah Rusholme from Wellington Museum Trust at MuseumNext Dublin on 19th April 2016. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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