Tuesday, 10 November 2009

A visit to the museum

To the museum of London today. While I was there, I could not help observing the behaviour of parties of school children and comparing their experience with that of visiting museums with my daughter when she was little. Usually we went to the museums alone or in the company of a friend who also home educated her daughter. Our trips could not have been more different than what I saw of the schoolchildren's visit.

For one thing, the sheer amount of time wasted was simply incredible. Organising the kids to go to the lavatory takes about fifteen minutes. Visiting the shop so that they can all buy a pencil or rubber takes half an hour! I followed one group round unobtrusively, just to get a feel for how much they might be learning. (Luckily I was not spotted and denounced as a prowling paedophile!) The first thing that struck me was of course that children in a large group always behave in a pretty silly way. They encourage each other to giggle, muck about, make daft noises, prod each other and so on. This was a constant backdrop which made it hard for them to concentrate on what the teacher was saying. Again, a lot of time wasted by the teacher simply keeping order and stopping the kids making a nuisance of themselves.

There was no lingering in front of any cases which were particularly interesting to the children. Because of the constraints of time, everything had to be done at a breakneck pace. Worksheets were handed out, which the children had to fill in by looking at different displays. What actually happened was that as soon as one of the children had found the answers, all the rest copied what he had written. The object of the exercise was not education per se, but making sure that the teacher had a sheaf of complete worksheets to take away with her!

The children's conversation, when I could eavesdrop on it, did not seem to be about the Romans. It was more to do with the X Factor and what they had in their packed lunches. Lunch itself was a huge performance. After they had eaten, the idea was that they wandered round looking at things which interested them. Needless to say, they all went over to the three or four computer terminals which showed images of items in the museum's collection and gave information about them. They were not really interested in anything except being able to use a mouse and look at a screen. This was so bizarre. Here they are in a museum, with bronze age helmets, Roman swords and fossil remains around them. Instead of looking at those things, they look at pictures of them on a computer screen!

I would be surprised if any of those children learnt anything at all from their visit to the museum of London. Nor, I suspect, did the teachers expect them to do so; it was simply another box to tick, a cultural experience for the class. How very different were the times when I went to the museum with my daughter. Living on the outskirts of London, we went to museums every week. It was a marvellous adventure. Sometimes we would spend hours in one gallery, drawing and reading about something or other that interested us that week. Other days, we would roam through the whole of the British Museum, not looking at anything in particular, just flitting around. Some days we would take a picnic and spend all day at South Kensington, on others just pop in for ten minutes on the way to the park. We practically lived in the museums at South Kensington when she was five or six. One had to pay at that time and I had a season ticket from which I was determined to extract full value!

I don't suppose that my daughter learnt anything at all relevant to any of the examinations which she subsequently took. It was all just for fun. Museums and art galleries were not an occasional treat, but something that we did all the time. This was not education, in the sense that the aim was to learn X or Y. It was a grounding in what I consider the important things in life. Curiosity, an appreciation of beautiful things, seeing famous objects like the Rosetta Stone or Stephenson's Rocket in real life. All this was the bedrock upon which her later, formal education was built. I rather doubt that the odd day out in the company of thirty school children would have fitted the bill in quite the same way.


  1. It's a shame, isn't it, that so many school children might be turned off so many subjects by such experiences. We live too far from London to enjoy regular visits, but consider the Science Museum and the NHM a treat. Our son was thrilled to see Stephenson's Rocket, although he was equally thrilled with the bubble machine up in the interactive department.

    He's just watching Industrial Revelations, and called out "The Hindenbugh!" when he recognised an airship. He's jumping off our sofa in a bid to fly (cardboard wings) as I type, although we have explained that if he were meant to fly, he'd have wings of his own.

    We generally visit museums alone (just the two of us) or as a family when my husband is available. Husband is often somewhat envious of the education our son receives, considering it rather more interesting than anything he experienced.

  2. Different objectives.

    How many HEs take kids on trips to compensate for the fact that their parents wouldn't ever consider doing something like that and to try to ensure the kid has a tangible idea of what is out there in the big, wide world beyond the four walls of school and home ?

    On my last school trip as a teacher not only had more than half of the 11-12 yos never been to Milan, neither had their parents.

    We live forty minutes away and there is a bus at least three times a day plus an indirect train line.

    So many of them had never been to a big city, never been beyond our small group of villages. Outside of here was just pages in a book or a postcard picture. The museum was a persuasive context to present the trip in to the parents rather than the whole point of the exercise.

    You can talk about the world outside of your vicinity till you are blue in the face but it if you want to try to make it a tangible possibility that the kids might consider in the future as their independence grows then taking them there goes a long way to making it real and accessible rather than something that exist in the pages of a book.

    There is a bigger picture beyond the yakking about who has the best packed lunch or who is sitting next to who on the coach or who hasn't even noticed there are real live (well,...dead)mummies next to the video screen.

    It was on school visits that I discovered some of the museums in London, at the time I dashed about like a hellion with all the others. However as an adult, vaguely remembered displays that had caught my eye half a lifetime ago (but not enough to tear me away from the group dynamic) were the reason I went back to all of them and then discovered some more when I grew up.

    When I went to France on a school trip I was only interested in who I was going to be getting off with and I don't think I spoke a single word of French the whole time I was there. However I think the experience went a long way in my shaping my future choice to get on that first plane to BKK. Not once in my childhood or adolescence did my parents take us abroad (unless you count trapping us on the IOW for five years). the idea of emigrating to Asia terrified me, but "going to foreign lands" seemed both tangible and possible, I can't know for sure obviously but I do believe that the extended, internal struggle at making the decision to go on the first trip out of the UK with school was the thing that tipped the balance in making me settle on a "yes" a few years later since running when you have never waked seems impossible but less so if you have already taken some baby steps.

    I think you may well be comparing apples and oranges.

  3. We don't go to places because our parents didn't do it for us, we go because *we* want to. Sarah, we must've been very different children: most of the pupils at my school spoke French on trips to France. :> Shall I just go and polish my halo now...? :>

  4. I have seen a similar dynamic at work within my family, Sarah. We have visited museums with HE groups or other families and, whilst not quite as extreme as the group Simon describes, relatively little attention was paid to the exhibits. My children then asked to go to the same museums without friends so that they can look round properly.