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.