Why museum learning is beneficial for pupils

The idea of building a school around museum learning might seem ‘fluffy’ to some, but one academy trust in Slough is proving the doubters wrong. Its philosophy is about linking learning to the stories and emotions behind objects, leading to deeper understanding. And, at a time when budget and exam pressures are putting heads off school visits, The Langley Academy Trust is highlighting the fact that you can’t put a price on pupils’ cultural enrichment, writes Helen Ward
7th June 2019, 12:03am
How The Museum Helps In More Ways Than One
Helen Ward


Why museum learning is beneficial for pupils


I don't want anyone to think we're here being fluffy in a corner," Tracey Bowen, headteacher of The Langley Academy Primary in Slough, says. "If we want children to succeed in life, they have to be able to read, have to be able to write, have to be numerate and have to have emotional intelligence to back all that up."

She may seem a little defensive. The school opened just under four years ago and is already over-subscribed. But "being fluffy" is the sort of accusation levelled at a primary that takes its Year 2 pupils to spend the day on an art project at a local museum - just a couple of days before the Sats.

"There's no point boring children to death with test practice," Langley's deputy headteacher Grace Shaw argues. "At the museum, they were learning about print-making, they were learning about the rivers, appreciating patterns in nature, which was far more beneficial and enriching to them than doing an old comprehension test."

Museum learning is at the heart of what The Langley Academy Primary is all about. It is a philosophy that involves not just visiting museums but using objects to prompt learning - items both borrowed and from the school's own collection. The primary also builds ongoing relationships with museums. It encourages children to conduct their own enquiries and curate their own exhibitions.

The idea is that linking learning to the stories of objects, and the emotions behind those stories, leads to deeper understanding.

"The best example is the immigration museum on Ellis Island, New York," says Shaw. "When you go to the museum, you get the information, but you also come away with a feeling of what it may have been like to be one of those people standing in that hallway, waiting to find out if this was your new country. Having that emotional experience, alongside the information, makes it more vivid. We want to make things as real and vivid as possible."

The primary is on the same site as The Langley Academy, a secondary school that opened 11 years ago and pioneered the idea of museum learning in the UK. The Annabel Arbib Foundation, the sponsor of The Langley Academy Trust (TLAT), to which both schools belong, was inspired by the New York City Museum School, a state secondary in the US that runs extensive visits to museums.

And the philosophy seems to deliver results. Last year, a good proportion of Langley's Year 2 pupils achieved "greater depth" in their Sats or were described by Ofsted as having made "excellent progress". The inspectors last visited in July 2018, reporting that: "The school's focus on museum learning gives pupils a rich range of experiences that bring the curriculum to life.

"This helps pupils to appreciate what is special and what it means to be British and to understand different cultures."

They praised the primary's "highly engaging, creative" curriculum, writing: "The school ethos of 'curiosity, exploration and discovery' is certainly brought to life!" Their report described pupils showing "real awe and wonder", and said cultural development was "extremely strong".

"Culture" became a buzzword in education back in 2012 when Darren Henley, now chief executive of Arts Council England, published a review of cultural education. The review, which had been jointly commissioned by the government departments for education and for culture, media and sport, set out a list of the minimum cultural experiences a child could expect to have had by the ages of 7, 11 and 16 (see box, opposite). And Henley pointed out that the education system was not just about creating academically able children, but also those who have a fully rounded appreciation of the world around them.

He also warned against "poor quality" cultural interactions, which "risk putting a child off future similar cultural activities into adulthood". It is a warning that may chime with many adults who remember, as children, being bussed to a museum just to look at boring things in glass boxes and fill in a worksheet. But, while the review covered aspects of culture ranging from architecture to film, it was the museum sector that was singled out by Henley for praise for its work with schools.

"There has been a transformation in museum learning over the last 25 years," explains Emmajane Avery, chair of Kids in Museums and a former director of learning at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She says that the sector is now far more "ambitious and confident" in what it offers to schools. "Instead of curators being asked to do a bit of education, education became a specialism in itself," she adds.

In Leeds, the city's museum and galleries service launched the "Leeds curriculum" last year. Available for free online, it consists of 50 stories based on objects in the city's museums and galleries - and linked to the primary national curriculum.

"Each story is an interesting hook for learning," Kate Fellows, head of learning at Leeds Museums and Galleries, says. "One of my favourites is about an elephant that got stuck in a ginnel, an alleyway, in Leeds … The ginnel is still called Jumbo Alley by the locals." Online, children can see a handwritten anecdote about the elephant, which got wedged in the narrow street for "a considerable time".

Fellows points out that the story is a great starter for creative writing or artwork. But it also opens up the possibilities of investigating "what did people do before TV?" (the elephant was there because the circus was in town). And while she hopes the resources will prompt visits to see the objects in real life, the online project means pupils are not prevented from accessing the collections simply because a school is cash-strapped.

A third of primaries in the city have already used the resources and a secondary curriculum is due by September 2020.

Secondary schools are less likely than primaries to get involved in visiting museums - due to the logistics of larger year groups, timetabling issues and exam pressure. For Fellows, one way of involving older pupils is to offer them not just a chance to learn but also to teach. The Leeds museums service has two young people's curator clubs, which give teenagers the opportunity to research and share the stories they are interested in. And they are pretty good at it. A First World War exhibition, curated by 14- to 21-year-olds a couple of years ago, had the highest footfall ever recorded in the Leeds City Museum.

While it may seem that museum learning is chiefly about history, closely followed by science, it can cover all aspects of human experience. At The Langley Academy, teenagers have curated an exhibition on knife crime for the school's own exhibition space. Put together with help from Slough Borough Council and the school's museum learning officer, Naomi Hudson, the project involved students researching stories of young people who were victims of knife crime. They displayed exhibits such as a Sunderland FC scarf and a stethoscope to illustrate the dreams that were lost when those lives were cut short. This term, every student at the school will be asked to write their pledge against knife crime on a sticky note butterfly and the 1,000 butterflies will then be added to the exhibition.

"People think museum learning is a set thing," says The Langley Academy's head of museum learning, Jenny Blay. "A lot of what we do, any school can do … Loads of schools can go off and do trips, but how seriously do you take those trips? Where do they feature in your medium-term planning? Do you do it because you think it's really important? I think if you do it a lot and plan it in and really think about museum resources as an important tool, then it is different."

The secondary's approach was also praised by Ofsted in 2017 for enriching learning. But will the inspectorate continue to praise such initiatives under its new framework, being introduced in September 2019? There are concerns that Ofsted will favour a "knowledge-rich" approach.

If that is the case, it will make little difference, says Blay. "A lot of what we do is knowledge-based. Our bread and butter is supporting the curriculum because that's what teachers want, what teachers need. It's that hinterland: when you have a subject, what are you bringing to that subject? What's the context? How can we help in the museum world to bring that hinterland to life so pupils understand that subject more?"

But perhaps not every school could afford to employ staff dedicated to supporting the curriculum in this way, or even to simply go on more trips.

Over at The Langley Academy Primary, Shaw is aware of the issue but advises that it is worth schools investigating what is on offer locally. Many museums will have free or reduced-cost activities.

The £7 million Museums and Schools programme was set up in 2012 in the wake of the Henley review to help museums connect with schools, and has allowed many schools to meet travel costs through museum subsidies.

But Justin Dillon, professor of science and environmental education at the University of Exeter, argues that funding is not necessarily the biggest issue to overcome. "The sad thing is a lot of kids will get these opportunities and a lot won't, and it's not to do with how well off the school is or where it is in the country," he says. "It's down to the leadership."

The academic says that it is a "national disgrace" that not all children have maximum opportunities to do things out of school. "Often teachers will say, 'These are once-in-a-lifetime experiences,'" he continues. "But if they are, why don't you do more of them?"

He is convinced that there is "fantastic potential" in the huge number of museums in the country. But while he understands that schools want to get good value, he warns against trying to measure the impact.

"Any headteacher that expects to get a measurable academic output from a three-hour visit doesn't understand how education works," he says. "You may know a blue whale is big, you may have read about it in a book or seen it in a video, but when you go to the Natural History Museum and see it, then you know it's big. If you tested pupils before and after, they would know the same information, you wouldn't see a change. But in terms of understanding, there has been a change."

And for The Langley Academy Primary, this is key. It wants not only to boost the basics but also to aim for a richer educational experience. That is why when the Year 1 children do the story of Three Billy Goats Gruff, the school brings in real goats.

Shaw says: "[Then] the children have seen goats, held goats, looked at their horns and spoken to a goat handler, who tells them that goats prefer nettles to grass."

Because while Langley knows that the Sats results and Ofsted report show its approach is far from fluffy, staff also appreciate that pupils won't remember what score they got in reading when they were 7. But they may well remember the day the goats came to school, and who can tell how this knowledge and interest will shape their futures?

As Dillon says: "Many heads appreciate the value of cultural visits; they recognise we have fantastic collections. All those things are immeasurable and I hope there are teachers who realise that we are not just interested in what is measurable in education."

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 7 June 2019 issue under the headline "Do you belong in a museum?"

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