The American influence

5th March 1999 at 00:00
How do museums in the United States cater for schools? Samantha Heywood went to find out

Being exposed to sunlight is a rarity for someone like me who is used to working in the Cabinet War Rooms, underneath Whitehall. The summer months are usually marked only by the rising temperature of our visitors, so it came as a shock to experience the heat and light of the United States for five weeks.

My good fortune was down to my natural curiousity about how teachers interact with museums, collections and the services we provide. Thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I was able to explore further afield by participating in a Churchill Fellowship exchange. The Trust funded my visit to museums and related institutions in America, to see their methods of training teachers, at first hand.

I wanted to know how I could improve provision for visitors to the Cabinet War Rooms. How much could pre-visit materials affect the quality of a visit, for example? Would a training course be an effective way of helping teachers make better use of a museum? And was it possible to provide an education service which enables teachers to genuinely integrate a museum visit into the curriculum?

In the United States, museum education is far more advanced than it is here. It has been a required function for all museums seeking accredited status since 1992. No such requirement exists for British museums.

While British museums may offer in-service training days, American museums commonly offer courses, or institutes, as they are called, specially for teachers. These are usually held at the museum during the summer and last between one and three weeks. They mainly concentrate on a particular topic, the early history of New York City, for example, or on a theme, such as colonialism.

They also focus on the individual museum's collection. The Brooklyn Museum of Art's course on colonialism, for example, asked teachers to use its large collections from Africa, China and South America to explore different ways of teaching this topic. Other activities may include delving into the archives, storytelling, developing new approaches to science experiments and presenting ideas to colleagues at school.

Many of the courses are cross-curricular in approach and are aimed at teachers across the board, from elementary to high school. The courses may even be accredited by universities and can count towards a master's degree.

Most of the teachers who volunteer for courses (and take them in their own time) do so to renew their teaching licence - a legal requirement every three years. So the courses are always well-subscribed. Museums may charge for them but some attract sponsorship from companies, such as ATamp;T.

One teacher was so inspired by a course at the Museum of the City of New York that she kept her headteacher on the telephone until midnight discussing plans for a revolution in teaching methods.

What is needed now is research on the outcome of these courses on subsequent visits to museums - to find out how far they affect and improve school visits.

The genuine integration of museum visits into the school curriculum has been developed in America. The movement for charter schools - which are given a greater measure of autonomy by their state's education department in return for improved results - has been growing rapidly since the first such school opened in 1991. They are able to experiment with alternative curricula and teaching methods, and a number of museums have exploited this chance to establish their own schools.

Perhaps the most interesting example I saw was that of Robert Brent Elementary School in Washington DC. The school had been "converted" to a "museum school" in a joint venture by the school, the city's education department and the Smithsonian Institution.

Here the school teaches as many of its subjects as possible using the Smithsonian's collections as a basis for classwork. Pupils spend up to three days a week at the Smithsonian, studying the geometric qualities of Islamic art for mathematics, for example, or using works of art to develop creative writing.

It is too early to say whether this initiative will improve exam results, but most schools of this kind are over-subscribed. In Robert Brent's case, a school which had been declining in popularity has been transformed.

At the Cabinet War Rooms, we too have experimented with integrating school visits with the curriculum. Two Surrey schools, for example, use the museum for the "history around us" element of the GCSE syllabus and we have worked with teachers to allow greater access to our archive resources for the students. Feedback suggests that this has been very successful, and both schools report that coursework has begun to attract favourable comments from the examining board.

There is always room for improvement. We need a dialogue between schools and museums to make sure both are making the most of what museums offer. We also need to confer with examination boards about exam requirements and standards.

My task is to extend some of the projects we run at Cabinet War Rooms, and to apply the insights garnered from this exchange, to provide a responsive and flexible programme for schools.

* Samantha Heywood is education officer at the Cabinet War Rooms, London SW1. She was on a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship. For details, tel: 0171 584 9315

* The Cabinet War Rooms, tel: 0171 976 1091

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