Burns sets the world of learning aflame

28th October 2011 at 01:00
A museum at the bard's birthplace illustrates how school trips can boost teachers' and pupils' enthusiasm for Scottish studies and lead to a wealth of cross-curricular work.

It's the little details that make the difference, says Wendy Gilchrist, principal teacher of languages at Whitburn Academy, as she watches her fourth-year pupils in the education rooms at Burns Cottage pull on period clothes, pick up props, and improvise conversations between characters from Tam O' Shanter.

"It's 11 o'clock at night Kate, so why are you still holding that iron?"

"Somebody has to, Tam - why don't you have a go?"

"Naw, naw, lass. I'm awa tae my bed."

In recent weeks, her pupils have been working in groups to research Robert Burns and present their findings to the class, says Mrs Gilchrist. "Doing it that way, they discovered all the stuff I'd have given them and more - things about Burns and his family I might have thought were insignificant. But it was those that really brought it to life for them.

"It's the same with this visit today. The guides are so knowledgeable, and the teachers' pack so good, that it's giving them those nitty-gritty details they will all remember."

In tough times it can be hard to justify taking classes out of school and across the country. But Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is about more than classroom learning. So the Scottish Government recently announced the extension for another year of the Heritage Education Travel Subsidy, which pays three-quarters of the cost of school trips to historic and cultural sites like the Burns Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire.

The announcement came during a lengthy, often fascinating parliamentary debate on the merits of creating "a distinct strand of learning around Scottish Studies for all pupils in the context of CfE". Despite resistance from some politicians, though not parents, this is now being explored by a committee from across the spectrum of Scottish education, language, arts and culture.

It was an SNP manifesto commitment. There is currently no mention of Scotland or Scottish in the new curriculum in any of the language or creative arts experiences and outcomes (apart from Gaelic and classical languages).

Detailed guidance on Scottish studies is provided in just two subject areas - social studies and religious and moral education. The latter has five times as many Scottish experiences and outcomes as all of literature and language, creative arts, science, technology, and health and well- being combined.

It provides scant support for opposition claims during the debate that Scottish studies are "already embedded" in the curriculum and will be "enhanced in all schools by Curriculum for Excellence".

But perhaps it is not as unbalanced as it seems, says Ross Maclean, English teacher at Whitburn Academy, who has brought his fourth-years on today's visit to the Burns Museum.

"There might not be anything in the literacy and English experiences and outcomes, but there is a paragraph in the principles and practices. Among other things, it says that the "languages, dialects and literature of Scotland provide a rich resource for children and young people to learn about Scotland's culture, identity and language," he says. "Certainly at our school in our subject, we do a lot of Scottish studies. Every year- group does a Scottish text at some point and we try to get them out on visits like today, whenever we can. It makes it seem real to them."

Around the bard's birthplace, details that make it seem real include the heavy yoke for the milkmaid's shoulders, the cattle stalls right inside the cottage, the wooden chair by the fire - armless so the mother could rock her babies - and the box-bed in the corner where Robert, the eldest of the family, was born and slept till he was seven, with three small siblings.

"Robert drew inspiration from the tales he heard here," Burns Museum intern Rebecca Stapley explains to the Whitburn pupils, gathered in the gloom of the stone-flagged kitchen-bedroom. "Then he put them together with his own imagination to create something new."

But there was more to Burns's poetry, we learn, than "the realities of his time" and the "imagery firmly rooted in the landscape". There was also book learning, which the lad received in the next room, the spence or parlour. "His father was a highly educated man," Rebecca tells the Whitburn pupils. "He wanted his children to be educated, too."

The same ingredients that combined to make magic in Burns's poetry - formal learning, everyday details of place and people, and the power of the imagination - come together in Curriculum for Excellence. Burns is a great way into cross-curricular themes, says Burns Museum learning manager Esther Rutter, who leads the educational visits and workshops.

"There is history, language and literature, of course. But politics, economics and religion are key themes in his poetry, as they are for us today. We bring those out with the older children. There's also the environment, because of the inspiration Burns got from nature and the way he writes against cruelty."

It is important to learn about our cultural heritage, Esther says, but as part of the National Trust for Scotland's education department, she and her colleagues also look to the future, in their workshops for young people. "We show how the same techniques that Burns used - like studying the people and places around them - can inspire their own creativity."

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum offers four levels of courses for learners, she says, from nursery to secondary. Young ones can explore the museum dressed as "tim'rous beasties", connect with his childhood in the cottage, or explore his values through their own Burns supper.

Older learners can engage with the bard and his times while developing skills through presentations, guided tours, storytelling and creative workshops.

It's that interactive element that appeals, says Whitburn S4 pupil Ryan Twaddle, fresh from his workshop and guided tour. "I liked how included we all were. We did the dressing up. We got to touch things in the cottage. It made you feel part of it all, instead of having someone just stand there and tell you things.

"The whole experience didn't feel like being a tourist. It felt like how it must have been in Burns's time. I like how his poems are based in everyday life but they have a message you can understand today."

Studying writers from other countries is all very well, says Mrs Gilchrist. "But it's good to teach about authors that we can get out and learn more about. It makes them seem real. We have Burns's granddaughter buried in the churchyard in Whitburn, for instance. But it's not only about Burns.

"It's about all the Scottish writers. Teachers are keen to use Scottish connections, when they have the opportunity. But there aren't a lot of resources out there. It would be great if the working group on Scottish Studies could raise teachers' awareness and come up with new resources for us all."

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum: www.burnsmuseum.org.uk

Scottish studies working group: www.scotland.gov.ukTopicsEducationSchoolscurriculumACEScottishStudies

Scottish Studies parliamentary debate: www.scottish.parliament.ukApps2BusinessORSearchReportView.aspx? r=6424amp;i=58586amp;c=0amp;s=Scottish %20Studies


Alex Muraska

"I liked the kitchen in the cottage, because you can still see his bed and the floating christening gowns for the kids. I liked the walk through the graveyard where Tam O' Shanter was brought to life. I liked the museum which you walked to from the cottage. I thought it might be boring but it wasn't. I loved it. They had quotes from Burns all over the walls."

Natasha Benson

"When you read the poems you have in your mind what he is describing, and what we saw when we went round the graveyard and across the bridge all matched up. It was an amazing experience. Seeing all the ordinary things about such an amazing poet made me realise just what you can do when you grow up. He's a great role model."


The greatest concentration of Scotland's history and heritage can be found in Scotland's National Museums, with four separate sites around the country covering flight, war, costume and rural life.

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh covers the whole sweep of our history and culture, from Stone Age settlers to the present. As part of its recent redevelopment, the resources, workshops, activities and space for school visits have all been greatly enhanced.

Finding sites that open after October can be tricky. They include Edinburgh and Stirling castles and the battlefields of Bannockburn and Culloden - all eligible for the Heritage Education Travel Subsidy.

Culloden delivers "exciting ways to engage young people" with the history of the site and times, says learning manager Katey Boal. "Our `Shadow of the Prince' is very popular and we also deliver bespoke programmes for secondary schools. Feedback shows that students not only enjoy their day but develop empathy, discussion and research skills, and new understanding of the people involved in the battle and the events surrounding it."

Historic Scotland sites and activities available all year include Aberdour Castle, Arbroath Abbey (a day in the life of a monk), Stanley Mills (Victorian millworkers, waterwheel challenge and archaeologists at work), Blackness Castle (medieval castle life and shoreline studies) and Elgin Cathedral.

Preserving the culture of a country is vital, says Burns Museum intern and Scottish literature graduate Laura Macdonald. "So is communicating it to children. I got no Scottish history at all when I went to school in Edinburgh. We would do a bit of Burns in January and we went to a Liz Lochhead play in fifth-year. That was it for Scottish studies."

Burns Museum learning manager Esther Rutter did get Scots language and literature at school and really fell in love with these when she went to university, she says. But that was in England. "I went to school in Suffolk, where we studied Tom Leonard and Robert Burns, then to Oxford University, where I specialised in Scottish poetry and literature in my final year. I just love it. That's why I am here.

"As Robert Burns says in a letter to his friend George Thomson: `My ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish.'"

Useful contacts

National Museums of Scotland for schools: www.nms.ac.uklearningschools.aspx

Historic Scotland sites www.historic-scotland.gov.ukaccess-guide.pdf

Culloden teaching resources and visits: www.nts.org.ukCullodenLearning

Heritage Education Travel Subsidy application form: www.historic-scotland.gov.uktravel-subsidy-application-form-2010-11.pdf

VisitScotland has published a guide to 60 places to visit in Scotland linked to writers and their works. See: www.visitscotland.comguideinspirationalfeaturesnewsliterary-guide.

Photo credit: Angus Blackburn


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