It started with a ruler

It all began, for me, with a wooden ruler…

In this blog post, I’m going to discuss some of my experiences as someone who has a level of “say” over learning for a site but isn’t a teacher.

I’m currently the Learning Officer at Nottingham Castle, which will reopen at Easter and welcome schools in the summer term, and these are some thoughts which I hope support the approach we will be taking.

When I was 9, I went on a school trip.

I’m sure if we all cast our minds back, we remember a school trip but I always think the ones when you were under 10 were the most special ones. Often the memories of them, whilst not vivid, have an almost impressionist feel to how your mind recreates them – and that recreation generally involves a coach journey.

Of the thousands of lessons I had up to year 5 I remember only one: when Mr Littlewood introduced us to Dickens by reading the opening of Oliver Twist to us. But I clearly remember my school trip: it was to Rockingham Castle, I bought a ruler in the giftshop.

I still have that ruler.

Now, as a Museum Learning Officer, I see that ruler as a somewhat ironic “I told you so”.

Off-site visits for school children are hugely important and, with the DfE’s new rebranding of the idea of Cultural Capital, something which schools will be looking at afresh too.

The work we have developed for schools has clear curriculum objectives and links to subject requirements for history, art and design, literacy, STEM and the values curriculum. However, there is a level of fluidity here – room for the workshop to breathe, respond to exploration of the children. Our overall learning mantra is that visitors will leave having learned two things (we hope much more than this for school groups coming for education sessions) but there’s a self-guided “discovery” element here, and that doesn’t only exist in the galleries.

I learned very early on in my career that I’m an engagement specialist.

When I was in year 6, the poet Paul Cookson came to my school and read poems in the hall – my year 5 and 6 teachers spent hours on Literacy Hour, but I engaged with Paul’s poems and can still recite “Mum used Pritt stick…” by heart!

Creatives and other non-teacher educators are specialists and have a duty to inspire each group, every day, and give them back to the “heroes in the classroom” with a new nugget of wisdom and a recharged curiosity to learn.

Engagement is a funny word and having worked in the field for almost 10 years now, both in the UK and abroad, I think it boils down to three things:

  • passing on an enthusiasm
  • entertaining an interest
  • inclusive at the heart.

A cultural site like Nottingham Castle operates for organised learning groups like schools, families, community and intervention groups and lifelong learners. We have multiple modes of engagement – but all starts with those same ingredients.

I remember when the Dinosaurs of China exhibition was on at Wollaton, I was hired to engage communities in parts of Nottingham and ran a workshop making dinosaur sock puppets at Bulwell Academy on a Saturday morning.  I don’t know if any of the 60 or so children who took part (numbers based on pairs of socks used) went to the exhibition, but I do know that multiple children with their families chased me around Bulwell Morrisons with their sock puppets roaring.

Regarding entertaining people’s interests, my work with the 826 Network in the US clearly illuminated that every idea a child has is valid in their creative voice and can be nurtured into a story. The write and publish a book in a morning workshops are one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen, and we’ll be looking at how our literacy provision at the castle can be just as good.

In terms of inclusivity I remember air-freighting non-gelatine marshmallows to Nottingham from Indonesia (in the days before veganism was so wide-spread), so we could all toast them round the campfire. this was to accommodate the needs of city schools with large numbers of children with Halal, kosher and other requirements.

How unengaging would stories and songs at the campfire be if you were excluded from toasting on the fire? How damaging to your experience of an overnight camp, especially considering that these children were in year 2 (only 6 or 7), many spending their first night away from home?

We know from the work of the National Literacy Trust and Education Endowment Foundation that using off-site visits and “memorable experiences” as part of a literacy curriculum can improve writing by up to 9 months at KS2. That is even without the consideration of the cultural benefit and potential spark of inspiration.

If my colleagues in the engagement world are as amazing as I know they are, they too will be placing the ideas of passing on enthusiasm, entertaining an interest, as well as inclusion, front and centre in the experiences they have been bursting to share with you, in what has been an unprecedented time for us all.

After a year of being necessarily less free to explore, I hope that 2021 will be a year that schools can venture out again to engage with our region’s amazing heritage and cultural, sporting, scientific and outdoor attractions.

Gareth Morgan, Learning Officer at Nottingham Castle

One comment

  1. Couldn’t agree more Gareth. Whether it was a trip to Stratford Upon Avon, The National Justice Museum or a visit to behind the scenes at Sainsbury’s, it was always the thing that my secondary school students remembered best about their learning.


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