Gateway objects to help learning

Yeah, that should cover ‘multi-level governance’ AND ‘historical institutionalism’

I’m really lucky to be living in a country with an excellent state broadcaster, that adheres to being politically impartial, and with an public service remit to inform and educate. And you’re really lucky that I do, because it also means I can share a particular radio programme with you.

This week saw the start of a new series, “Germany: Memories of a Nation“, presented by the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. This is the guy who did ‘A History of the World‘ a couple of years ago, and the new programme follows a similar approach.

Instead of trying to be systematic and canonical, MacGregor selects objects that open up gateways into understanding bigger questions. These objects offer multiple ideas and interpretations, and the stories and ideas that emerge criss-cross with each other. Couple that to a lovely presentational style and you have a winner.

It’s a technique that I am very sympathetic to, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it sidesteps the daunting task of trying to produce a typology of analysis of the thing under consideration. MacGregor was very careful to call it A History of the World, just as he is now not to try and create a history of Germany. Likewise, in our teaching there is often the sense that vast areas must be covered, often with little or no good explanation of why that must be so. By working out from material objects, we can ground students’ study from the start and promote a curiosity about why things are the way they are.

Secondly, such an approach lets us become much more responsive to student understanding. MacGregor doesn’t get this, because he’s making a radio show that he’s pre-recorded. But we can get this in the classroom, especially if we ask students to start telling the stories and illuminating the perspectives, and then we can work around them, rather than the other way around.

Of course, this presupposes that we are comfortable doing this: entering a classroom with only a rough idea of what might come up, and being willing to roll with that. In extreme cases, that means co-creation of knowledge and understanding, which might create some tricky conversations about the implicit hierarchy of the classroom, not to mention assessment tasks (“I don’t know about this, but tell me what you’ve learnt, and I’ll grade it”).

If you’ve had your critical turn, then this is probably not a problem in any case. If you’ve not, then this is also probably not a problem, because the margins of what is discussed can be roughly mapped out in advance and some direction imposed.

For example, let’s imagine you run a series of sessions, each with an object to talk around. You know what you’d like to cover, so you pick objects that might reasonably lead to those things being discussed. If you find something is getting missed, you can prompt with questions, or talk about directly: you could even change a later object to something more likely to trigger the appropriate thought to match your learning objectives.

This is all something that I want to explore in my teaching this year. With two courses with my Liberal Arts and Sciences, I’ve got a group with a very mixed background and diverse study interests, so there’s lots of scope for creative debate: that the number of people in the group is small will also facilitate interaction (I hope). In some cases, I’m using objects; in others, I’ve got tasks that will challenge their conceptualisations.

In the meantime, why not sit back and enjoy 15 minutes of a man talking about a ceremonial arch, and thinking about what objects you might chose to discuss with your students.