Schools are important in helping children to successfully engage with culture and cultural institutions, and the Henley Review of Cultural Education in English Primary Schools (DCMS, 2012) and the Cultural White Paper (DCMS, 2012) recognised this. However, research findings from around the world flag up challenges in building effective relationships between schools and cultural institutions (Mathewson-Mitchell, 2007).

The location: Liverpool City Region

The research team acknowledges that the Liverpool City Region holds a possibly unique position, which may impact upon how teachers, children, parents and schools perceive and interact with cultural institutions. The Liverpool City Region has the largest number of cultural institutions within the UK outside London. It is home to six national museums, Tate Liverpool and a range of smaller museums, galleries and arts organisations across the city, many offering extensive learning programmes for the local audience, including schools.

This project connects the elements of ‘place-based’ learning and pedagogy. Place-based learning recognises that an individual’s connection with the place, space or community within which learning takes place is vital in knowing, understanding and learning about the world. The research therefore explores the experiences of both teachers and pupils during their time in the gallery and how this impacts on teaching and learning in the school. It also addresses the experience of the ‘host’ organisation, reflecting on the expectations, experience and impact of the residency on gallery practice. 

The project

This two-stage action research project explores a new way for schools to enhance and enrich teaching and learning. It also outlines another way for children and their families to enjoy and develop a sense of ‘ownership’ of museum and gallery spaces.

The first aim of the research was to explore the views of schools, teachers and children in relation to the gallery. The second was to investigate the role of the gallery as a site for learning and teaching. It then considered the impact of this and the package of training, resources, spaces and facilities required to run a regular residency programme and develop a transferrable model of CPD.

Schools have been invited to base one class at the gallery for a week, delivering their usual curriculum and activities but in new spaces. The research seeks to explore what training, support and resources would be required for teachers to be able to do this on a more regular basis, without learning being led by a gallery educator. This could offer a more sustainable model for future school engagement with cultural venues. It is also hoped that it will celebrate the expertise of teachers and reposition them and gallery staff as learners alongside the children involved. This new way of working embeds practice that regards children and teachers as experts-in-residence, developing new knowledge and understanding of the gallery’s collection.

A participative action research methodology was chosen to ensure that the voices and experiences of participants were visible and to inform further stages of the research and the proposed model.  Data includes observations from field notes, reflective journals, notes from interviews and focus groups, and photographs and films documenting the project. Throughout, the children were invited to see themselves as researchers, learning more about what research can mean and how it is relevant to their lived experience.

For example, the reflective journals allowed the teachers to look back on each day, noting what they were pleased with, what questions they had and what they might do differently the following day. All this reflection was based upon their developing understanding of the space, and these journals became creative working documents that they wanted to spend time on in their busy day. The photographs captured moments that were impossible to note in observations or reflections. They showed children’s responses, levels of engagement and their methods of building relationships with the gallery space and individual pieces of art.

Initial findings

Findings to date in Phase 1 show that increasing ownership of the physical spaces in the gallery brought some challenges for teachers. They were sometimes limited in their use of artworks as curriculum resources. In interviews, they reflected that the main reason for this was that they felt they needed specialist knowledge. They felt that they needed to know artworks in this way before they could connect to or discuss them with the children, maintaining a traditional teacher/learner dynamic rather than facilitating the children’s own ideas or adopting a position of learner alongside the children.

Over time, the teachers did report that they felt freer and more able to be spontaneous. One teacher described how she felt more creative because of the experience. Examples included using pieces of art as a stimulus for writing, reading, history or, in one case, music. Even when the curriculum topic being covered could not be directly related to the art available in the gallery, the lessons still took place in the gallery space, encouraging the children to feel confident there. It was not uncommon to see children working independently on mathematics under a Lowry painting or their favourite piece of art.

The children involved were hugely positive about the experience and there was evidence of increased ownership of the gallery spaces. The focus groups showed that the children felt that they had been given increasing freedom and responsibility throughout the residency and had learned in a more engaged and dynamic way. One child said that going to the gallery everyday was ‘like we were stepping into another world’.

The headteacher, who visited the classes on numerous occasions, observed that he felt that the children had more time for themselves. Interviews and focus groups corroborated the fact that both teachers and pupils viewed these opportunities to engage personally with the artwork in the gallery positively. Several children who teachers reported were not particularly confident at school thrived and showed signs of becoming much more independent.

The next stage of the project will examine how the gallery can boost teacher confidence in using the artwork within their curriculum. Interviews also showed that teachers were sometimes anxious about the behaviour of their children in an open public space.

Ideas depot

An output of the project has been a new collection display co-curated with local primary teachers to provide a starting point for schools to engage with artwork and open the processes of curating. Schools-in-residence learn more about these processes before their residency begins and can select works from the gallery stores and swap them in and out of the display, taking ownership of the display to connect to their own interests. They are given the opportunity during the residency to generate interpretation materials for the display to make visible their own ideas, responses and knowledge for other visitors.

These experiences of the residency and the display are not designed to provide one-off arts experiences or prescribed curriculum links. Rather, we aim to support teachers in connecting with the collection in ways that are relevant to them and the curriculum, developing their experience in using artworks creatively, confidently and independently. The display provides a unique opportunity for teachers to experiment and reflect on their own practice and for children to develop their confidence in visiting and engaging with cultural venues: www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/ideas-depot 

Next steps

The next stage of the study will be a further two residencies in the next six months. This will help the university and gallery to identify and test out a programme of professional development. At a time in the UK when cultural education is so at risk, the development of this model as a meaningful and genuine collaboration between schools and cultural organisations offers a strategic solution for sustainable engagement.

References

Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) (2012) The Culture White Paper. London: Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Mathewson-Mitchell D (2007) Multiliteracies in non-school contexts: Museums as cultural texts. In: AARE Conference, Fremantle, Australia, 25–29 November 2007. Available at: https://www.aare.edu.au/data/publications/2007/mat07150.pdf (accessed 25 October 2017).