- Keeping pupils confined within the school environment has its merits, but expanding horizons to utilise what the local environment has to offer is of great benefit for children and their learning.
- Visiting libraries, museums or exhibitions can really enhance learning, offering opportunities to be immersed in more concrete experiences which really stick in the mind.
- This article was first published in the October 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine (Click here to view the full article).
- Alex Fairlamb explores the credits of such immersive learning,
- Advocating the opportunities to feel, see and to touch stories beyond our own and within differing contexts.
The study of History as a subject in school has encountered a renaissance in recent years with ministers redefining the place of this hitherto diminishing subject. Often criticised as a subject for its exclusive nature and inability to equip students with the skills and concepts to survive in the modern workplace in comparison to vocational subjects, the government have been keen to combat findings that the ‘average 13-year-old learns history for just one hour a week’ (bit.ly/uked14oct02). The All-Party Parliamentary Group on History and Archives attributes this decline in the study of History to “many schools regarding history as too tough for their weaker students and [so they] allow them to drop it after two years”. If we are to accept that History is too hard for many to engage with at Key Stage Three and Four, this could present schools with a challenge given the recent curriculum proposals in England set to be adopted 2014-2015 onwards. Is the past too much of a foreign place for some?
Given this greater emphasis on its importance, how might schools be able to contend with supporting their learners in engaging with this academically rigorous subject? A simplistic solution would be to increase the amount of hours this subject is studied. However, studies (Rosenzweig, R. (2000)) offer hints of an alternative, innovative solution to this. They found that learners felt disconnected to the past when they encountered it in books and in the classroom compared to a high connection in museums. Perhaps the answer to this potential problem lies outside the traditional classroom setting, in spaces such as museums, allowing for different practices deep rooted in often neglected realms of pedagogy.
Research already indicates that museum visits can enhance student attainment by 60% in comparative assessments including lower attaining students improving by a noticeable 71% (bit.ly/uked14oct03). A question I was keen to find out was, especially with lower attaining students, what more could we do if we considered the impact of immersive or experiential learning within these amazing spaces.
I focused on researching the impact of experiential learning and immersive learning experiences in different contexts in order to support student progression in schools. I had taken a year’s break from teaching History to work at a living history museum in the Education Team and I wanted to work with a school in an area of high deprivation to explore the impact of immersive learning and to tie this in with the First World War in order to encourage interest in the commemoration programme. David Kolb suggests that students must ‘involving themselves fully in new experiences (concrete experience), reflect on their experiences (reflective observation), create concepts to integrate into theories (abstract conceptualisation) and use these theories to make decisions (active experimentation)’. Active learning engages students, and teachers should create situations where there are authentic tasks of the historian where students are required to work with documents or artefacts to gain further understanding.
The notion of immersion as a pedagogic tool when blended with the role of an ‘expert’ in a decision making role could heighten learning by students actively taking on a first-person position in a different context. Museums such as Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse have already experienced positive outcomes of such innovative practice through first person pauper experiences, whereby students observe staff in role and can ask general questions about their life and daily actions. I wanted to take this further; what if the students were also in role as fully immersed characters? How might this impact upon their engagement and learning?
The benefits of immersion can be seen when observing existing living museum activities, which range from costumed first person full immersive role play as part of a Suffragette rally (KS3/KS4); partial immersive role play such as Mrs Scroggins Pit Cottage sessions (KS2) where students are charged with the task of carrying out Victorian pit cottage chores to emphasise on miner’s lives, although aware that they are modern school children; to an ‘expert’ role workshop where the students remain modern student, but are charged with the task of resolving an historical problem.At that point, I noticed there was an opportunity to blend similar experiences, but instead connect this to a story of the Great War. After researching local stories, the design of the outreach and workshops began.
At the non-living museum, the curatorial expert role was developed in order to enhance the core strengths of their existing exhibits. Four local soldiers’ stories (all of whom lived near to the students and within four streets of each other) were researched and relating ephemera, photographs, maps and objects were sourced. The experiential/immersive learning would commence with army drills. This would allow students to empathise with Western Front soldiers before being immersed into their expert curatorial roles. This workshop saw the pre-existing museum offer of an object handling session transform into a more immersive experience with students acting as a curator in residence, charged with piecing together the lives of the soldier from their area. Students could utilise ephemera and objects, with help from the staff, about what certain objects might mean or tell them before recreating maps of journey’s made and feeding back to the others about the fate of their fallen man.
The living museum used their living history experience to immerse the students into the roles of the Home Guard or V.A.D. They were asked to identify why a fifteen-year-old, Ferguson, who was from their local area, had enlisted as a soldier. After a drill immersion and exploration of clues, students collaboratively devised questions to ask villagers, including during a scorning by a white feather girl. A debate as to their final decision would allow for in-depth conversation and a conclusion as to would they have made the same decision as Ferguson. Students, set in the time and the role of 1914 families, then baked plum puddings and cross-stitched postcards with villagers to send to the soldiers on the front line. It was hoped that the tangibility of cross stitching and plum pudding making would help students to connect with life in 1914. All of these workshops and immersion would proceed outreach to support David Kolb’s notion that learning is experiential and ‘formed and reformed tested out in the experiences of the learner’.
What was the impact? The outcome of the immersive workshops showed that students had developed their historical understanding in tandem with their literacy and academic progression.
- They had learned more. As part of the activities the students wrote in role as either a soldier on the front line or families waiting at home to their local newspaper. The newspapers showed improvement in academic achievement supported by teacher feedback that the experiences ‘deepened their knowledge with a remarkable average sublevel improvement per student’ with 99% of pupils stating it helped them to make progress. One comment stated ‘it helped me by a mile in my assessment’.
- The learning was long term; it had ‘stuck’ with them. Questionnaires completed four months later indicated that 87% of students could recall why Ferguson had enlisted alongside 96% being able to explain the significance of the plum puddings and cross stitch, ‘to stop themselves feeling helpless’. This supported student feedback which suggested the students felt that they had ‘found out lots of new information and facts I didn’t know’
- Behaviour and learning was heightened when studying the topic. The teacher noted that ‘student feedback was very positive throughout… engagement in lessons was enhanced at the time of the project’ and ‘their engagement was clear to see, they responded to the hands on work.’
- They had enjoyed learning this way. Evaluation forms showed students had enjoyed this experience; Students stated that it was “challenging, but good”, while another said it was “good as it made you work how people in the war would have, showed I could do well on my own, I learned loads. I really enjoyed every minute of it, a once in a lifetime opportunity, we learned outside the classroom and it was better” and that it was “interesting, but educational at the same time” with 95% of respondents being able to recall facts about the soldier they had studied four months earlier.
What can be learned and what next? After returning to teaching, I began to consider how immersive learning can be constructed into a school’s curriculum. Museum visits are obviously linked to this mode of learning, but financial limitations and timetable constraints limit this. If immersive learning can create powerful experiences, how might we be able to exploit and utilise this in the classrooms?
- Debates, plays and role play. Discover a story or students research a story. Create the arguments, the script, the props and the costumes. Re-enact and teach others. Learn the stories by being the stories. I hold Suffragette debates and have a costume box.
- Research as experts. Be the curator and handle the objects in the classroom, asking questions and selecting what should be displayed in your classroom museum. Be the ‘Who do you think you are?’ researcher and trawl the internet for clues in IT. Be the archaeologist and piece together the pieces of pot from the sand.
- Cross-curricular. Become the families on the Home Front creating a Princess Mary tin for their loved ones by baking goods or stitching postcards in DT. Become soldiers on the Western Front by carrying out army drills in PE or walking distances with heavy items. Be Elizabeth I’s royal portrait artist with feather quills and paints.
- Outreach – Museums readily carry out workshops in schools, bringing objects and props with them. Universities also help organise archaeological digs in schools with students in role as real life ‘Tony Robinsons’.
- Link up with your local museum. I am currently co-creating a Workhouse workshop with a living museum whereby the students experience life as a pauper. At the museum they complete the chores in costume and eat gruel! At school, we use costume to carry out pre and post visit activities and dramas based on the experiences and write about them.
Immersive learning is powerful. It allows us to feel, to see and to touch stories beyond our own and within differing contexts. It is liberating; we are free to imagine, to suppose and to question whilst safe in the mindset that this is not us asking the questions or sewing socks for our soldier son, but instead the person we are enacting or imagining at that time. We can think without restriction and therefore explore more, deepening our learning of and our connections with the topic.
Alex Fairlamb has been teaching history for five years (three years at a state secondary in the North East, then a year out to work at a living history museum in the education team working on a WW1 Local history project and a project commemorating the centenary of Emily Davison’s death with the community of Morpeth/Longhorsley. She then returned to secondary teaching). She is on the teaching and learning team at school as a teaching and learning mentor. She is currently working on further research projects and would welcome opportunities to work with other peers nationally. Find her on Twitter at @lamb_heart_tea.