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Don’t ask the Archaeologist

By Edmund Connolly, on 17 July 2014

The archaeologist in question on site at the Parthernon

The archaeologist in question on site at the Parthernon

The Petrie regularly plays host to 80+ Primary School students a week who arrive at the museum armed with worksheets and  pencils in various stages of consumption. During the closing Q&A’s I often worry for my teaching prowess as I endure the same question again and again from 5 or more little upturned faces, wondering what have I done wrong, why aren’t they remembering anything?

Then I had a revelation. I heard a teacher explain to a questioning infant: “Just ask the archaeologist, he’ll know”. And from this little attitude shift I think there is a problem with museum based education: child learners are not encouraged to actually research alone, if they don’t know an answer they ask. The merit system of house points, gold stars and ‘grade points’ means they are so desperate for a correct answer the method is flung aside in lieu of the desperate seek for affirmation that they are correct. One school even rewarded children just for asking a question with no logic or reason behind it.

This structure really undermines the principles of Independent learning (lengthy definition of which is here). The child is no longer expected to read a label, open a book or even search online, they need to get a quick and cheap answer; ask the archaeologist.

I have nothing against asking questions, it is the fundamental of HE teaching, but at KS2 when children are learning life and research skills asking a person who has that knowledge seems a bit of cop-out. These sessions aren’t just about learning Hatshepsut’s name or the meaning of sarcophagus, but the idea of exploring and self-guided learning.

At school, I remember producing a very blobbily glued report on the Aztecs, as far as I am aware my teacher had no knowledge whatsoever about the Aztecs, and I certainly didn’t. Instead I sat myself down with an Encyclopaedia the size of my torso and penned my persuasive paragraph on why a Jaguar Warrior was a scrupulous career choice.

This tome is probably on some bookshelf somewhere behind a photo of the dog,  I am certain the facts were sketchy and the diagrams even more questionable, but what my teacher taught me to do was research. I worry this generation of Archaeologist-Askers will never be able self-guide and learn. Given the glorious age of information we now live in with facts and theories available at the click of a button it seems ludicrous that any child cannot conduct any research.

I say don’t ask the archaeologist! Come to the archaeologist and tell them something you know, and they will be far happier for knowing you have learnt a skill that will go with you always, rather than a fact that’ll be forgotten the moment lunch is mentioned.

Edmund Connolly is the Finance and Course Manager for the British Council – UCL Museum Training School

4 Responses to “Don’t ask the Archaeologist”

  • 1
    Jonny Walker wrote on 17 July 2014:

    Hi Edmund

    I found this a really interesting perspective, and for numerous reasons. As a class teacher, I can totally recognise the situation you describe – if hearing the same questions rankles you for an hour or so a week, imagine how frustrating it is for the teachers, who hear them asked incessantly over a whole year.

    Teachers are more likely to share your sentiments than you seem to be suggesting – we are not necessarily mad-keen on doling out goldstars and dissuading kids from independent research. The problem comes down to a systemic form of accountability – teachers are accountable for the work the children produce and the shifts within politics and policy in primary education are moving away from the exploratory approaches of the previous decades.

    The situation you are describing highlights the different approaches to knowledge and learning. There is a logic, albeit a different one, to the children rightly asking an expert about the basics – more insightful exploration would follow once children’s core knowledge is made concrete.

    I am raising these thoughts for the sake of chat. I would certainly want the children to ask more insightful questions, and this would further their learning, but there is a danger that without being fully equipped with the knowledge they need to contextualise their discoveries, the story of Egypt becomes reduced to ‘I made a hieroglyphic tablet and a mummified cat’.

    So, in conclusion, I second your desire for children to do more of the research themselves, but urge you to hold judgement; teachers are held accountable for making the work look Ofsted-presentable (or whatever that is deemed to be), and many schools would rather reduce the freedom and regain control over the work the children produce, in order to ensure the kids get coverage.

    Tricky one!

  • 2
    Edmund Connolly wrote on 18 July 2014:

    Morning Johnny,

    Thanks for the comment, always surprised my ramblings merit any sort of response.

    My approach is a far easier than the trials and tribulations you face because, as you point out, when I’m working with a KS2 class in a museum I’m not tied down to meeting curriculum goals, rest assured I appreciate that.

    I suppose defining the ‘offer’ (horrid marketing talk) is the crux of this issue: What is the point of this session? Personally, I would say coming away with a hieroglyphic tablet can be far more useful than knowing the hieroglyphs were used around 3200 BC (or some such context). If a child has written their name in hieroglyphs they come to appreciate how fiddly they are, how decorative they can be and that perhaps they’re not just a way of writing, were they an art form as well?

    Knowing the factual date is pretty obsolete, this information is easily researched, why learn what can be sourced? Instead the skill to question and experience, I’d say, is far more valuable.

    I know I am generalising, but I worked as a teacher for a very short while and was amazed how in the maths class I had no one knew timetables. Instead, children had adopted various coping mechanisms to work them out, i.e. they had learnt an adaptive skill that solved a problem. Why has this teaching not transferred to humanities yet? If I give them an answer what are they going to do when an expert isn’t there, or, if they aspire to academia, if there is no answer.

  • 3
    Jack Ashby wrote on 18 July 2014:

    Hi Ed
    For me, one of the greatest things we can offer at UCL Museums is access to our disciplines. And for sure, a lot of that access is in the objects and displays, but a huge part of it is in our staff. When we evaluated our outreach programmes we found that the interactions with our expert staff was one of the most valued and inspiring aspects.
    I think it’s fine if children ask us questions they could read for themselves (but we all know that hardly any visitors, of any age read labels). We can help them work the answers out for themselves. It’s a long standing joke that all questions in museums are answered with “what do you think it is?”, but this is how we develop research and deduction skills – to get them to use what they can see and what they know to work out the answer for themselves.
    For me, access to our staff, as well as our objects, is one of the best things about UCL Museums. It’s not everyday that children get to talk to a real live archaeologist.

  • 4
    Edmund Connolly wrote on 4 August 2014:

    Hi Jack,

    I completely agree with you vis access, and access to staff is included in that. I think if a child managed to ask a question that is using staff knowledge ie, read a label and thought ‘what is a scarab?’ that is a very valuable skill.

    Whilst knowing about archaeology is interesting and useful, I’d say the life skill of knowing how to manage your own research, your own questions and then use resources is far more valuable. Personally, I think we live in an age where fact and date is not really so relevant, knowing how to find that information is far more pressing.

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