"Of what will it make the students think?" Learning to plan lessons at Caerphilly Castle

"Of what will it make the students think?" Learning to plan lessons at Caerphilly Castle

Of what will it make the students think?”
Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?

Visiting Caerphilly Castle for the first time since childhood, a beautiful day lapsed into snow…  until the primary school children visiting shouted “It’s snowing!” and their teacher insisted it was hail.  Cadw call it the biggest fortress in Western Europe and it’s in an impressive state, due, I gathered, to some extensive late-Victorian rebuilding.  Which illustrates a critical point about planning learning.

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I ‘gathered’ because information was sparse.  There were perhaps a dozen information boards around the castle.  A video briefly introduced the castle’s creation.  I saved a doorway marked ‘exhibition’ for the snow hail, but whatever it was, it was gone.  I had learned almost nothing, and only this touchscreen was left:

It might seem as though I’m being deliberately obtuse: in fact I’d already spent several minutes trying to use the touchscreen when the ridiculousness of it dawned on me and I started filming.  “Content”, it is claimed, “is accessed through a number of game interactions each of which are [sic] intrinsically linked to the history of the castle”.  Cadw describe the absurd reality better than I can:

To find out about the scale of the [restoration] work you’ll have to blow up a barrel of gunpowder, flood the castle, let loose the catapult to knock down the castle walls or send the marquess birthday wishes.”

Unrelated interactive activities appear to be catching on as intermediaries between visitors and information.  To learn more about Caerphilly Castle’s rebuilding, I was asked to use a trebuchet (I never succeeded).  To learn about code-breaking at Bletchley Park, I had to leaf through electronic files.  To switch from reading one biography of an early black resident to another in Brooklyn Museum I had to pull several lengths of a cord stretching to the ceiling.  History is accessed through interactive technology.

I’m interested enough to have paid to visit all three museums.  I found myself confused by irrelevant, distracting and time-consuming tasks.  I gave up on some of them.

But it’s not about me.  It’s about bringing “stories to life, giving visitors an opportunity to learn about the monument in an imaginative and hands-on way”, presumably for those who are less interested in history than I am.

This misses one key point however.  In discussing flashy visuals and multitasking levered into non-fiction texts, Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs note that:

“The purpose is often to distract—to sell the nonfiction by making kids look at something else, something ‘more enticing.'”
(Reading Reconsidered)

Interactive games may interest children.  But of what will it make them think?  Enticing children to light a powder keg does nothing to interest them in Caerphilly Castle’s reconstruction.  It will interest children for as long as lighting a powder keg remains interesting.  The chances that this interest will spill over into a display of nineteenth century descriptions and depictions of the castle are slim without a clear link, a continued thought process.

This approach is akin to planning a lesson in which children are invited to make posters, then teach one another from those posters, on the grounds that doing so is more effective than learning about the topic directly.  It’s akin to sending children to wander around the classroom to collect information on the walls because that’s more fun than reading that information directly.  It’s akin to putting in pair-talk on the grounds that doing so will make the lesson more exciting.  All of these activities might have a place in the classroom: but only if an important question has been answered first.

“Of what will it make the students think (and how might I interest students in that)?”

If we wish to interest children – or, more effectively still, wish children to learn something – we must spark thinking about the topic itself.  Caerphilly Castle has a vein of stories which could be far better exploited; the picture below shows one of three boards on medieval women associated with the castle.  It’s more interesting than everything on the touchscreen box, yet it cries out for more and begs any number of questions:

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It’s easier if there’s a teacher to get children thinking, but museums can prompt this too. Take Jenkins Vase, a Roman altar/Enlightenment vase in Cardiff Museum.  Beneath it is a board:

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It offers information about the figures from classical mythology on the vase:

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And a series of questions encouraging children to think about what they can see and look more closely:

It’s not complicated, it’s not flashy, it’s not expensive: you learn a little about the vase, and are prompted to think and look a little more deeply.  There’s no pretence that the vase is a game; visitors are encouraged to think about why the vase itself is interesting.

I spent years dressing up history as something else, using scrambled groups, information hunts and kinaesthetic activities.  I stopped because I realised it didn’t make students any more interested in the history (not to mention the time taken, the limited learning achieved and the classroom management challenges created).

“The best barometer for every lesson plan [and every museum display] is ‘Of what will it make the students think?'”
Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?

Then add as much flashy and fun stuff as you like – as long as it adds to and supports the thinking.