The amazing Biblioteca Angelica, Rome
Last week I spent a day and a half in Rome at the Biblioteca Angelica working with Europeana on digital cultural heritage and education. The Europeana Foundation seeks to create new ways for people to engage with their cultural history, whether it’s for work, learning or pleasure and works with member states of the EU, other countries and cultural heritage institutions across Europe. My brief was simple. I had to make a case to various government officials and cultural institute representatives that allowing the digitising of materials would be of great help to educators (especially History teachers) across Europe.
I started with the view that teachers get blamed for lots of things in society yet what we really want to do (in my view) is to create a sense of connection with the world around us and help students understand people beyond the horizon on their vision. As a History teacher, I suggested that this is pretty difficult to do when you are limited to source material in your own language and have been provided by the textbook makers. If our job is really to help tell the ‘human’ story, then access to resources from different countries with translations would be incredibly helpful to gain a truly multi-perspective view on significant events such as the First World War. Using Steven Johnson’s idea from ‘Future Perfect’, I suggested that because publishers acted centrally to negotiate rights, the sources available in a ‘home’ language are always limited and ignore the unique and difficult images/texts. If you are brave enough to go beyond this provision in limited time, you are confronted by an array of problems. Yet if these resources were curated, translated and made free for educators, we would be able to benefit from the ‘distributed’ network of the web. One example of where things worked well was the Europeana site on the First World War. http://www.europeana-collections-1914-1918.eu/ I suggested that the cultural institutions and government departments were ‘choice architects’ in the ‘Nudge‘ mode of thinking and some of the choices they gave us meant that it was very hard to do our jobs (and ultimately what states want).
My second point was much more pragmatic in that it dealt with enabling teachers to access already existing material in collections so we could tell the ‘human’ story. In essence, I asked them to rethink the ‘choice architecture’ they use when working with teachers. I gave the example of the British Museum and its offering of CPD for teachers (£300 for half a day and £500 for a full day). Prices such as these limit the possibility of sharing their cultural heritage expertise and I asked the question whether institutions put funds into outreach with teachers as part of their project budgets. The lack of interaction with teachers also meant that generic learning activities were created, reducing the capacity to educate people about the items museums held. Using the cognitive psychology notion of the illusion of explanatory depth, I asked delegates to turn to the person next to them and explain how a person learns. The intention was not to embarrass anyone but to show that just because you have an experience of education and think you know it pretty well, your causal knowledge (knowledge about how the world works) about it is poor. An experience of school does not furnish you with complete causal knowledge on learning. Where does retrieval come into it? Research on working memory? Emotional connection and advanced organisers? I used an example of a worksheet from the Smithsonian which was generic in its questions. My point was not to suggest that cultural institutions should neglect learning but to work with people who are steeped in it as the benefits are tangible for all parties. Taking a lesson from ‘Multipliers’, they need to tap into the genius around them. If they worked with educators effectively and provided training, the content knowledge of the institutions would overlap with the pedagogical knowledge of the educators and would create the Pedagogical Content Knowledge that is highly prized. The teachers would also help the institutions devise activities built with a deeper understanding of learning in mind.
My final point was to place the delegates into the context of history and show that the work they were doing started long before they were born. Using Theodor Adorno and Michael Sandel, I suggested that they needed to move away from a limited vision of education and consider the deep roots of the project. Giving examples of Renaissance thinkers and educators, I pointed out that they were part of the cultural ‘gift exchange’ that started in the 1400 and 1500s and this was done without the tools and technology available to delegates today. If we really are interested in ‘cultivating humanity’ through heritage institutions and schools, we really need to move beyond the ‘logic of the market’.
The following day was spent working through draft recommendations and I would like to thank the group that I chaired as they were genial and very efficient!
I would like to thank Jill, Steven, Joke, the Europeana team and our Italian hosts for a very interesting few days.