“Before the gates of excellence the high gods have placed sweat; long is the road thereto and rough and steep at first; but when the heights are reached, then there is ease, then there is ease, though grievously hard in the winning”
This page will hold my own thoughts on the ethos and educational style that runs through all of my experimental work. It is personal and reflects my own opinions, experience and upbringing.
This is a revised paper I wrote for the EXARC (http://www.exarc.net) journal a few years ago…. it is my personal take on Heritage Education and reflects the principles that underlie the projects I design and run.
Playing with the Past? Or saving our future?
The role of Fundamental Education in the Heritage Industry
WHAT DO WE DO AND WHY DO WE DO IT?
As the Director of Historic Concepts Ltd, I like many of you consider regularly what it is that I actually do. What service do I provide, how am I considered by the public, the education sector, the children I teach and those who pay to come to see the finished projects I have researched and designed. On the face of it this question is simple – I am part of the Heritage Industry or on the periphery of formal education systems. What I do is “fun”, “interesting”, “a good day out”, “fascinating” and yes, let’s be frank, a bit “weird” – in some people’s eyes I “play with the past”.
Experimental archaeologists are the people who make history and archaeology “cool” – who make it accessible to those many people who have an interest in who we are as humans, where we came from, how we got here, what the journey was like. We take those small pieces of evidence and try to re-create long forgotten worlds. We might consider ourselves as serious archaeologists or keen amateurs, but we are all striving for a truth that academia can never attain – a truth of the past that only comes from “doing” or “living” it.
With increasing cuts from central government and a general squeeze on lifestyles, the heritage sector is also pushed to develop sites in interesting ways that will inform and excite the general public.
The question is increasingly asked of us “what do you do?” and “is it worth it?”
The obvious answer is “Experimental Archaeology” in all of its forms. There is however, another side to what we do, a side beyond the world of reconstruction and historic interpretation. And that side has made itself apparent to me over the last 15 years while making the past accessible to children and the visiting public alike. This other side concerns the reality of modern education and the way our children are now expected to learn. It concerns not our distant past, but our future and how we enable the next generations to access their world in an informative, inquisitive, practical, authentic and imaginative way.
Schools and Parents – what they provide and what they do not!
The increasing emphasis on academic attainment at an earlier and earlier age in our schools, combined with the rapidly changing lifestyles of the average family is producing children and adults who are increasingly segregated from the world around them. This combined with a false notion of “Health and Safety” as an inevitable inhibitor of fun and creative activities has already produced a generation of children who spend more time sitting in front of screens than playing outside in the street or their local environment.
It is a sad truth that to many in our modern world, my own exploits as a child growing up in the industrial periphery of Sheffield in the 1970’s, building fires, making dens, using and owning knives as children, exploring our surroundings as groups of friends and without the direct supervision of an adult, would be seen in many parts of the modern world more in terms of delinquency than education. This “criminalisation of natural play” (Louv, R. 2005) is responsible for pushing once acceptable behaviours beyond the pale.
And yet, it is those same people, people who had very similar experiences to me as children who are now responsible for the implementation of educational frameworks that effectively over–protect or shield our own children against their learning environments to a degree that seriously constrains the fundamental educational development of our children. As Adams (2003) asserts, “no natural environment is completely free from risk either. But these risks are a fundamental part of childhood: by gradually learning what is safe and what is dangerous, especially with regard to their own actions and behaviours, children develop their own ‘risk thermostat’. In our current educational climate, the majority of children simply have no risk thermostat.
In a world where a family can walk past an entire supermarket isle of neatly packaged meat without a single pictorial reference to the animals that produced it – is it so surprising that those same children have no concept that bacon is part of a pig, that fish fingers are actually made from fish or that leather is the skin of an animal?
My daily teaching and management of The Ancient Technology Centre in Dorset (2002 – 2017) enabled us to keep a rough eye on the changing knowledge of the children we teach and it is nothing but shocking to realise that of a class of 30 children from urban or rural backgrounds, 20 – 25 will have no idea that leather is the skin of an animal, the same number will have wildly inaccurate estimates (ranging from 3 weeks to 5 years) regarding the time it takes for wheat to grow to harvest, and 5 or more of those children will have never seen a real flame? What has become apparent to me is the depth of this issue. I have personally witnessed the incredulity of 7 – 9 year old children when they discover they are wearing animal skin on their feet (shoes), only to see their parents sitting behind them with equal incredulity!
The situation is desperate. The shift in education policy away from experiential learning to a more rigorous academic leaning, combined with parenting hampered by rumoured Health and Safety restrictions has created a gulf in the exposure of children to essential and basic knowledge regarding the world around them.
I see the role of non-statutory educational projects such as those designed and run by Historic Concepts Ltd as holding crucial positions in the vanguard of a small movement to correct this lack of fundamental learning – Where do “things” come from – what does it take to produce a wholesome meal from scratch? or a longhouse from trees? Our aim is to connect these disconnected generations with those processes that are intentionally or otherwise hidden from them, to engage them in the production of simple things using simple and traditional methods that are grounded in the local landscape and the seasonal materials it produces.
My term “Fundamental Learning” covers any activity that is “Purposeful”, contributes to an understanding of the world around us, now or in the past, includes “Processes” and is therefore “Real”.
This archaeologically authentic outdoor education ensures that children and adults “learn more” and “learn better” and as Dillon (2005) recognises “They also learn differently, experiencing improvements in four specific ways: – Cognitive Impacts (greater knowledge and understanding) – Affective Impacts (attitudes, values, beliefs and self-perceptions) – Interpersonal and Social Impacts (communication skills, leadership and teamwork) – Physical and Behavioural Impacts (fitness, personal behaviours and social actions)”.
Health and Safety – Boo?
One of the main weapons in the ongoing struggle to limit the experiential learning of our society is a common misconception of “Health and Safety”. The many thousands of visitors to the ATC often remarked on, and questioned our ability to “duck under” or “avoid” the modern fixation with Health and Safety. The truth of it is far more subtle and reflects my own conviction in the right of everyone to explore their environment – neither does it at any point avoid our responsibility as educationalists and carers of children.
It is unfortunate and sadly true that “Health and Safety” is more often used as an excuse to not do something – “Health and Safety” used in this context replaces the phrase “I can’t be bothered” or “I don’t want to do that”. People with the best intentions in the world cite “Health and Safety” as a reason for not doing something or for not allowing others to do something – without any foundation in fact or law – and this rapidly takes on a mythical status which, in turn, unintentionally curtails the potential for exciting and genuine learning. This Health and Safety rumour begins with what is considered to be people’s best interests in mind – but the effect is nothing but misguided. If children aren’t supervised by a “responsible” adult in everything they do, we as parents are frowned upon by others, considered uncaring or downright neglecting of our children’s welfare. It is exactly this suffocation of our children’s potential experiences that ensure their segregation from their own environment and their ability to explore it in their own inquisitive way.
My approach is simple and tackles this issue head on. Rather than saying “we can’t cast bronze with 7 year olds – Health and Safety” we simply turn it on its head… “How can we cast bronze with 7 year olds safely? Using this simple approach I have been able to develop many activities (felling trees with flint axes, moving and raising 1.5 tonne monoliths, blacksmithing) that most people would deem too dangerous for children children or adults to undertake. My safety record is outstanding and my systems ensure that each new activity is developed with a specific workforce in mind – perhaps with modifications in tool size and the inclusion of some Personal Protective Equipment where identified by my thorough risk assessment procedures – but without losing sight of the goal – that is to explore the realities of the past using all of our senses. This directly challenges the notion of “risk free” learning environments as nothing but misguided.
I place place emphasis on the children and adults taking responsibility for their own actions – they are not merely sheep to be herded from one thing to another – I teach them a safe method and critically, I tell them what can happen if they misuse tools or processes (in all of its gory detail!), I then expect them to act accordingly, fully aware that they themselves, in the end, are the masters of their own safety. This of course requires trust, excellent systems, excellent teaching and a comprehensive Health and Safety framework.
It is this very Health and Safety framework that allows us to pursue a vast range of potentially dangerous activities in a safe way rather than restricting the activities we wish to perform.
The process is simple and very effective but requires the commitment of staff to pursue, often in the face of raised eyebrows from certain portions of society.
The benefits of this authentic educational style are clear, “children who learn outdoors know more, understand more, feel better, behave better, work more cooperatively and are physically healthier. Not a bad result from simply changing the location where they are being taught. Importantly, this is not just for able and motivated pupils: under-achievers also do better in a natural environment, especially when exposed to high-quality, stimulating activities” (Ofsted 2008).
My belief in genuinely “hands on” education is increasingly supported by a growing raft of research from organisations such as the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. This style of education is one which can be touched, felt and smelled. It creates is a climate of possibilities, an energy from staff, volunteers and children alike. The positive energy of performing tasks for the first (and often only) time that reveal the truth of their world to them is astounding. To see the realisation and wonder on a 7 year old’s face as she successfully and safely moves a 1.5 boulder from one end of the site to the other with her friends, is marvellous. The context it provides for future visits to monuments or a glimpse of ancient structures on television, and the understanding of positive human potential it creates are all tremendous outcomes of doing something real. These experiences give our children and visitors powerful weapons of understanding in their long road through life. It enables them and gives them confidence to question the invisible processes that lie behind their own visible world and, of course it puts them in the same mental place as the countless ancestors who experienced the same tasks.
In the current financial climate, the temptation is to shrink, curtail non-essential work, cut loose those things that require effort and, in simple terms, “go for the money”. I have reacted to these pressures in another way, that is – to re-focus on the quality of what we provide and to build on our uniqueness – to recognise our strength in this educational field and to broadcast that strength to schools and visitors. I continue to put our effort into the provision of unforgettable educational experiences.
So what do I do? Well, like many others in the field, I attempt to shed light on the past through the act of doing. I run long–term construction experiments and …… on the face of it, I let children and adults experience accepted insights and assumptions about the past while opening the doors to new interpretations and ideas. During this obvious process, I fulfill the increasingly critical and less obvious role of enabling children and the public to experience the real world around them…
What I do is not a luxury – the cherry on top of a comprehensive education cake – what we do is the sponge – the foundation of those other educational elements. Without our essential and fundamental approach, other learning is without context and without reference in the real world.
So in the end, perhaps we are Playing With the Past and Saving our Future. And the next time someone suggests to you that what we do is nothing but fun, look them in the eye and tell them what we do!
4 Ofsted (2008) Learning outside the classroom: how far should you go? Manchester: Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. www.ofsted.gov.uk/ news/report-highlights-benefit-of-learning-outside-classroom Quoted in RSPB (2010) Every Child Outdoors.
1 Adams, J. (2003), ‘Risk and morality: three framing devices’, in Ericson, R.V. and Doyle, A. (eds.) Risk and Morality. University of Toronto Press.
Louv, R. (2005) Last Child in the Woods, p.27.
More to come!