Teachers, schools, digital and museums: what synergies?

Last spring, I was asked to lead a refresher course for teachers at the Museo del ‘900 in Milan. The theme was identified quite broadly as ‘Museums and digital’. In a country where digital is still regarded with strong cultural suspicion, I asked myself many questions before deciding which direction to take.

If the LIM introduction gives teachers a tool that is also potentially suitable for interaction with students (sometimes more and sometimes less), what are the contents on which they can draw? And what are the dynamics that can be modified in a lesson?

And that is the key theme: what are the best content and approaches.

I then tried to organize the materials I had into working categories, to help me to unravel the problem. The skeleton of my presentation remains a basis on which to work.

Firstly, we can identify digital as a resource, a source of ideas. The examples are almost entirely from British or American museums: for example, Tate Kids, Met Kids or, in a different way, also MoMA; I note that comparable Italian examples are lacking, in both depth and breadth.

Tate kids or Met kids present – on the websites of both two notable museums – a variety of activities arranged according to age or type; some are designed to inspire the teacher to work alone and come up with manual or creative activities that can enliven theoretical lessons. For example, when discussing weaving, it shows how a small loom can be made from easily found materials. And when discussing the invention of photography, you can play with chemical paper (connecting the activity to the lesson in a close way, thus disproving the idea that digital is just digital).

Also available in various forms on the same sites are documents that help teachers develop organic lesson plans, all arranged by age, from primary school age upwards (see also the National Gallery in London).

The above sections can also be used by pupils at home: on Tate Kids, children can select their favourite works, and can also reproduce or upload copies or works that have been inspired by the masterpieces, and share them among each other. This is therefore an appropriate tool for children and families to also use at home (with many disclaimers for parents with regards to internet safety), continuing the educational activities begun in class: there are also games available online.

The children’s section on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website is rich in videos (this is the only tool used, apart from the amazing Time machine) and the stress is certainly placed on creative manual experience, but with a Q&A section in which certain key concepts are explained by answering the children’s own questions (‘Can an artist break rules?’ or ‘How does a museum take care of a collection of armours’, or ‘How is a mummy made?’)

Digital can obviously be a tool that supports a visit to the museum, before, during and after. You will all remember the long wander with comments, of the ‘memento mori’ kind, beneath the photo of teenagers in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch at the Rijksmuseum.

They are in fact engrossed in a follow-up activity on the museum app. There are also many British and American examples of this, as well as some excellent cases in Italy: like the bilingual apps produced for kids by Art Stories, on the Sforzesco Castle, the Cathedral and Palazzo Marino in Milan, which skillfully combine form and content. The Leonardo da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology has developed a visit with cardboard glasses to the submarine Toti; Sky arte has proposed simple apps for kids at a series of institutions. Just to give a few examples.

The app produced by MoMA in New York also has audio content for children, which developed very differently from that for adults.

Digital can also be a project tool: the examples that struck me and which I liked best are Detto tra noi, which is aimed at teenagers and results from a long-established and close collaboration with schools, and is produced by Palazzo Grassi/Punta della Dogana: this app has become a point of reference. Another example in the field of reading is the extraordinary Tw Letteratura, made in Turin, but I believe there are still big steps to be made in the use of social media in class, particularly among the age range that can safely and legitimately use it.

Digital can also be a tool for children to create, and represent the world: the opportunities for training have multiplied; children can be both in front and behind the code in Coderdojo (which, from personal experience, really enthuses the youngest geeks).

Some questions remain: what are the experiences that teachers and pupils can share on LIM? And which ages? What are the other supports on which they can, or will they be able, to be placed? At what age can social networks be used? And what can be shared with families?

In the Agenda for new competences and work, already back in 2011, the European Union noted how it was vital to teach a critical use of digital media, and to provide training also on basic informational tools: it’s worth saying, at least a familiarity with selecting and using tools.

Going back to the lesson with which I started this post, I thought I should present my examples from the field of digital for kids to Federica Pascotto and Giovanna Hirsch, of Art Stories, who are already developing experimental projects for schools, teachers and children. I am now collaborating with them to answer some of the questions that have come up. Their project –  Bartolomeo – financed by Fondazione Cariplo, will be launched at the Salone del Libro in Turin: it’s an all-Italian proposal, free, online, and follows the best international practice. It will fill a gap.

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