Where the classroom and the museum are far apart, object-led teaching has to call on the everyday.
Meeting with New Jersey high school teachers for a workshop organised by the Montclair State University Institute for the Humanities made us focus not on ‘Art’ or ‘History’, but on the capacity of ordinary stuff to spark inquiry. The agility of the object in your pocket or on the kitchen counter.
We asked all the teachers to bring an object from their home and then we put them randomly into groups of three. And they really were random, both the objects and the teachers’ own subjects. A computer mouse, a shell and an Eiffel Tower key ring. A Language Arts teacher, a mathematician and a historian.
But randomness was no obstacle. The connections they made and the teaching outcomes they suggested for using their objects were outstanding.
A class on the passage and processes of time, based on looking at a golf ball, a can opener and a rock from the Delaware River, came out of calculus and language arts.
The mouse, the shell and the key ring suggested a way in to teaching essay-writing technique, drawing on ideas of shelter and protection.
Three ESL and Special Needs teachers had the idea for a lesson on physical, social and emotional identity using a water bottle, a toy gnome and an iPhone.
Of course, museums are full of everyday stuff too, but everyday stuff made special by being collected, conserved and catalogued.
What the NJ high school teachers reminded us is that not the privileges of survival, display or historical importance that count in object-led teaching. Some of the most exciting learning opportunities can come straight out of the agility of ordinary objects and the imagination of extraordinary teachers.