Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Moving On: Reflecting of my Skills for the Future training - Mary Cook

At the University of Oxford Museum of Natural History, we are able to offer some fantastic experiences for all our visitors, but arguably our Christmas Lectures for Year 9’s have the most potential to be life changing.  Seeing experiments happen right in front of them in the lecture theatre and hearing from some of the best in their field, these students are offered a chance to look at what university education offers close up. These lectures are delivered by some of the front runners in the field of science who are well known by their peers and who more usually teach undergraduates and graduates.  What could follow that? 

However talented the speaker, it turns out the collection of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is itself just as able to keep the attention of the hard to impress teenager.  Surrounded by twenty Year 9 students recoiling from cockroaches loudly and with pantomime gestures, I feel pretty much at home.  Is that the picture that comes to mind as the definition of success?  For me, I think it is. Two hundred students came out of the Chemistry lecture in high spirits.   I hear the lads before I see them and when I ask the group “Would anyone like to come and see some cockroaches?” They respond en masse, egging each other on while clearly reluctant as individuals to actually touch the insects.  The noise settles as I wait for their attention then introduce the insects.

Handling a cockroach

Curiosity gets the better of them. Once several others have gently touched its back and found it to feel a bit like the wooden surface of the handling table, one of them bravely offers to hold a large cockroach.  In a 2 minute encounter they have overcome a prejudice, calmed their behaviour, bonded with the group and learnt about the relevance of insects in biodiversity and asked relevant questions taking responsibility for their own learning. 
Museum education is not solely about the moment of encounter with the collection, but also the reflection and discussion of that encounter. One of the girls who had never previously come to the museum and had never handled insects before really enjoyed the experience. She insisted her friend film the cockroach in her hand as she didn’t want her mum to miss out on learning about the insects. I wonder how her mum felt about that?

I guess there is quite a parallel with my own experience. Through Skills for the Future, I too have had an unusual opportunity to experience something unique in a hands-on way, and have been able to apply theoretical knowledge about learning to real scenarios.  I also have a responsibility to ensure my own development and make the most of what is offered and then share it in new ways.  A recent job interview showed me exactly how relevant the Skills for the Future programme was, focusing as it did on  the skills of working as part of a wider team, being adaptable to the needs of an audience in the moment as well as planning ahead and creating and developing a programme and resources.  I was able to give examples of working with a wide range of audiences from Under Fives to Over 90’s and everyone in between.  I could  talk about working in a wide range of contexts from a science museum DNA workshop in the lab to shadowing Reminiscence Officer Helen Fountain at a Day Centre for the elderly, to teaching a KS1 group at  the Shrine of Taharqa in the Ashmolean Museum and of course the lantern workshops which involved 200 children in nine schools.  In addition, I could talk about creating resources for all these audiences and reflect on my own learning. 

Facilitating a DNA workshop at OUM

These experiences are not unique to me of course; Aisling, Corie, Hannah, Jenny and Rachel can equally cite their relevant experience as opportunities for work arise for them.  But while our direction of travel in terms of our career ambition is the same, we are very different people.  Each one of us brings different strengths and approaches, and we have learnt to make the most of that difference too.  Sharing and growing through peer learning is a key part of our training and gives us something that is common to all good museum educators: we share ideas and resources and lend a hand and are extremely adaptable.  Of all the experiences I have particularly enjoyed working with the other trainees on Outreach and In-reach activities such as Friday Live at the Ashmolean, The Need Make Use at the Pitt Rivers Museum  or Cowley Carnival.  Where non-traditional museum audiences and these personalities combine I am always impressed by the result which is so creative. The visitor comments show that the experience for them is effortless and fun despite the huge amount of work behind the scenes!   

Trainees preparing for Live Friday at the Ashmolean

Trainees taking the 'museums' to the Cowley Carnival

While each of us has much in the way of initiative we also know that pooling talent makes for the best events and activities and enables us to achieve much more in a short space of time than we could alone.  As importantly, we have unique opportunities in Oxford to work at different sites in different collections with different strategic priorities.  We have learnt much from assisting other Education professionals in each museum as they negotiate the daily issues that are never on the job description, such as: “You will need to manage a group of thirty people several of whom are in wheelchairs.  They are coming to an exhibition on the 3rd floor. The Lift can only take one wheel chair at a time.  Ensure that every person in the group has an interesting and low stress visit” or “Manage the expectations of a secondary school group who despite their booking apparently thought this was a different museum with another specialism”  or “A group of thirty has just arrived unannounced and require a lesson”  “A schoolchild would like to buy one of the exhibits.”  “A volunteer wishes to work with only one activity out of three and is rejecting your proposed rota.”  “Create an app for KS2 which is user friendly, accessible to all abilities and which will be of interest to schools” “Adapt a resource created for families to use with a primary group.  Now adapt it again for under-fives.” 

Before I did the traineeship, I felt my lack of a teaching or post graduate qualification was a barrier to gaining a role in museum education.  Rejections from museum and heritage organisations suggested that my informal experience as a volunteer did not really count and my Heritage studies degree was almost an artefact in itself being from 20 years previous.  In applying for the Skills for the Future Education and Outreach Traineeship I was really looking for a way to prove to employers I could add value to their organisation and contribute as a member of their team.  The feedback from my Skills for the Future interview showed me that the imagination, innovation and hard work I had brought to volunteering were very welcome here at the Oxford University Museums and Collections  and would create foundations to build upon.  Through rigorous recruiting and incredible training it is clear that Skills for the Future Trainees are all highly committed to working in museum education and each of us will reflect on our experiences to push the bar higher next time. 
Post Script:  Mary has just accepted the role of Lifelong Learning and Outreach Officer at Steam Museum and Lydiard Park in Swindon.

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