Museums that teach

Piyuli Ghosh and Bhagyashree Dokrimare

Imagine a class where children are gathered around a series of three unusual see-saws, with a few children playing on them and understanding the concept of the lever system. Imagine a class where children are entering a mud house of Gond tribals, looking at the structure of the house and the murals and paintings on its walls, trying to understand and explore the habitat and cultural practices of that tribe. Can you imagine a classroom like that? Can you imagine such a classroom in a city?

While we were planning for our research project during the final year of our masters programme, our quest for exploring informal learning spaces took us to Bhopal, to a school named Parvarish – The Museum School. On a typical day of this school, children gather at their bus stops, excitedly waiting for the bus that collects them and takes them to their school, a museum that is full of possibilities for exploration. At the museum, the children are divided into different groups according to their age and taken to different galleries with a teacher facilitator to explore particular exhibits in the gallery and understand a concept. The facilitator is more of a storyteller, who explores and understands the exhibits herself first and weaves a story around the concept or topic to be taught. The story consists of many elements from the children’s own contexts and more examples are brought up during discussions. The story leads the kids to the exhibits and then they observe, interact with the exhibits, explore and understand. This raises more interesting questions in their minds and the entire group along with their facilitator discusses them and develops a coherent understanding. At the end of every session, the children write a small note on what they have learnt.

You must be wondering what can be learnt from museums. Bhopal has a diverse set of museums – a science museum, a tribal museum, a museum based on the history of mankind, a biodiversity museum and a museum on the history of Madhya Pradesh. These are the five museums that the children of The Museum School go to, once or twice every week. The exhibits of different museums are mapped with the formal school curriculum and lessons are planned by the facilitator accordingly. But, apart from teaching of academic subjects through the mapped curriculum, a lot of interdisciplinary learning also takes place, which is another interesting aspect of learning in a museum. An exhibit or gallery in a science museum can be interpreted in various ways and multiple topics of multiple subjects can be learnt by exploring it. Museums provide a diverse and holistic experience. For children of this school, museums have also been a wonderful source of introduction into the visual arts, especially understanding and learning tribal paintings. Regular visits to the tribal museum have helped them build an affinity towards tribal art forms.

Museums serve as spaces for generating curiosity and fascination in children. Children enter a museum, hop around different exhibits, observe and interact with the exhibits. The discussions that take place among children while they are observing and interacting with an exhibit involves a lot of reasoning, questioning each other related to a lived experience and making new cases and stories around it. All of these, with proper facilitation, help children construct knowledge. A museum is a microcosm of the real world. Depending on the theme on which the museum is based, it brings for its visitors a variety of exhibits, showcasing a “close to real” representation. When children are exposed to such settings, they get to observe and experience “a real thing” in its “real size”, unlike in a conventional teaching-learning method which happens only through text or pictures. Children enjoy learning in informal spaces like museums, because all of their senses are at play, in acquiring information, perceiving it and constructing knowledge.

Parvarish – The Museum School was started in 2005 by a Bhopal-based couple, Shibani and Pradeep Ghosh. Shibani was a fresh B.Ed graduate then and wanted to initiate her journey into the education sector with something that could really make a difference. The sight of a rag picker child in front of the gate of a big private school with bright walls, who was looking at other children merrily dispersing after school hours, was what hit a chord in their minds. They wanted to address this huge disparity that existed in the quality of education for children of various socio-economic backgrounds. They wanted to make “school” a happy and desirable place for the ragpicker children they saw wandering the streets every day. On one of those recreational visits to a museum, they simply thought – “What if this beautiful museum, also a rich source of knowledge, can become a school for children?” In the journey of realizing their dream of providing quality education to children of lower income families, they comprehended that if quality education is determined mainly by three factors – good quality infrastructure, quality teaching aids and teachers, all of these factors could be fulfilled in a museum. That was the start. They collaborated with five museums in the city and identified some slum communities that they would begin with. Some qualified women from the same communities were trained in museum-based teaching and engaged as teachers in the school. Since then, for the past 14 years, Parvarish – The Museum School has engaged with around 3500 children of different slum communities in Bhopal and worked with more than 20 teachers. It has been rewarded with recognition at various platforms including the UNESCO Educational Innovation Award in 2017. Organizations in other cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and Bengaluru have also tried to replicate the idea of museum-based teaching.

Our experience at The Museum School opened our perspectives about innovative teaching pedagogies. We can now see museums or the museum-based teaching approach as effective tools both as a complementary approach of teaching in formal classrooms and in informal teaching-learning initiatives.

Piyuli Ghosh has an M.A. in Education from the Azim Premji University. She is working on two projects in Bhopal-LIFE School, an open learning community for 7-14 year olds and Anant Mandi, a fortnightly organic farmers’ market. She is an advocate of regenerative living, productive work-based education and education for a sustainable world. She can be reached at [email protected].

Bhagyashri Dokrimare is a graduate from the Azim Premji University. She is working on primary education with Samavesh in Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh. Her areas of interest are pedagogy of education, curriculum designing and gender sensitivity. She can be reached at [email protected].

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