Curiosity, creativity and conversation – maximising the impact of object learning in your classroom

(Image credit: Leeds Museums and Galleries)

When talking to teachers, they all agree they should use objects in their teaching and many of them go on to say they do. Yet, when I visit classrooms, I find it is quite a different story. Yes, there may be some objects accompanying a display in the corner of the room or even an object held up by the teacher in a show and tell fashion, but it is rare to see any used to extend learning in History let alone across the curriculum.
This oversight means children lose the opportunity to engage with something tangible from the past that they can see, hold and even smell. This experience is a as powerful force as touching something held by people in the past can provide an important hook into a topic making children curious to discover more. Objects also serve to make our teaching more inclusive as they are readily available and are often everyday items such as utensils or toys. This may enable all children to enter the world of women, the poor or children, all of who are groups underrepresented by other types of evidence.
So why are teachers not making greater use of objects? Is it that they don’t know how to use them effectively or are they just unsure where to obtain them? Finding the perfect object shouldn’t be a barrier. You can use any object to develop the skills and processes required for effective object learning.
Leeds Museums and Galleries adopt an approach to object learning based on developing pupils’ ‘Curiosity, Creativity and Conversation’. Just like learning to read print, pupils should be taught how to read an object. Once pupils have acquired a toolkit for object learning, they can apply it to every object. Mastering this process empowers pupils to investigate any object even if it’s unfamiliar and one that we may perceive as challenging.
Pupils should begin with an initial physical investigation. They may be prompted to note such features as the material, texture and colour and the variations of these within the object. They can then begin to pose questions about the object. Challenge the pupils to think of killer questions for example:

  • How does this object make you feel?

  • Why do think this object is displayed in a museum?

Next, they will think about how to find the answers. Sometimes this just means going back to the object for closer inspection or making links between the object and their prior historical or general background knowledge. Some questions will require further research and will involve the use of other objects or types of evidence to find answers. Initially, you will need to support them on where to go and what to use to find the answers, but very quickly they will be telling you. They will quickly realise that sometimes answers are never found or at least may only tentatively be put forward. Throughout this process, they are encouraged to discuss and develop their ideas.
As a final step, the pupils will communicate their knowledge to a wider audience. To begin with, you can supply scaffolds for this but you should quickly move on to the pupils devising their own approaches. The important thing here is variety.  In the Rising Stars Voyagers materials, a scaffolding sheet is provided, but the aim is to use this resource purely to build up skills and not for each time you engage with objects.
Due to the accessibility of the objects, some Voyagers units clearly lend themselves much more easily to using objects:
At Key Stage 1, the units: What was life like when our grandparents were children? which includes investigating toys and How has food changed over time? where household appliances are explored are ideal ones for developing object learning.
The Voyagers Upper Key Stage 2 unit exploring the impact of WW2 on the local area is an excellent one for supporting object learning with this age group. Check out how your local museums can support you with this unit, as many have a loans service and this may even be free as in the case of the Imperial War Museum North or the M&S Company Archives.
Voyagers appreciates the challenge of how to access objects to use in some of their units. An example being in the Anglo-Saxon unit at Key Stage 2 where access to objects from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard is impossible at least in most parts of the country.  Here visuals of objects are provided and other skills are developed.
In many of the Key Stage 1 Voyagers units, guidance is given on creating an independent learning area containing objects; in doing so, it is hoped that the children will keep returning to them to investigate further. Look for opportunities to extend this good practice through into Key Stage 2. Pupils may become curators of their own museums, particularly when working on the post -1066 or local history units.
One of the most valuable qualities of objects is how they help us to know and understand about people living in the past. Don’t just confine this to thinking about the owners of the object, but begin to explore its makers, designers or even collectors. In the Voyagers Key Stage 1 unit on local heroes pupils are guided through the process on how to make these discoveries.

Although our focus here has been on History, always remember the power of objects in enriching the whole curriculum. Working with one of my trainee teachers recently she used an antelope’s horn from the collection at Leeds Museums to develop a unit of work covering all subjects. (See accompanying box) I hope reading this you now feel motivated to make greater use of objects in your teaching. 
Just remember to keep curiosity, creativity and conversation at the forefront of your planning and you can’t fail to inspire your pupils.

Bev Forrest is an Associate Principal Lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. She is a member of the Historical Association Primary Committee and of the editorial board for Primary History.
Stuart Tiffany is a Year 6 class teacher and history subject leader at Farsley Farfield School in Leeds.
Voyagers_LogoWeb-(3).jpgVoyagers History and Geography provides everything you need to take children on a voyage of discovery with imaginative, hands-on history and geography lessons for the new curriculum.


history, History and Geography, ks1, ks2, voyagers

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