Pot Sherds and Pedagogy

There's only so much you can learn sitting at a desk: sometimes you need to get your hands dirty. That's as true for us at School of Everything as for the Year 8 students from Holmes Chapel Comprehensive that I met when I escaped the office for a day at The Blackden Trust.

Handling objects in the Medicine House

The Trust cares for a parcel of land in East Cheshire that has been occupied for 10,000 years, as well as the two historic houses which form the latest stage of occupation. It runs courses on which students from local schools join archaeologists in exploring the history and meaning of the site. What happens on these courses is education at its best: open-ended, demanding, serious and fun.

I joined them for 'The World of Wotsits', an introduction to archaeology which starts from the students' own curiosity. Tutors Dawn Parry and Tom Hughes encouraged the group, as far as possible, to answer its own questions about the construction of timber-frame houses, the symbolism of a Saxon round shaft, or the tumbledown outhouse which turned out to have been a combined pigsty, henhouse and privy. By mid-morning, the students were recognising patterns, speculating about the purpose of objects and making connections back to things learned earlier.

Neither Dawn nor Tom is a trained teacher, but both are knowledgeable and passionate about sharing their knowledge. Between them, they got this group of twelve and thirteen year olds starting to think like archaeologists - or rather, and this is the significance of the style of learning embodied by the Trust, to think for themselves. There should be far more opportunities like this for children to spend time with skilled, enthusiastic adults from beyond the school walls. (For another inspiring example, check out Maya Plass's Learn to Sea project.)

The force behind the Trust is Griselda Garner, herself a retired teacher. Talking to her after the students had left, something else came into focus about its approach to learning. The opportunities offered to children and young people at Blackden are, above all, meaningful. Where classroom work often consists of arbitrary activities, students on the Trust's courses learn by taking part in the actual process of archaeology. Sorting pot sherds, for example, a member of the group will spot something that contributes to the evolving interpretation of the site.

There is a further sense in which the Trust's activities are deliberately meaningful. Where a course sparks something in a student, the Trust recognises a responsibility - and its door stays open. This may develop through students being invited back to help with research on the site or as volunteers on future courses. What matters is that students aren't offered a taste of something with no opportunity to take it further.

The Blackden Trust is something special - but the attitude to learning which it embodies is one I know is shared by many of the teachers here on School of Everything. And there must be other equally inspiring projects out there which we haven't heard of yet. If you know of any, please tell us about them.

During September, the Blackden Trust will be running courses for sixth formers interested in reading Archaeology, History or Geography at university. Details are available here.