School Visits vs. School Visitors – Which is Best?

I suppose the proper answer is, it depends. School visits can be expensive and time consuming to organise. You might have to get cover for teachers and assistants away on the visit. Also, you have to justify whether the children will actually learn much from their visit. Bringing in an unknown visitor can be a lot cheaper, but is sometimes a riskier proposition.

On the plus side, you will often be visiting a venue that is well known and has a good reputation for being geared towards school visits. However, time spent travelling to and from the venue can mean only a limited time there doing something useful. The children will certainly remember their trip away from school, but how many of those memories will actually be useful and relevant to the topic they are studying?

A friend of mine went to visit the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh recently and recommended that I visit the Viking exhibition there, which is visiting from Stockholm. He said it was amazing, and the artifact labels were very readable and informative. He learned loads about everyday Viking life while he was there. It was the perfect place for a school trip for pupils learning about the Vikings, and there were many school parties there. However, he also said that most of the children spent a large amount of time running around and giving only cursory glances to the fantastic exhibits on display, while the teachers stared in wonder at the marvels before them. Sure, the children were also filling in various worksheets as they wandered the museum, but I wonder how much they actually learned from their time there.

In Cumbria it seems that lots of schools are studying the Vikings this year, as I have visited many schools since September in the guise of Bjarni Thorvaldrson, Viking warrior and trader. The difference between a school visit to a museum or other venue and a visit from me is that, firstly, I am a lot cheaper, secondly, it takes about ten minutes to organise my visit to a school, and thirdly, I am in character for the whole day and I bring a wealth of museum-quality reproduction artifacts that the children can pick up and use.

The whole day, from 9am to 3pm or later, is spent with the children interacting with a “real” Viking, learning information that you just can’t get from books or a museum exhibit locked away in a glass cabinet. With me they hear tales from my youth, learn how each of the Viking weapons is used, with their strengths and weaknesses, wear a chainmail shirt and hold a sword, and actually get to take part in a shieldwall battle. Later they learn how children grew up in Viking times, while actually getting to do some of the jobs, like grinding grain into flour using an authentic quern. The main thing I do, which no book, film or museum exhibit can do, is forge a living link between their modern life today and that of the Viking people who lived over 1000 years ago.

I, and many other school visitors, also pride myself on being totally inclusive. I have known some disruptive pupils to be barred from school visits because  they cannot be trusted to behave. I have met many “difficult” children during my time as a Viking school visitor, and I have never had a problem with any of them. In fact, more than any of the others, they have thrived in the environment I provide for that day. I’ve lost count of the times teachers have come to me, totally amazed at the way their more “difficult” pupils have reacted to my visit, often outstripping the “normal” children in their learning for that day.

So, when the school visit is over, or the school visitor has gone home, how much have the children actually learned from their experience. Thinking back to my own time going on school visits as a schoolboy, I remember often enjoying the day out, but sometimes not. From my time as a teacher organising school trips, I always felt a bit deflated after a school trip, as the pupils never got as much learning out of it as I would have hoped.

Here, however, is some of the feedback I got from a school I visited recently:

“I was listening in to four of the girls role playing as Viking children at play time this week – grinding grain, feeding animals and playing games. The children have also really enjoyed writing as if they were Viking children and this showed how much they had learnt from your visit too!”

You can read the whole thing here. For me, at least, this is not unusual feedback, either verbally or written.

So, the next time you are deciding on some curriculum enrichment, maybe a school visit to a great venue is the right thing for your pupils. If you are learning about the Vikings, a trip to the Jorvik Centre is a fantastic day out. But what if you could actually have a “real life” Viking in your school for a whole day? How good would that be?

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