Finland calling…

So I think a good lesson in life is to remember the rule that if you stop doing something, you will get rusty. So here I am back in Nero at T3 trying to remember how to write a blog post around a cohesive thought. Perhaps there have been too many late nights recently, or too many things to think about, but my brain is resisting.

Maybe a cat photo will help?


Apologies for the quality, she doesn’t stay still for long.

Actually it has helped, I’ve been mainly pondering grammar schools recently, unsurprising given the news in the UK that the government is open to the idea of more. And I’m off to Helsinki, with an education system talked about in hushed reverential terms. My question for Finland is whether the ‘informal’ sector plays a role in this achievement of excellence or whether credit is due entirely to the schools. My guess is that culture will be at the centre which then involves any area of learning, but that’s to be researched over the next few days.

When I hear about grammar schools I feel like we are trying to fix a difficult problem by fixing on a narrow bypass pipe for a small proportion. Imagine if all the effort spent on considering grammars had gone into framing the central issue with our schools; why do we feel they aren’t working? Where are we seeing success (London – not a tricky question)? And what are the factors leading to that success? It may even need some time to define success, because as simple as that sounds, do we all agree what a successful education looks like? For me its helping people to become good citizens, independent thinkers, problem solvers, perpetual learners and equals.

A curriculum can often feel stifling, a removal of agency as someone else tells you what you need to know. But does it have to be this way? I hear about child-led circle time at the nursery, where children choose the subject matter and staff guide the conversation to elicit questions and share knowledge. I see the questions generated by my daughters class, where they have asked the children what topics they would like to study and then what questions they have around the topic.That’s how I want to learn!  And are we guilty of removing choice in science centres, do we create content only around what is fundable or of interest to us – yes, despite Nina Simon exhorting us to do better. Especially where science is the core content, it feels like we need to get back to those early natural philosophers where everything about this world was questioned, considered and experimented with. But I don’t mean throw away knowledge, because it’s important to have access to prior learnings; trying to absorb a new language with no dictionary would be tricky.

So, sorry Theresa, it’s a no from me for grammar schools, I think you look at the evidence, apply resources to pre-school, think about different types of school that cater for different ambitions – university, technical apprenticeships and whatever else becomes possible – without any one being considered ‘better’. Value neutral. I realise my opinion probably doesn’t carry much weight in the crumbling walls of Westminster, but I’m being a good citizen and expressing it anyway. And so as not to be a hypocrite, i shall continue to figure out how we avoid this ‘streaming’ within informal learning.

Now, which way is Helsinki? Should have concentrated in Geography…

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Making connections

Making connections

So I may have referred to my problems with the SF transport system. I put this down to being new, however this morning I was to be stumped yet again by the mysterious lack of Trolley car E. So the instructions that had looked so easy turned into lies and I ended up walking all the way. It wasn’t a bad walk, or it wouldn’t have been without the detours to each station to try and discover whether this was the mythical stop for the imaginary trolley. And half way through the temperture went from autumn chilly to roasting hot. So I think it’s fair to say that I arrived at the Exploratorium more than a little grumpy. Perhaps I can only take 2.5 weeks of being lost before I lose my cool? Perhaps I yearn for the luxury of knowing where the heck I’m going?

Anyway, end of rant. Because then a lovely person welcomed me and signed me in. And I had time to admire the way that they reinforce their values and mission all the way through the welcome and ticketing experience before Josh who heads up their research team, came down to meet me. I then got a whistle stop tour to give me some idea of the landscape before retiring to chat serious impact. I met Josh at the conference in Boston but we didn’t have a lot of time to talk, now it became clear that he is a really deep, analytical thinker. We quickly ran out of time so I had time to go and explore the place (as instructed) before we regrouped.


I saw the magnificent Strandbeests, which was amazing – I highly recommend it to anyone more local or with the ability to suddenly fly to SF. I got chatting to a local lady who had never found a reason to visit before, but came specifically for this. We bonded over how hard it was to get around the city! I was able to recommend their Thursday night lates – I’ll take my commission later. It’s interesting that this exhibition is being presented in the normal exhibition space, bar clearing the area of exhibits (goodness knows where they are stacked up) all they have done is added some drapes. Then the displays, both static and interactive, the creatures themselves and the show areas just use some rope barriers to indicate what you can touch and what you can’t.


There are an enormous number of exhibits still left on display. I was racing round at top speed and had I been with someone else then I would have covered far less. Key things that really interested me were the behavior of visitors. I have been used to huge, unruly groups of camp kids. Not here. It was busy, but small groups or couples were moving around chatting, laughing, pointing out things to their group, but no one was running, screaming or showing the signs of overstimulation. 

When I regrouped with Josh we walked a few circuits of the building and discussed the behavior differences. Perhaps a sign of great content, perhaps the calming influence of the Bay as seen through the windows? We discussed the Biology area as this was one of my favorites, it focused on the tiny life and the life found in the Bay. It was relevant. Later I fished a plate out of the sea to see what had colonized it – that felt strangely empowering. Upstairs is a gallery devoted to the environment, again particularly the Bay. You can see who lives where, by age, by numbers or by race and make your own conclusions. This is where I needed a companion to share my questions and thoughts with! Then we sat in rocking chairs and discussed values, how curiosity or inquiry or the ability to ask questions creates a healthy population, able to see through spin and pseudoscience and make good decisions in a democracy. And whether an institution should make it’s more political values overt.


I had time to then pop into the Tinkering Studio, check out the new Science of Sharing exhibits and generally fly around trying to fill my phone with photos. Had another happy encounter with a fellow visitor in a dark booth as we were trying to understand if we were seeing the glowing bacteria or not. She and I ended up in fits of giggles about the absurdity of two strangers in a small box peering at a wall – could it be another psychology exhibit? 

So I left in a much better mood than I had arrived – and what institution wouldn’t want that! I then explored the piers and Fishermans Wharf – I don’t want to offend any SF’cans but it is quite similar to Weston-Super-Mare in many ways. Once my feet started complaining it was time to head back. But of course the imaginary unicorn beast that is Trolley E wasn’t running so a lovely trolley driver told me how to get back and waved me away when I tried to pay. Then he did something quite brilliant. Each person looking for that bloody missing trolley was told to get on and follow me, he made us into a group with a shared mission. Anyone who has read Nina Simon’s account of her volleyball instructor will realise that he just scaffolded a shared social experience. And it worked. We set off as a large group, following the instructions that I had, then using the knowledge of the group. Even asking for help from official looking people. And so I got chatting to a high school graduate who wanted to hear all about Europe and my travels. We even shared a coffee and I bored her with some photos while waiting for the train once we successfully arrived. 

So thank you Exploratorium, thank you trolley driver – you made my day great.

Sweet serendipity

Sweet serendipity

So here I am over in California, feeling a long way from home and the friends, old and new, on the East coast. I’m even in a different time zone again and able to have an early morning chat with the family while I enjoy the last of the evening. Crazy stuff.

So as I look out over the twinkling lights and 32 planes circling, I can reflect back upon this weekend. 


Friday I met quite a force at the American Museum of Natural History. Kate leads youth initiatives and she clearly has the passion for it. It was amazing to hear her list all the things they had tried to inspire young people of all backgrounds to try some research, and to keep them engaged as they grew up. It was even more amazing when she explained how those young people who remained engaged could then go on to help the Museum with certain problems – such as the massive influx of summer camps. Who better to help a camp group negotiate a huge museum then someone closer to their age, who knows the place like the back of their hand, has grown in confidence through participation in the youth programmes and can be an ambassador for those programmes and help others find a way in.

And I was able to say hi to a group preparing some presentations on climate change. And their slides showed how much they had learned through working with an actual researcher and having time to do their own research. I made the mistake of assuming these initiatives were all related to the schools programme, but they are not. Although they do use teachers as gateways to the students. And Kate is keen to keep working at reaching students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may not have the confidence in their ability or may not see the relevance; those that don’t apply or don’t turn up or don’t finish. Because we can’t always rely on those flashbulb moments, when our audiences suddenly realise what the content is all about and make a decision to pursue it. Yes, they are great when they happen, but as a sector we are getting older and wiser so we must be able to design experiences that scaffold those moments. And I guess that lies behind my core question – what have we learned about experiences and audiences that can lead to life changing moments? Kate described a series of small steps leading inexorably to full engagement with the museum and the science; their mission is ambitious, they want to cultivate the next generation of researchers.


And then I had some luck myself. I had a lovely taxi driver take me to the airport (my first Uber experience). We started off chatting about tennis as he was a massive fan, but then I was able to steer him onto my favourite subject – engagement with science. And he said, very simply “There are families who will never take their kids to a museum, mostly poor and black. Those kids will never want to go to a museum, no matter what.” He was a black New Yorker. That gave me a lot to ponder as I went through the many lines of security at the airport.

Then I sat next to two New Yorkers making new lives in SF on the plane. We only got chatting towards the end of the flight which was a total shame as we had so much to talk about. One lady was working towards diversity in a west coast tech firm and we swapped stories about how much we loved the Brooklyn Museum and who inspired us. I was able to promote Nina Simon’s new book Relevance which is a must read. And I came away thinking, Mr Taxi driver I agree, those kids are never going to visit museums and science centres in their current form. But we can change and become places where they can access culture relevant to them. We can’t rely on serendipitous moments, we can’t even rely on amazing passionate individuals like Kate and Plane Lady – we have to build it into our missions and our every day practice. We will change lives – for the better.
And for a PS I can tell you that SF bizarrely feels tougher to negotiate than New York and I’ve come across hills. No ordinary hills, but massive great big calf twanging, butt aching hills. This is making me long for a car. However there is also great Zinfandel which takes the edge of the pain. And I can look at my Health Data and feel proud, as I pant, sweat and try not to vomit.

I have also found the bridge, sort of. I assumed that it would be the easiest thing in the world to see, but turns out there are very specific viewing points. And the general fog thing they have here (I will be looking that one up) makes it tough to make out.


And in the game that is public transport bingo, this weekend I have been on a plane, a train, a double decker train (so exciting!!!), a light rail, a subway, a bus and a trolley. Didn’t try the rickshaws or boats so short of a full house.

Oh and I would like to recommend Bedford Cheese Shop in Williamsburg, NYC. They have nailed customer service and brilliant interpretation in what is essentially a very dynamic museum of cheese. Haven’t had that much fun since Cheddar.

Let the tech take the strain

Let the tech take the strain

So yesterday I pit the Brooklyn Museum up against the mighty Cooper Hewitt. And what a day it was. First impressions of the Brookyn Museum were a little negative, their outside space is lovely, but the signs told me what wasn’t allowed, the fountain wasn’t accessible even when it’s as hot as the surface of the sun and a lovely growing for art project was imprisoned behind a fence.


But then I saw that families had gathered along with a special educational needs group and just the odd tourist type so I didn’t feel too much of an outsider. And when we stepped in the first experience is their Boombox exhibition, which pumps music across the foyer with the most amazing tinkered boomboxes you have ever seen. And I fell in love instantly.


Couple this with a ‘pay what you want’ ethos, friendly staff and a ground floor curated in a wonderful way, and I was pretty happy. The central room has grouped pieces together in three ways – by people, by places and by things. And they have used soft background images on the walls to give context to each. So rather than your brain overheat and switch off after the 9th oil painting in a row, you are kept cognitively agile as you keep returning to why these things are together. And it continues in the amazing African art collection. Items are grouped into 2 or 3 things that are connected, here there is Qur’anic writing board from Sudan and a 3 headed figure from DRC both linking into virtue. And there is a space where you can create connections between pieces as well, using chalkboards and images from the collection. Upstairs is more traditional and I couldn’t help but snap a pick of what must be the worlds oldest maths book. Up again to see Agitprop! And it was good to see space devoted to a very local debate about gentrification in Brooklyn. I then debated whether I would go into the sports photography exhibition as it’s not really my cup of tea. But I did, and it was gorgeous. Yet again, being brave paid off, disrupting my routine paid off. It works for individuals as well as organisations! But I haven’t even got round to the tech part yet. When you get in, and connect to the free wifi, you can download the app ASK the Brooklyn Museum. Then, when you have a question about any of the art you encounter, a team of experts downstairs will jump on it and use their knowledge, plus their growing wiki, to get you an answer. I watched them at work and was blown away by the resource that would give – a collection of the questions prompted by your collection. So that could in theory give insights into the relevance of your pieces, your interpretation, your experiences. Even no questions would tell you heaps about that area of the exhibition.


I then took a stroll over the Brooklyn bridge… (And nearly melted into the water)


And it was onto my next stop, the Cooper Hewitt with the infamous ‘pen’. The building is intimidating, very grand but very beautiful. I am ashamed to admit how long it took me to find the entrance. I then waited to gain entry which takes a while as the spiel as to how to use the pen is fairly long. But it is very exciting to use – once you get the hang of it, there is a definite technique! 


The exhibitions are exciting and diverse and having the ability to ‘collect’ the ones you really like with the pen is great. Then there are large multi touch screens where you can collect other objects or look at your collection and try your hand at using that as inspiration to design your own items. My snail inspired hat would make Philip Treacy smile I think. So there is a lot to like and the Pixar experience was great – very high quality paper and pens to try your own designs. But there was something lacking – only one person was truly friendly and helpful to me. Most staff appeared to be guarding the collection against us awful people, children were told to sit properly on stools and generally I felt watched and like an unwelcome guest. All this on top of me failing to make a connection with anyone there after weeks of trying difference avenues. It’s sad that something that could be so good, just didn’t quite make it.

But back to the tech involved. In both cases it didn’t have to be tech. But for the Ask app, maybe it’s easier to ask your phone rather than a person, after all we spend our whole lives asking Google now. And does getting your answer so easily reward diversified curiosity rather than the deeper epistemic curiosity we seek to inspire?

And the pen allows and rewards the use of the collection for inspiration. But the stylus is a little clumsy to use so it could be just a finger on the touchscreen or even paper and pencils and a scanner. In this case the pen has taken over the customer service role, which it doesn’t do very well. 

So I guess it should be people first, tech later… Go to the Brooklyn Museum if you have the chance, it’s amazing.