Teaching with Objects in Lockdown

Dr Henry Irving, Leeds Beckett University


There is a large cardboard box in the corner of my study. It’s been there for the past nine weeks and now feels as permanent a fixture as my lamp or bookcase. During this time, the box has become gradually fuller, providing a home to a seemingly endless stream of eBay parcels. (I am now on first name terms with Richard, my postie, whose knock between 11 and 12 is a regular excuse to put the kettle on). Inside the padded envelopes are a selection of newspapers, magazines, badges, postcards, a couple of mugs and a tape-player. Sadly, there is no longer room for the police riot helmet.

These objects are connected to a undergraduate module, ‘Thatcher’s Britain’, that I am currently teaching with my colleague Shane Ewen. They were purchased with a small grant from my university’s Centre for Learning and Teaching – and our students affectionately know the box as ‘Leeds Beckett’s Museum of 1980s Life’. In this blog, I want to explain the background of our collection and work through the challenges of using Object Based Learning in lockdown.

I am writing this as an ‘apprentice’ rather than an expert, but there is a rich literature on the benefits of using objects in lecture and seminar environments. As a starting point, I can recommend this blog on the practice of Object Based Learning by my SHS colleague Georgina Brewis and Charlotte Clements. If you want to read more on the theory behind the practice, Helen Chatterjee and Leonie Hannan provide a more detailed overview.

Using Objects to Teach the 1980s

‘Thatcher’s Britain’ is being taught for the first time this year and Shane and I were keen to include objects from the outset. The module uses Stephen Brooke’s arguments about ‘Historicizing the 1980s’ to explore social and cultural and change during the decade. Despite its title, we are more interested in what Thatcherism meant in everyday life than with the high or party politics of the era.

A 1980s telephone

We quickly identified objects as a way of exploring these themes. For example, what better way to understand privatisation than to allow students to unbox a British Telecom InPhone? Or to study the accompanying bill? After all, the literature is clear that sensory connections can ground complex ideas and help to promote deeper learning.

These plans were hatched in early 2020 and I probably don’t need to explain what happened next. The unfolding crisis brought by COVID-19 forced a complete overhaul of our approach. Out went the lectures, seminars and workshop – and in came the pre-recorded videos, guided tasks and webinars that have defined this academic year. The big question was: what would we do about the objects?

The literature on Object Based Learning suggests that three things are needed or it to be most effective. First, the objects need to be linked to the themes or topics covered in other formats. Second, there need to be opportunities for exploration. Third, the approach should be reflected in assessment. We have been able to meet the first point by using objects within our pre-recorded lectures to illustrate individual themes. However, the pivot to remote teaching meant that it was simply not possible to allow students to handle the objects. This forced us to think about new ways of encouraging exploration – and to reflect on assessment.

Connecting Objects and Assessment

Our module is assessed by an annotated bibliography and a synoptic essay. The idea is that students pick different topics to respond to thematic question: they use the bibliography to start this process before integrating primary sources in the essay. We deliberately encourage students to think across the module, challenging them to combine topics that we have dealt with separately. And here was a way to bring in the objects: using them to explore connections that might otherwise be hidden.

Take as examples a 12” of Linton Kwasi Johnson’s album ‘Making History’, a 1985 copy of Smash Hits looking back at Live Aid and a 1990s flyer for the Coventry nightclub ‘The Edge’. Beyond the musical link, all three engage with questions of historical significance. The title track on ‘Making History’ is an interrogation of urban unrest and was written in response to the Scarman report. Smash Hits described Live Aid as an event ‘that shook the world’. And ‘The Edge’ – Britain’s first legal club – billed its line up as ‘history in the making’.

A 12", flyer and magazine

To explore such connections, we organised an online workshop for the students, where we shared the objects and reviewed some of the main themes. The workshop was a standalone session and we were pleased that seven students took time out to attend. We used an integrated form to capture their feelings at the start and end of the session. While such feedback is notoriously subjective, the results suggested a notable increase in confidence about the essay and a firming-up of the topics they wanted to include. Surprisingly, given the lack of physical handling, six of the seven also said they would feel confident writing about objects by the end!

Learning from Lockdown

In a recent blog on this site, George Gosling argued that we should focus on what we know works when translating our teaching to meet an ever-changing challenge. In this case, the use of objects was rooted in just such knowledge. It was heartening to see the participants using the objects to make their own connections. As one student told me afterwards:

It certainly helped with my confidence … especially thinking about what topics you can explore and even the smallest things like badges, phones and phone bills.”

Importantly, though, the lockdown context also highlighted things that could be translated back into a physical setting. If nothing else, the session was a useful reminder that there is often nothing more effective than giving students a dedicated space to think. The objects, in this sense, were a vector for working through the essay questions. The session was also a useful change of pace, breaking up the now regular diet of pre-recorded lectures and individual tasks. As nice as it will be to return to campus, I think it will be worth remembering these points.

 

About the author: Henry Irving is a senior lecturer in public history at Leeds Beckett University and is Communications Officer for the Social History Society. He is a historian of modern Britain and more usually found working on the Second World War.

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