'Learning without the learners knowing it'

Helen Horner, director of visitor interaction and programmes at Otago Museum. Photo by Linda...
Helen Horner, director of visitor interaction and programmes at Otago Museum. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Want to help children understand the origin, evolution and functions of currency? Then best wrap such education in chocolate.

As director of visitor interaction and programmes at Otago Museum, Helen Horner is responsible for creating school holiday activities. It's a role that requires much thought about how to make others think.

''We decide on a theme for the school holidays and all the programmes are related to that theme. This school holiday, the theme is related to chocolate to fit in with Cadbury's Chocolate Carnival.

''I call it learning by accident,'' Mrs Horner says.

''Overall, it is learning without the learners knowing it.''

For example, children taking part in the museum's ''Choc-tastic Treasure'' programme over the next fortnight will learn about the origin and value given to chocolate by the Maya and the Aztecs, how it was used as currency to pay their taxes, offerings to appease their gods, and how currency, as we know it today, is part of a continuum of exchange systems.

''We reinforce this learning with the opportunity for the children to see, and if possible, handle real currency artefacts from the past,'' Mrs Horner explains.

''We assist their retention by getting them to make their own chocolate coin with an imprint of their head on it, introducing the traditional and contemporary method through which leaders, including royalty, used coins to remind their people who their leaders were and where their loyalties lay, and how this became a recorder of history.

''We then mix the senses of taste and smell with the learning - remember that learning is strengthened when accompanied by a pleasant or satisfying feeling.''

Mrs Horner, a former teacher who recently attended a museum conference in South Korea at which she gave a presentation on accidental learning, describes this approach as ''meet, see and do''; it is designed to engage children in whatever learning style (e.g., listening, visual or physical interaction) works most effectively for them.

The ''meet'' part incorporates improvised theatre into the programme. In the case of ''Choc-tastic Treasure'', the character is an Indiana Jones-type explorer who will use a theatrical persona to talk to children about the history of chocolate and the link between chocolate and currency.

''The character tells children just enough to pique their interest,'' Mrs Horner explains.

''When the character is finished with their introduction we have staff ready to speak more on the subject, ensuring that children who want to learn more are able to.''

The ''see'' aspect could range from a science experiment, a collection item from the museum or a live animal. For ''Choc-tastic Treasure'', ancient coins from the museum's collection will reinforce the learning outcomes introduced by the costumed explorer.

Lastly, the ''do'' refers to the activity component of the programme, meaning children will be able to make their own giant chocolate coin and put their image on the coin. This offers a physical way for children to engage in the subject and consolidates the learning that has been interwoven throughout the entire activity.

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