Object-based Learning: a new mode in Arts West

By Dr Andrew Jamieson, The Centre for Classics and Archaeology, University of Melbourne.

Object-based learning (OBL) is a mode of education which involves the active integration of authentic or replica material objects into the learning environment. The term ‘object’ in this case includes specimens, artefacts or artworks, as well as manuscripts, rare books and archives.

OBL facilitates the acquisition and dissemination of subject-specific and cross-disciplinary knowledge, as well as observational, practical and other transferable skills. Through a significant body of research into OBL, it is clear that objects can inspire, inform, engage and motivate learners and all stages of education.

Creative thinking and student engagement

The University of Melbourne’s OBL framework counters problems of student disengagement and associated diminished knowledge acquisition outcomes. The intimate examination of artefacts of any culture brings that world to life in a way that texts, 2D, or digital surrogates cannot. OBL helps to ignite a student’s imagination and adds depth to their learning experience.

The following comment from a student previously enrolled in ‘Egypt Under the Pharaohs’ reflects the efficacy of OBL: ‘I just cannot go past the immense aid the objects and practical exercises were toward learning. As a uni student, I found all other subjects at Melbourne to be so “abstract” and “intellectual” as to be more about trying to keep awake and “translate” the ideas from lectures and readings to something that actually meant something to me than it was about the actual subject matter. It is almost as if there is some school of teaching which says that if something isn’t boring or “literary’ it can’t be educational. This subject proves this is just not true’.

Research and research training in primary research methodologies

The new OBL labs and object displays in Arts West provide a learning environment, in which skills are imparted through practical experience and exploratory engagement. This complements more formal learning methods centred on lectures or memorisation to better achieve learning aims.

The objects prompt and trigger visual analysis. However, this is not merely analysis of the objects’ aesthetic appeal. Rather it is an examination of the physical characteristics of an object. Elements such as form, colour, decoration, material, marks of the fabrication process, all of which can be interpreted to help determine styles, dates, uses, functions, meanings, locations and methods. Objects are imbued with meaning, and may be read much like a text, each object with its own syntax through which the message is communicated.

A virtuous cycle of teaching and learning, research and engagement, building in opportunities for collaboration and partnerships

The OBL lab experience becomes more than just an exciting trip away from the traditional classroom; it is also a lesson in analytical skills, an opportunity for students to develop their own interpretations of material, learning by praxis rather than just memorising by rote. These kinds of encounters are often far more memorable and impactful in the learning process than reading from a book or listening to a lecture.

The organisation and curation of displays used in Arts West, provides opportunities for collaboration between historians, archaeologists, curators, conservators and many more. In the OBL labs students are required to take on aspects of these various roles, appreciating the variety in skill and knowledge that is required for a full appreciation of each object. By following the divergent motifs presented within the objects and integrating them with historical knowledge students gain a broader understanding of the object and its context.

Community access to and interaction with cultural collections

The Classics and Archaeology Collection, one of thirty cultural collections at the University of Melbourne, was originally established as a teaching collection. Objects from this collection have been selected for display in the Arts West OBL labs to align and enhance particular subjects offered this semester.

The Arts West Building also allows the broader community greater access to and interaction with the Faculty’s and University’s cultural collections. Later this year, secondary school students studying ancient history will visit Arts West as part of a project designed to offer rural students an OBL opportunity which will assist in their educational outcomes and enhance their career pathways. The facilities will also be used for public lectures, masterclasses, forums and symposia.

As learners are encouraged to use all their senses through their engagement with objects, they learn how to draw conclusions based on an examination of material evidence, and they are motivated to discuss their findings with others. This multisensory approach also effects the relationship between learning experience and memory, creating long lasting connections.

Arts West’s world-class OBL laboratories and integrated displays allow students to engage with the University’s collections in new and exciting ways, enriching their learning experiences.

Image: The Object Based Learning lab brings objects from the University’s extensive collection to life. Photo by John Gollings.