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How to Teach with Objects with Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe

How to Teach with Objects with Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe



This week on the podcast: I’m delighted to be talking to Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe.
Jo-Anne is director of Heritec Limited, a UK-based heritage education consultancy which works on European collaborative projects. Jo-Anne has a keen interest in object-based learning and creative and critical thinking. In today’s chat we talk about the values that drive her work and her passion for object-based learning and teaching.
We talk about what object-based learning means and dive into the processes around it – collective thinking, collaborative action, inquiry dialogue and the acts of wondering. Jo-Anne discusses the many benefits of working with objects and shares her tips for how you can better engage your audience with objects.
I hope our chat inspires you to think about how you might use objects of any kind to engage your audiences.

Support the Show 
Creative School
Flinders University Objects in Teaching and Learning wheel
Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe on LinkedIn
Heritec website
Heritec on Facebook


Claire Bown 00:11
Hello and welcome to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. I’m here to share techniques and tools to help you engage with your audience and bring art objects and ideas to life. So let’s dive into this week’s show.

Welcome back to The Art Engager podcast. I’m your host Claire Bown of Thinking Museum, and this is episode 31.

So, I have another guest lined up for today’s episode. I’m talking to Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe. Now Jo-Anne is director of Heritec Limited. This is a UK based heritage education consultancy, and she works on a lot of European collaborative projects. Joanne has a keen interest in object-based learning and object-based teaching, and also creative and critical thinking. But before I share our chat, if you’d like to support the show, you can do so by treating me to a cup of tea on I’ll also put a link in the show notes and the show notes, lots of links today, there’ll be available on my website, and this is episode 31.

So in today’s chat with Jo-Anne, I ask her about her work and the type of projects she works on, but also her passion for object-based learning and teaching. We talk about what we mean by object-based learning and the framework she has developed, namely the four areas of inquiry, dialogue, and the ‘acts of wondering’. She also shares lots and lots of tips for how you can better engage your audience with objects. So I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did. Here it is. Let’s get started with today’s episode. So hi, Jo-Anne, Welcome to the Art Engager podcast. How are you? I’m so delighted. You could be here. We could have this chat together.

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 02:19
It’s great. It’s fantastic to be here today. And I’m really excited about our conversation this afternoon.

Claire Bown 02:24
Yes. So let’s start by talking perhaps you could talk a little bit about what you do and how you came to be doing what you’re doing.

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 02:33
Yes, so I’ve been involved in museum education now for nearly 20 years. I came at it, actually from a change of career. Amazingly, I had studied history and archaeology for an undergraduate degree, and went and did some other things and realised that actually, I wasn’t very happy doing those other things, and ended up doing my Masters. And that really, really, really reignited my passion, for archaeology for history, and of course, for objects. So now I work broadly speaking, as a museum educator, as a heritage consultant, that work involves a mixture of lots and lots of different tasks and challenges, and clients and projects. So no, two days or no week or month, is exactly the is exactly the same. So it’s it’s fun and stimulating. And it’s great to work with a whole range of different collections.

Claire Bown 03:40
Yeah, that’s one of the joys of working for yourself, isn’t it that you get to pick and choose your clients and also, no two days are the same.

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 03:48
Oh very much so. And also just continually being challenged and challenging oneself as well in one in one’s practice, it keeps, it keeps it fresh for me particularly. And I learn a tremendous amount from the different organisations and the different people I work with as well. So it’s not just, you know, if I’m going into a client to work on a training programme, or to do a piece of consultancy work, it’s very much a collaborative, collaborative process for me.

Claire Bown 04:20
Yes, yeah, absolutely. And you mentioned practice there, I want to ask you, whether there are any sort of values or principles that are essential in your practice.

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 04:31
For me, I think it’s very much about not being selfish, if that makes sense. I’m really about being collaborative, in the approaches that I take, being prepared to listen and listening and really understand the different organisations and collections that I’m working with, as well. I think it’s very easy to be quite protective sometimes about the work that one does. But actually, I think sharing is a much more rewarding process. And for me personally anyway,

Claire Bown 05:13
That sounds really interesting. And I suppose listening is a key part of that as well listening to your client’s needs and what they’re looking for.

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 05:21
Absolutely, and never going in with an assumption, and often it’s quite interesting depending on the type of work that I’m doing, that I often find that I’m asked to go in to do perhaps a piece of consultancy work, actually through listening. Or it actually ends up being more of a mentoring approach. And actually, the people and the clients I’m working for already have the answers. They just didn’t know how to articulate them.

Claire Bown 05:50
Yeah, yeah, for sure. So tell me about some of the projects or clients or groups that you’ve worked with, perhaps you could give us a couple of examples.

Yeah, it’s my focus at the moment is on two European Union projects that I’m working on. So these are Erasmus Plus funded partnerships, one called the Creative School. And that’s a continuation of a project that started several years ago now as the Creative Museum. And another one is the Four C’s. So that’s really focusing on the four C’s of 21st century thinking, through again, sort of school and educator, best practice in development. And very much as well, at the moment, my focus has been recent work has been very much been focused on staff training and development. So running training programmes, either in person or online, getting people to think about their own practice, and very much looking at things like reflective practice as well,

Claire Bown 07:01
Ah, which we had a recent episode on the podcast as well. I wanted to focus a little bit on your work with object-based learning, because you have already delivered one masterclass for my membership, and you’re going to deliver another one in December, and I hold you in high regard as an expert in this area. So tell me a little bit about how we can get audiences to engage with and learn from objects, how can we use object-based teaching or object-based learning to really engage participants?

For me, I think, just as a starting point, I just want to clarify my own interpretation and understanding of what object-based learning and object-based teaching means for me and my practice, both as an educator and facilitator, but also as a trainer, and as a consultant. I think I want to challenge the concept. And the idea that object-based learning is purely about objects that you touch (object handling), is, I suppose, in some ways, a kind of a subcategory of the overall idea of, of learning from and through and engaging with objects. So when we talk about object-based learning I a) use objects in the widest possible definition of objects. So anything from a museum, something that’s in a museum collection, to a work of art, but even actually, to buildings, and archaeological sites, and landscapes, as well. And as I say, it’s not just about the idea of touching, but it’s actually what you can see and how you can engage. So actually, when we talk about object-based learning, it can be objects in cases things that we can’t engage through touch. But also, you know, increasingly, and as we found out, it’s also about digital engagement, and all of these things can be done and achieved. And we can still use object-based learning in its widest possible definition. So that’s sort of really one of my kind of key key principles. When I start to talk about object-based learning. For me, my starting points as well is always trying to understand what it is that we’re trying to interpret, discuss, or our ways into an object. And there was a fantastic sort of mind map that was produced by DCMS and a report about 20 years ago, and it’s been updated now by Flinders University in Australia. And I call it this kind of wagon wheel or the anatomy of an object because there’s lots and lots of different ways or angles that we can take to using and working with an object and I think as a as a practitioner, as a practitioner, as a facilitator, understanding those angles and those ways in or the anatomy of an object is really understanding the starting point.

Lots of people that I work with, lots of clients that I go in to deliver object-based learning, training for, or if I’m creating a workshop, I often don’t think that they’re using object-based learning or object-based learning ‘properly’, as I say that in sort of inverted commas, but actually, they are using it, but what they’re not doing is reflecting sufficiently on the way that they’re using it and on their own practice. So for me, it’s about understanding, you know, it’s not necessarily knowing everything there is to know about an object and imparting that information. It’s understanding the ways in which people can and will, and do interpret objects, and the way that we use those in, whether it’s a workshop or on a resource on a trail, or part of a guided tour. So it’s understanding those ways in also thinking about how we interpret and I think there’s a sort of great saying that, you know, sort of ‘objects speak for themselves’ – actually, no, objects don’t speak for themselves, it’s the way that we mediate that engagement. But of course, objects themselves are fantastic stimulus, for discussion, for dialogue. And for drawing on when one’s own personal experiences, one’s own interpretation, as well, and making connections through cultures and societies and across time, as well.

Claire Bown 11:54
So many benefits of working with object-based teaching, Could you perhaps share a few examples from that wonderful example that you shared from DCMS, which has been updated by Flinders University, and I can link to that in the show notes as well, about different ways that you can actually engage or inquire into an object.

Yeah, so we can look at an object in a number of different ways. So we can think about its qualities, we can think about the design, the technique, the materials that we use to make it, so we can can think about how that object was made. But actually, that then, is a springboard into then starting to think about the culture and the society, the person, or people that that object belongs to. And the value those people or societies, or cultures had in relation to the the object, but also the, the provenance, the significance to the people, but also for us today as well. So in the wagon wheel, we can start to think about how that object inspires us, what connections we can make with with the object and what scenes and subjects that the object raises. And often we can use those ways in thinking about those different types of questions that we can use to interrogate and think about an object as well.

Claire Bown 13:35
Thanks for sharing. And do you use any other sorts of frameworks when you’re inquiring into objects?

Yeah, so a lot of my work recently, and my own process of reflective practice, has led me into sort of thinking about what are the key things that we we do when we engage with an object as part of as part of a workshop or tour, and some of these have and lots of overlaps with visible thinking strategies, as well, as well as lots of thinking routines. But there’s there’s some particular things that I’ve myself sort of started to focus on. And it’s kind of four areas, the ways in which object based learning is driven by this concept, overall concept of inquiry dialogue. So it’s where, whether it’s students or workshop participants, or tour participants work together, to build on each other’s contributions. And they engage each other and engage the workshop leader, the educator, the facilitator, and it’s really based on this idea of exploring and considering multiple possibilities. So with this sort of idea of inquiry dialogue are sort of dialogic thinking. We also have these ‘acts of wondering’. So this is this idea of, you know, what, what are we, you know, speculating, what is the, you know, what are the possibilities, this idea of the possibilities. And then through that process is the idea of collective thinking and collaborative interaction. So, these are things that I’ve been working on in my own practice, and thinking about how we draw those together. So it’s those four areas.

For me, object based learning is underpinned by collective thinking, collaborative interaction, inquiry, dialogue, and ‘acts of wondering’

And I think, understanding that as a first step, for me, and with the clients that I’m working with, as well, and helps them understand, it’s about understanding the process, which our participants, or our visitors going through when they’re also engaging. And I think that’s a step further than previous research or work in this area, has, has really explored. And I think that’s for me, helps me articulate what object-based learning and object-based teaching can do for educators and facilitators, but also then helps structure the conversations, and the tours and workshops, or even say trails or materials that were created as part of that process.

Claire Bown 16:31
That structure is so helpful, isn’t it, as I found with thinking routines, and having somewhere to go in your conversation, thinking about, I might start with observation, I might move on to this type of interpretation. I might be making connections, or I might be reasoning with evidence, all those sorts of things, and then concluding in some way, having that structure, as an educator, really helps you to build those well-rounded discussions that feel as though they have a purpose, and they’re going somewhere.

Yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s also I’ve also been going back, and in my own reading and research as well to, to studies about material culture. And looking at the work particularly of, of Prown, and this idea of, you know, discussing, speculating and deducing which get overlaps massively with with VTS and other lots of other thinking routines. But it gives you a springboard and you start, of course, with anything, it’s starting, as you mentioned, it started with the looking and that could be a piece of close looking, or it could almost be in a sweep to start with, but you then start to do you need to dig deeper. And that’s the key to me.

Claire Bown 17:53
Yeah, and it’s that collaborative learning as well, being together as a group and wondering out loud and making your thoughts visible. And, you know, some one person says something, another person notices something new, it, you know, brings up new lines of inquiry and actually working together discovering together as a group is such a positive process as well, isn’t it?

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 18:16
Absolutely. And it’s rewarding for both, you know, the educator or facilitator as well as, for the participants themselves, you know, you can see that movement through of collective thinking and that collaborative interaction, so it’s very much about a joint process with with the objects, or objects in the middle as the as the stimulus.

Claire Bown 18:43
Yeah, and no two programmes are ever the same, are they?

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 18:46

Absolutely, because no two groups ever the same. It’ really fascinating and, and also, in that sense, it means that you’re you are always learning yourself, as you know, as a practitioner, as well, and know, a new notice, you know, you could work be working with the same object that you might have worked with for 20 years. But actually, there’s always new ways of interpreting it. There’s new conversations that can be had and new connections that can be made. Because of that, it’s very much on that process of drawing on one’s personal experiences.

Claire Bown 19:25
Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree, keeps you fresh and keeps you on your toes as well. So I’d love you to share some top tips. So have you got any tips for our listeners for how they can engage their audiences better with objects?

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 19:41
I think, for me, the starting point is thinking about the questions and the questioning that you’re going to set up and also, whilst it’s really important, and you want to keep an open interpretation, you don’t want to part of the whole thing about visible thinking and thinking routines, is opening up those possibilities and creating that space in that environment for interaction, but I think having having a pathway it’s bit like the yellowbrick road in the Wizard of Oz, you know, what is your pathway? What is your journey going to be through the workshop, through the tour that you’re, you’re conducting through, it could be the materials or resources. And therefore, for me it’s thinking about those steps that you’re going to take on that journey. And the first step for me is always the looking. And then what are you going to do? Are you going to? How are you going to move or guide or shape the group? Are you then going to introduce a new topic or theme? What questions – starting with the questions – so what questions are you going to use and elicit? So it’s about a craft, I think more than anything else. And it’s experienced, I think this has come up in in many of your other podcasts and in your masterclasses, it’s practice, and it’s identifying. And allowing the group your participants, your visitors through that, through that process or pathway. And that can even be, I’m talking about sort of maybe something that might be more structured in a sense if we are talking about, you know, a workshop or guided tour, but actually, even if you’re running, you know, a drop-in object-handling desk, you know, having your purpose and goal in mind is, for me, absolutely critical and the questions that you’re going to use to create that stimulus and create that space for dialogue. And, you know, really thinking about that social mediation as well.

Claire Bown 22:09
That’s really helpful. Thank you for sharing. Now, we’re inviting you back to lead another masterclass on the ninth of December. So perhaps you could talk us to us a little bit about what you’ll be doing in that class. Yes, I’m really excited. So there will be a Christmas theme. One of the things that I’m really fascinated with and always have been as, as, as, as a person that is has two hats effectively as a historian. And as an archaeologist, I’m really fascinated by the way that are objects, whether that’s text-based, or material culture, in the form of objects connect with and through each other. And I know that we often spend a lot of time looking and a lot of visible thinking happens through looking as a starting point, whether you’re looking at an object or when you’re looking at a piece of artwork or looking at a building, or looking at an archaeological site. But we actually often really think about our other senses. So this is going to be a bit of a Christmassy multi-sensory engagement, also to show that we can engage our senses through object-based learning online and digitally. But we’re going to be using new listening as a starting point, as our stimulus. So I’m going to be using an object that we’re going to listen to, for want of a better word, I don’t want to give too much away. But it’s going to involve listening. fostering the curiosity already!

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 23:53
Close listening, and then how we connect and springboard objects as well. You know, one of my things is that, you know, we don’t, we can and sometimes do use objects in isolation, for curiosity for object-handling, but I’m also really interested in ways that we can connect different types of objects. So whether that’s text or sound, or a physical object, or even using everyday objects, you know, so using food or realia earlier as well, and things that we might find through in the home.

Claire Bown 24:38
I’m really excited for this workshop. First time we’ve done slow listening as well. So if you are interested in this masterclass, I’ll put a link in the show notes so that you can take a look at all the details and sign up. Now, Jo-Anne, it’s been lovely talking to you. How can people find out more about you? How can they reach out to you?

Fantastic, so I am on LinkedIn, as Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe so you can find me there and drop me a message. And also as Heretic is my business and consultancy. So you can go to And find out some of the work and the projects that I’ve been working on as well. So and there’s links to my personal contact details in there, too.

Claire Bown 25:30
Yeah, and you also have a Facebook page as well, don’t you for Heritec.

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 25:33
Yes, I have a Facebook page as well. So posting journeys and trips and places that I’ve been and sharing, of course, the wonderful work of the Thinking Museum.

Claire Bown 25:44
You do that so well! Thank you so much for sharing all the details about how people can find you. I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes so that you can connect with Jo-Anne and also find out about Heritec‘s as well. So it just leaves me to say thank you for your time today. Thank you for chatting with me for sharing your wisdom. It’s been lovely.

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe 26:12
It’s been great to speak to you as well, Claire and and lovely to hear be lovely to hear how the listeners have got on and any responses and ideas and thoughts they have in relation to our conversation today.

Claire Bown 26:26
Brilliant. So if you have got anything to say do get in touch. Thanks a lot, Jo-Anne. Bye. Thank you. Bye bye. So huge thanks to Jo-Anne for being on the podcast today. I hope our chat has inspired you to think about how you might use objects of any kind to engage your audiences. Now don’t forget Jo-Anne will be teaching a very festive masterclass on the ninth of December, it’s called ‘How to use slow listening to engage the senses and make connections with objects’. So during this session, we will use a variety of mindful practices to make connections across different materials. So for example, text, images, objects, all through using our senses; through touch, sounds and smell. So I’ll put a link in the show notes, if you want to find out more and book your place on this very special class. If you want to find out more about Jo-Anne’s work, do go find her on LinkedIn or Facebook at Heretic and say hi, I’ll put all the relevant links in the show notes. And if you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, please subscribe or follow us and do give us a rating and review. Come and say hello to me on Instagram. You know I can be found there most days search for @thinkingmuseum. I’ll see you next week. Bye.

Thank you for listening to the Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. You can find more art engagement resources by visiting my websites And you can also find me on Instagram @thinkingmuseum where I regularly share tips and tools on how to bring art to life and engage your audience. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please SHARE with others and subscribe to the show on your podcast player of choice. Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time