Tag Archives: Curriculum

Make Learning Irresistible

Today was the fifth Blackpool Education Conference. This annual event held at the town’s famous Winter Gardens brings together staff from all schools across the region. For many, this first Monday of the second half of the autumn term is the first confirmed inset on the school calendar. It is an opportunity for teachers, support staff, governors and other interested parties to network, share ideas and hear inspirational, relevant and respected speakers. Today’s conference was opened by Gervase Phinn, former teacher and inspector, author, poet, radio and TV celebrity, and all round educational raconteur. Gervase remains passionate about the importance of teaching and the need to let children flourish and succeed. He warned of the dangers of rusty cynicism stating children are too precious to be tarnished by such an approach. Gervase delivers his message with humour but hidden beneath an apparently light exterior there are solid, age old beliefs about the difference a good teacher can make. Gervase and Mick Waters both champion teachers and it is refreshing to hear them both thank the profession, as Mick says, something politicians and society find much harder to do. Mick Waters followed Gervase as the second key note of the day. His central tenet is that learning should be irresistible, the curriculum broad and education an engaging and exciting experience that enables us to develop soft skills such as confidence, sensitivity and responsibility alongside core reading, writing and maths skills. Mick’s work with the QCA as Director of Curriculum left him in no doubt that learning should be treasured and valued and a school’s curriculum shaped to fit children’s lives. Both Mick and Gervase see learning through the eyes of children. They both encourage us to do the same rather than allowing politicians and Ofsted to dictate a narrow educational diet, driven by crude data and exam results.


Primary Curriculum-Models and Design

In my last post I talked about the need for a curriculum that helps prepare children for the future.   There are some key qualities I believe should be at the heart of a new curriculum rather than left to chance outside of it.   These qualities are not easy to measure in any tangible form and this may go some way to explaining their absence from many classrooms.  In his book ‘Building Learning Power‘ Guy Claxton explores some different reform models from around the world that are helping children develop their ‘learning power’.

The Golden Key Schools in Russia operate along the lines of extended families.   They follow Vygotsky‘s philosophy and an understanding of the process of interaction is implemented within the Zone of Proximal Development by placing children from 3 – 10 years in family units of 15 – 25 rather than traditional, age grouped, classes. Staff attend training to develop a ‘community of learning’ and parents are also active in school events with the emphasis placed on learning as a community.   Amongst the other examples Claxton looks at as models for developing collaboration and communication are Ann Brown‘s Communities of Inquiry in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the PEEL project in Victoria, Australia.  Bellaire Primary School in Victoria allows older pupils to take a more active role in planning their learning by running skills workshops which the children attend before taking part in application classes where they put the skills they have learned to practical use.  The children very quickly learn to plan their own timetable and learning, making it relevant to their own interests.  This brave approach develops independence and lifelong learning skills that can only help the children as they move into secondary education and beyond.

Others, such as Ralph Pirozzo and Lane Clarke have explored curriculum design and come up with practical ways of using Bloom’s Taxonomy and Gardner’s Mutiple Intelligences to create active learning experiences.   INSET training with both these educators and  research into other curriculum models such as the International Primary Curriculum and the International Primary Baccalaureate informed our own work on curriculum development.  Our own design has also been influenced by the work of Chris Quigley who has developed a progressive skills based approach that puts key learner qualities centre stage.  Chris takes his lead from the work of Claxton but he breaks down ‘Learning to Learn‘ skills into Bronze, Silver and Gold stages to help plan for progression.   The children easily understand the breakdown of Learning to Learn skills and Chris goes into detail, creating ‘I can’ statements for each of the following key learner qualities:

Reflective – planing, revising, reviewing

Relationships – collaboration, empathy, listening

Resilient – managing distractions, ‘stickability’

Resourceful – questioning, imagining, making links

Risk Taking – have a go, not scared of being wrong

The Skills Based Curriculum developed by Chris Quiqley not only gives pupils more ownership over their own learning but helps with planning for progression.  It would be great to see the work of these and other educators such as Sir Ken Robinson and Mick Waters, being considered by government as they look at the Primary Curriculum.


Curriculum in a Coma

We live in a world of contradictions and uncertainty. Children have instant access to a world of knowledge around the clock yet their access is restricted in the very place you would expect it to be most readily encouraged. For many, school is still a place where you go to have your head filled with ‘certainties’, a core knowledge base which grows increasingly irrelevant to the world we live in. According to New Brunswick Department of Education, Canada, the top 10% of jobs last year didn’t exist in 2004!  Is the best way to prepare our youngsters for this level of uncertainty to continue feeding them a diet of shallow learning experiences dictated by political presumption?

There is much discussion around what the curriculum should look like but one thing is clear, more of the same won’t lead to different results.   Einstein stated the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, we’re in danger of doing just that with the curriculum.   While Geographers and Historians argue for their subject’s importance and Gove tries to convince the nation of the relevance of learning Latin and the need for the English Baccalaureate, those in education look on in disbelief as traditional themes and learning paths are revisited once more.   As a nation we appear to be depserately trying to climb up the down escalator.

No one would argue against the need for every pupil to leave school literate and numerate but to function in an uncertain future society we also need to ensure all are resilient, resourceful, creative and able to adapt and change as required – a core set of skills that many are left to pick up by chance.   Rather than leave these important learner qualities outside of the curriculum, it would mark a real shift and recognition of what children need if they were be placed at the heart of any reformed model.   The problem is, such qualities are hard to measure and no goverment will be brave enough to release the stranglehold it has on the nation’s education system.   As we prepare for ‘greater flexibility and freedom’ it is important to note that the current crude measures by which a school stands or falls are unlikely to disappear any time in the near future.  Mick Waters makes a relevant and poignant observation about the impact of testing on learning:

‘One of the dangers is that the winning post of examinations has untold influence further back down the age range, so the real purpose of learning is lost in the quest for exam success.   When children are only learning how to sit exams, other vital things are squeezed out.’ 

Our current national curriculum suffers from a lack of response to the changing world around us.   Its compartmental approach to traditional subjects and exam fetish makes real, significant change unlikely.


Mistrusted, mistreated, misgivings

People say we’re in a time of opportunity, a time when we can shape our educational future like never before.   I hope that’s true.   It has caused me to reflect a little on what has gone before and there are some underlying themes throughout our recent history that are worth considering.

In his book ‘Unfinished Revolution’ John Abbott asks do we want ‘battery hens or free range chickens?’  This strikes me as a good metaphor for our curriculum journey.   It gets to the heart of the debate about whether the curriculum develops independent thinkers, confident learners who are resilient, reflective and like taking a risk, or whether it sacrifices these qualities for coverage, pace and shallow learning experiences.   Education is contstantly at the forefront of political debate these days, it’s a vote winner if the cards can be played to suit the electorate.   The curriculum was firmly grasped by government in the late 70s.   The Tyndale affair and Jim Callaghan‘s subsequent Ruskin college speech led to a standardised model which meant schools could no longer follow their own teachers’ interests and enthusiasms.   Callaghan claimed the landscape was uneven, the quality of provision too variable.   The National Curriculum followed and with it a whole raft of new powers for government.   It saw the end of a long period without government intervention and heralded in the 1988 Education Reform Act and a period of constant tinkering and meddling.   Subsequent governments have not been bold enough to go the whole hog in terms of reform and for fear of losing anything (and upsetting middle England) they simply added more and more content to an already overcrowded curriculum.

The 1988 Act introduced us to the ‘Kentucky Fried Curriculum’ (you run the restaurant, we’ll set the menu) and ‘karoake teaching’. It ushered in an era of mistrust and misgivings about the profession to such an extent that a DfE spokesman in the early 1990s saw fit to announce:

‘We have set out arrangements for what is effectively a ‘teacher proof curriculum’.   Centrally dictated, centrally controlled and centrally monitored.’

Such sentiments hardly imbue you with the belief that teachers were going to be treated with any professional respect!  That lack of trust has been a constant over the last 30 years.   A time where politicians have intervened with the electoral clock ticking behind them as they unleash one masterplan after another bent on winning votes and keeping them in office.   The problem with political interference is it has a short shelf life, and education needs time – long term solutions not quick wins as Andy Hargreaves so  convincingly argues.   It is no good for policy makers to continually look back at their own halycon, often privileged education and use it as a benchmark for taking us forward.   We need more than this if we are to meet the needs of learners for an uncertain future.

If this is the time of opportunity we’re being told it is, then policy makers have to show a some professional respect for educators, some trust in our ability to know how to develop learners and some faith in us to plan a curriculum that meets children’s needs.

Sources: Unfinished Revolution – John Abbott, Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching – Bangs, Macbeath and Galton


A Night at the Museum

Following my last post on curriculum design, I thought I would give an example of how those questions have been answered over the last few years at Hawes Side. We are still asking questions, constantly, in order to keep the curriculum as exciting and relevant as possible and this example gives you an idea of one of the ways we have attempted to do just that.

Our Year Six team were keen to take our Comenius Partnership as a starting point and get the children to look at other countries around the world. The children went away and thought about which cultures they would like to study. A cultures day was held for us at one of our partner high schools and a theatre group and dance troupe came into school to work with the children in the initial stages. These ‘entry point’ events gave the children the initial stimulus they needed to kick start their learning. It was agreed at the outset that the ‘big finish would be a ‘Night at the Museum’ an invitation to all parents and families to come and look at the children’s work. The Y6 classrooms were to be turned into a museum with children acting as guides to the work. Their work. This also helped fire the children’s imagination – what would be on display? What would they exhibit? In what form would their learning be presented?

The ‘models for the museum’ were famous landmarks from the countries the children chose for their independent study. Fantastic castles from Bavaria, the Hollywood Hills, Sydney Opera House and many other models showed that the project had gripped the interest of families at home as well as children in school, and how great for the parents to be involved!  It certainly helped the children. Healthy competition existed not only between the models but also in the written projects. Innovative and exciting presentational forms were a joy to pick up, hold and read through. The children found this freedom to be creative a hugely powerful and liberating force. Their enthusiasm and motivation was driven by seeing the efforts of their peers. They shared ideas, methods, techniques and sources in a way I hadn’t witnessed before. I remember picking up one pupil’s written project on China. It was bound and beautifully presented, contained a range of calligraphy and evocative images that really gave the work a very professional appearance. It certainly didn’t look like the work of an eleven year old and I doubt if the same results would have been achieved working within the more traditional parameters.

In addition to the models and the written projects, the children also had to recored their findings using AV technology. Many chose to use podcasts, powerpoint or photostory. These audio visual presentations were then played on a loop on individual laptops as part of their museum display. As we have a number of screens around schools we were also able to play the children’s presentations around school for others. The screens are a great way of displaying digital content across the school to all classes and year groups.

As with any topic in school we are always interested in how parents might be involved. The decision to create a museum was inspired because the children had been building up to it for the whole term. Their parents had also been aware it was happening for a good while before, so they were able to commit themselves to attending for an hour after school. We were delighted with the turn out as these things are always a bit of a worry beforehand, especially as the children had been working up to this point all term.

The children talked about the work on show, their models and written projects, their artwork, journals, reports, photographs etc.. The powerpoints and photostories showed the parents just how adept they were with technology and the reaction to the work, the presentation and museum idea was really positive.

The ‘Night at the Museum’ was a great way to pull together a term’s learning. It engaged the parents and excited the children. The topic had a strong entry point stimulus, it asked the right questions and challenged the children to think critically and creatively.   It also had a ‘big finish!’ Other projects have worked equally well this year but this was a great start to the year.   The children reviewed the project afterwards and their feedback was quite telling.   The freedom to be creative, to share ideas, to work both collaboratively and independently with a range of media was extremely well received by all.


Curriculum Design

Models for the Museum

 

Curriculum Design 2010

– some questions to ask when planning

What does our pedagogy look like? What would you like learning to be like?

 

At a recent staff meeting we asked these questions and discussed how we had moved forward with the curriculum over the last few years.   The questions below act as prompts when planning and help us to ensure the curriculum we offer is both relevant and exciting.

Immersion Activities

Is the topic exciting? Does it sound exciting? Is it relevant to the children? Does it ask them questions?
What is our entry point stimulus – how do we engage learners?
Are we starting from what pupils already know or what we think they know? How do we find this out?

Audience and effect

Who is the work for? Teachers, parents, peers, others? How does this affect the learning?
How does it connect to other learning? To real life experiences?

In lessons, is the balance right between pupil centred and adult led?
Do the pupils have the opportunity for independent learning? To use the skills they learn for application?

Presentation and review

How will it be presented? Use of technology?
Is an end of unit activity planned where the learning can be shared? What is the big finale?

Is the opportunity to reflect and review the work provided? Is the work assessed against clear objectives and success criteria? How do the children know if they have been successful? Who reviews the work? Self, peers, teachers, others?

How do the 5Rs impact on learning?

(Reflective, resourceful, resilient, risk taking and relationships)

How do we make use of other partners?

(Local, regional, national, global)


Assessment for who?

The proposed SATs boycott throws up once more the arguments for and against this form of assessment.
Many in education will tell you that the current SATs process is more about school accountablilty to government than it is to parents and children. How can an externally marked set of 45 minutes (and shorter) tests be of more value than the professional judgement and ongoing assessments of the teachers who work with those being tested everyday?

One of the major conerns with the current system is the public naming and shaming of schools through the publication of crude and potentially humiliating ‘League Tables’. Few would argue that it it important for children and parents to have some form of reported level at the end of their time in primary school but the current system puts so much stress and worry on the shoulders of the nation’s 11 year olds it’s no surprise that in some quarters they are being reported as less happy than their peers around the world. When neighbouring schools in Scotland and Wales don’t have this regime, it does seen odd that the English Education system still demands it. Indeed Key Stage 1 SATs are now internally marked and the government overnight, got rid of Key Stage 3 SATs, leaving one to wonder why Y2 and Y9 teachers appear to be trusted to assess students internally but not Y6 staff!

So, the answer remains unclear.   Assessement for who?

Students are far better served by accurate teacher assessements based on knowing each individually and using informed judgements alongside internal summative and formative evidence. The use of such a range of information negates the possibility of students having an ‘off day” and seriously damaging their chances with a misleading and inaccurate result.

Parents want to an accurate picture of their children’s attainment and how they can improve and build on this.

Staff don’t want to spend weeks and months narrowing the curriculum down to drilling for exams that allow others to judge their performance and ability in the classoom. They want to give children creative, exciting learning opportunities – this obviously doesn’t sit well with the SATs regime.

Schools don’t want to be unfairly judged against other schools based on a questionable set of data that is constantly plagued with inaccuracies and marking fiascoes.  Schools want collaboration, not competition and the pitting of one against the other through misleading League Tables and crude positions.

Local Authorities would also surely wlecome a reporting system that was accurate and enabled them to support local need ensuring all children left primary school with a love of learning, an understaning where they are and what they need to do to improve.

High schools would welcome the opportunity to work with primary colleagues to ensure tansition was as smooth as possible. This surely means getting together over assessments to unpick the reality of students ability over the snapshots currently provided through extenal national assessments.

It’s hard to find an argument in favour of the current system, it only appears to be useful as a political tool where figures can be used to support claims of success due to government intervention here, failure due to not following government intervention there.   It will be interesting to see what happens over the next couple of weeks.   The main three parties believe education is a potential vote winner – here’s a great chance to make a real difference to schools, children and families.


We are not building robots pt 2

A curriculum – for who?

Could it be that the political parties are beginning to realise that a central prescription will only suit a certain number? Children learn in many different ways, at different rates and at different times. There was a time in the not too distant past when you could be pretty sure that if you were in a certain year group at certain term in the school year – you would be doing the same thing as many of your peers across the country!   What was the reason for this?   Accountability is high in England because our schools have more autonomy than most, but a centrally prescribed and dictated curriculum was only ever going to serve central requirements, not those of individual schools and, most importantly, children.   Although the new primary curriculum looks dead in the water it has, along with the Alexander report, opened up the debate.   As a profession it is important that we engage in dialogue around curriculum design, as it is central to all we do in schools.   It is great to hear people talking about ‘new freedoms’ to deliver a more relevant and tailored curriculum that enables schools to meet their own idiosyncratic needs, but there are also some core values that I don’t think anyone would contest.

Both the Cambridge Review and the Rose Report are clear in their desire for young people to become successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens who enjoy their learning, make progress and achieve.   They both see these essentials as driving the curriculum rather than following it.

The Cambridge Primary Review, the first comprehensive report on primary education since Plowden in 1967 challenges a lot of the prevailing assumptions about what schools should be delivering. The Rose Report, which had a much narrower brief, also favours a less prescriptive approach, allowing schools more control over what their curriculum looks like. It’s heartening news building on what both reports have seen happening in pockets up and down the country and globally.

Politicians have seen that this ‘heart of the education process’ has suffered from years of excessive micro-management from the centre.   Whatever the outcomes of the up and coming elections, and whatever happens to the Rose Report and the Alexander Review, it is good to see curriculum design having a good airing, being discussed and debated.   Let’s hope that whoever has the final say remembers whose curriculum and what it’s core purpose is.


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