Creative Curriculum

Following our recent Ofsted inspection, the Year 5 staff have received some CPD on long term planning this week. Our curriculum needs serious revision and our year group are going to trial a new curriculum for the second summer half term. The teachers spent two days with creative curriculum consultants, planning a new way of teaching our afternoon lessons. The idea is to ditch subjects and move to a more ‘fluid’ learning approach, which doesn’t put learning into boxes and timetables. Some teachers would say ‘oh that’s like the topic learning we did before the National Curriculum came in’. But it’s not. I’ve learnt this week that the current thinking in approaching learning is based on themes. And ‘themes’ is not a word you can interchange with ‘topic’. So it’s not like taking ‘Rivers’ and linking all your music to rivers, linking all your art to rivers and linking your science to rivers. That’s still a topic-based approach. Thematic learning requires a whole new mindset.

We have been told that you need to think of 3 learning skills (we’ve gone for using imagination, reasoning and understanding others’ feelings) and 3 ‘big ideas’ (ours are environment, viewpoints and responsibility). Then all your learning must link to some or all of these key phrases. The suggestion is to have these words and phrases stuck up around the classroom and to use the activities you provide the children as a way of exploring these skills and concepts. They really have to remain the focus, so that you don’t get distracted by simply teaching ‘fun activities’, doing little projects and covering ‘topics’ with little meaning behind them. The emphasis is on learning to be a learner, not on acquiring knowledge. We have tried to plan in such a way that the key phrases are not only the focus of the learning experience but show a progression in learning too. We look at reasoning in its basic form of breaking down big ideas, before looking at how others reason in terms of persuading you to follow their line of thinking. We finish the unit with children needing to use their knowledge and skills of reasoning to persuade a jury in a role-play court case. In terms of environment, we’re looking at the usage of water locally in our school, then regionally and nationally as humans take it from the rivers to use in urban areas and then globally as we look at areas of freshwater scarcity. (These aspects of environment link very clearly with the theme of responsibility.)

It seems to me that this approach is going to require a heck of a lot of planning, as there are no set schemes of work out there. It’s not like following a QCA unit. Anyway this approach is designed for the children you work with; you focus on the learning skills that you think they need to develop, so there shouldn’t be set units. Resourcing it and planning it is going to be difficult. Also, changing from subject and timetable-based learning is going to be a huge thing for the children. They are going to panic that they are missing out on their ICT slot! My personal worry is that we are not going to get the coverage required by the National Curriculum. I fear massive gaps in certain ‘subjects’.

However the advantages are as huge as the worries. The learning is going to be so much more relevant to the real world, often homing in on current issues, ethical questions and children’s own interests and questions. There is so much more freedom in the learning and, as it is not timetabled, certain ‘projects’ or concepts can be taken into much more detail or last longer if the children get on board with it. The approach is going to be a lot more child-led and teachers become faciliters of learning rather than the fount of all knowledge. But best of all in my view is that children will hopefully learn to grapple with huge concepts and ideas, which will be lifelong concepts and ideas. They will also learn the skills of being a learner. Thus we are equipping them better for the future, when the ‘knowledge’ we are teaching them now will most likely be superseded by something as yet unknown! If you know how to be a learner, you can learn anything in the future.

I’m not going to kid myself and think they will adapt to it straight away, or even enjoy the approach at first. It’s going to be hard for them and us to change our mentality and view of how we ‘do’ learning. It is going to be hard work and teachers and pupils are going to make mistakes. I don’t even know if we’ll end up doing it ‘properly’ or settle for a happy half-way approach. But I am willing to try it in the hope that we might be able to engage certain pupils who, at the moment, are not showing the right attitude towards their learning at school. And I’m hoping that some of the ‘big ideas’ and concepts will really push our more able and encourage them to take their learning into their own hands.

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The privilege of fanning into flame the interests of primary pupils

It is amazing what a tiny bit of encouragement can achieve. A couple of weeks ago, a ten-year-old boy in my class was looking out of the window and he commented on a bird that was out there. What impressed me was that the boy knew the bird’s name, so I went over to join him and we chatted briefly about the birds before I heard myself saying ‘What we need is a bird feeder. Then we’ll get to see the birds and they’ll get food during all this snow.’ The boy enthusiastically agreed and, I have learnt, once a primary school child gets something into their head and they’ve heard you say something about it, they will pester, pester, pester until something happens! I decided that on this occasion I would be so on the ball that there would be no need for pestering on his part and guilt about inaction on mine. After all, here was my chance to encourage a more ‘wholesome’ hobby than what a lot of children these days pursue and I couldn’t let the chance slip by.

The next day, I arrived at school with my bird feeder and, as it waited patiently on my desk, the children commented on it, touched it and asked about it, like children do. During wet break time, the aforementioned boy and I donned our wellies and tramped round the school grounds to the tree by our classroom window. We hung up the feeder, with an audience of ten or fifteen warm and curious children, and then we trudged back inside.

Instantly children were interested, some spending every spare moment at the window. I printed off a poster of common garden birds and stuck it to the window. By the end of the day, children had ticked off a number of species. The next day, the bird-watcher boy bought his Bird Book in and another boy bought in binoculars. Since it was the last day of term (and to be honest we weren’t doing much), some children spent ages by the window. Including wet break times, I figured this core group of 4 or 5 boys had spent about 3 hours bird watching. At lunchtime, they asked if they could use the class computer to make their own poster of the birds they were seeing regularly, in order to help their friends identify them. They also wanted to create a picture-based tally chart to keep a record of our sightings each day. Obviously I said yes.

I was shocked at how a bird feeder, a poster and a little spare time at the end of term had nurtured an interest in these children. What shocked me most of all was that the core group of bird-watchers were all boys and the usually boisterous, “cool” ones too! I have now bought the ‘refill’ for the bird feeder, ordered some cheap binoculars for the classroom and I’m on the lookout for a nice laminated poster to replace the print out. My only worry is the level of distraction the window will provide during main lessons!

From this experience, I would encourage any teachers out there to grab hold of whatever interest you see flickering among your pupils. Find some small and simple way of nurturing it and then let the children do the rest. Once they see they have your support, they’ll take it the rest of the way! It is a great thing to witness and a great thing to be involved in.

A response to the proposals for the new history curriculum

Here is a copy of the email I sent to the Department for Education today…

I am a KS2 teacher, with experience also in KS1. I am subject leader for my school in history and it is specifically about the proposals for the new history curriculum that I am responding to here. There are a few issues that I would like to highlight.

The chronological approach

 I think it is a nice idea in principle to teach history chronologically, as some children do struggle with jumping from topic to topic and then placing the various topics on a timeline. However, a chronological approach poses more problems than it solves.

Firstly, it allows uninspiring topics to creep back into the curriculum just to keep the ‘story’ running smoothly. At parents’ evenings, teachers are delighted to hear parents comment on how school is more exciting than in their day ‘when we just learnt dates and facts’. In my experience, both parents and children like the fact that pupils study the well known, ‘exciting’ periods of history.

Even within each topic, boredom and predictably is currently avoided by not religiously working through that topic chronologically but by picking out different types of history, one at a time (political history for a couple of weeks, social history the next week) or by looking at the skills of historians (researching in one lesson, presenting findings/viewpoints in another). If the different types of history and the skills and processes of history are important to the current Department for Education, as suggested in the opening paragraph of the history document, then I don’t believe a strictly chronological approach will provide the best starting place for teachers planning schemes of work. Maintaining a topic-based curriculum would be much more appropriate.  Continue reading