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.