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.

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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