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A brand new glove affair

Puppets can help children learn about learning. Crispin Andrews finds out how.

At first glance, brainstorming the lifestyles of the urban poor might seem a fairly typical way to introduce the topic of Victorian Britain. Standard classroom practice, very likely to produce standard pupil responses. But what if the session was being led by a vulture? Might not the whole situation be transformed into something altogether more exciting?

Vinny the Vulture is a glove puppet, the brainchild of teacher David Millington. The Year 5 teacher uses Vinny, and a whole host of other animal puppets, to help children gain a greater understanding of the learning process.

Explaining how, whenever they see Vinny, his class at Westbury Park Primary School in Bristol know exactly what to expect, David said: "A real vulture, soaring higher in the sky than the average bird, has a great view of everything below. So Vinny can help the children to see the big picture, to make connections between what they know, see and learn - from lesson to lesson, across the curriculum and in their life outside of school."

Natural links between subjects are plentiful. Data-handling skills learnt in a numeracy lesson might be very useful when evaluating weather patterns in geography or organising the results of a science experiment. Out comes Vinny, and the children know there is a connection to be made. Similarly, in order to write a good story many skills and techniques are required.

Here, Vinny acts as a visual reminder that suspense, original storyline, effective use of descriptive words and accurate punctuation, to name but a few, need to be connected during the writing process.

Indeed whenever there is more than one aspect to, or reason for, something, Vinny can help. What makes a good friend? How do you strike a ball with control and consistency? What did the Romans do for us?

The ability to make connections is just one of seven learning dimensions identified during a Bristol University research project conducted between 2001 and 2003. Over the past year, these learning dimensions have become embedded in ethos and practice at Westbury Park. Previously, too much emphasis had been placed on teaching, as the school sought to adhere closely to prescriptive, content-based strategies.

Headteacher Alan Rees wanted to concentrate more closely on how children actually learnt. He said: "Excellence and Enjoyment (the national primary strategy document) gave us more scope to search for innovative ways of engaging children. It gave us the confidence and justification to develop the idea of learning dimensions throughout the school. Over time, gaining an understanding of the process by which they learn will enable children to access all curriculum areas more effectively, progress more rapidly and to fulfil their potential."

In David Millington's class. a different animal represents each of the seven learning dimensions. Resilience - essential for children to overcome new challenges and progress - is characterised by a lioness. Although she might hunt unsuccessfully for many days, the lioness must keep going, or the pride will starve.

Carmen the Crocodile many strategies by which she catches her prey as they cross the river. Depending on their formation, the hapless wildebeest may be attacked by pairs of reptiles, groups, or even individual crocs, which may strike from the riverbank or from below. Developing a range of approaches to situations and the ability to make decisions about when and how to use them is also important for learners. While elephants are respectful and caring creatures - used to represent the need to work together and to develop effective learning relationships - Marvin the Monkey is the most creative. David Millington explained how all these ideas came from the children themselves: "While on holiday in Africa, one pupil had his bottle of Coke stolen by a monkey. At first, the monkey couldn't get at the drink and so disappeared into the undergrowth. After a while it reappeared, drinking through a straw it had made out of a reed! Like the monkey, any good learner needs to face new situations with creativity."

Overriding all this is the final learning dimension - a belief that learning is not static, and that a learner can change for the better, over time, in all the other areas. What better animal to represent this than - a chameleon!

After using them for almost a year, David Millington is convinced that the animal puppets have helped pupils access and understand the seven learning dimensions. He explained how eventually this would lead to children gaining a greater awareness of the learning process itself, and of themselves as learners.

"Children love animals and gradually come to associate each puppet with its particular behaviour. At first they might not understand what curiosity is, but they will never forget a long-necked big-nosed character like Gerard the Giraffe."

Reminders are all over the classroom, even on display boards in the corridors: "Oh yeah. Gerard is nosey. Always trying to find things out! How can I do that? I know! Ask questions!"


The seven learning dimensions

* Making connections

* Resilience

* Choosing strategies

* Working together

* Creativity

* Curiosity

* Believing you can change

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