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Challenge Cramlington;Secondary

'How' you learn is just as important as 'what' you learn, believes one Northumberland headteacher. Which is why, during an Investigations Week, his school abandoned its timetable and encouraged pupils to get on with it on their own. Mike Fielding reports

Cramlington Community High School is not Procter amp; Gamble. But it has something in common: its own research and development team. At Cramlington it's not searching for the ultimate white wash, but it is scanning the world for new ideas influencing education. And it came up with an "Investigations Week" in which the school's 390 Year 9 pupils abandoned their timetable and got on with learning on their own - with their teachers as mentors.

The idea arose from headteacher Derek Wise's belief that "we have to be looking forward, testing out new ways of doing things. For a long time, the concentration in the education system has been on what children learn. We think we should now be paying more attention to how they learn."

It was the first Investigations Week organised by this 1,580 pupil, 13-18 high school on the edge of the former Northumberland coalfield. The week's 13 projects included building a biodome, producing an alternative energy model for the school, setting up a Web site, creating a community art feature and presenting a play about global dangers.

One group spent five days turning a mudpatch into a multi-sensory garden. "We just wanted to get stuck in and make a start, but we spent one-and-a-half days researching, planning and agreeing our strategy before we did anything else," says one of the group. "Without that we'd never have been able to complete the project."

John Burford, head of history and leader of the Investigations Week planning team, found inspiration in an American book called Bold Plans for School Restructuring. Education, it insists, should enable students to use what they learn "for attaining positive ends throughout their lifetime", "to work with others" and to "assess the consequences of their actions". Pupils should be able to use knowledge for "personally inspiring and socially meaningful goals" and develop the art of "responsible application".

To achieve these goals, the Year 9 population split into 26 half tutor groups of 15 students to work with a mentor (a teacher with a particular interest in the project) for a week in early July.

One group had the task of creating an Outdoor Resource Centre featuring a pond on the edge of the school grounds. "I thought it was going to be boring," says group member Graham Dixon, "but I think it's been the most interesting one." The group created a nature trail, observation corner and platforms for watching and working with pond life, along with leaflets and an interactive guide to the area.

They learned the value of public consultation when a resident came out to berate some boys she thought were damaging a fence. "We're taking it down so we can put a stile here," one of them explained. Pacified, she suggested small children might be able to climb a stile and that a lockable gate would be safer. They incorporated her suggestion into their plan and also produced a leaflet for distribution round the neighbourhood.

At the end of the week, the groups visited each other and were amazed by what had been achieved. "It just shows there's no ceiling," says science teacher Ken Brechin.

He and his colleague Darren Mead spent the week mentoring the biodome group. They were impressed by their students' ability to work unsupervised. When one girl was asked what she had learned from the week, she said: "That we don't need you to tell us what to do." She didn't mean the mentors were unnecessary, simply that they had their place in the team, but not asits leader.

To support the groups' work, the school created "Learning Islands", usually rooms full of relevant materials, staffed by teachers and technicians. These included Research, where students had access to materials provided from all curriculum areas; Internet, for further research; Construction, where almost anything could be made; ICT, which made available the school's considerable resources of hardware and software; and Presentation, in which help was given with leaflets, posters, videos and other media.

Use of these islands was restricted, with groups given only a few passes to each of them. This meant that anyone who went to a learning island did so on behalf of the group and, in the time allowed, had to carry out their brief. "Not having any passengers" and "everyone working for each other" were among the lessons in teamwork.

For one pupil, Graham Crosby, this had been the first week he could remember when he hadn't been in trouble "four or five times a day". He knows he worked harder than ever and wants to do it "every week".

The students are all aware of how they used "ordinary" school subjects within their extraordinary projects. "In our project we used everything except religious studies," says Emily McNicholl, another member of the Outdoor Resource Centre team. This "deconstruction and re-construction" of the curriculum had been one of the planning group's key aims.

Staff are equally enthusiastic: words like "brilliant", "fantastic", "uplifting" flow freely. Although this year's Investigations Week is over, everyone recognises that there are ongoing lessons to learn. Last autumn term they had been given inspiring talks about "accelerated learning" and "preferred learning styles". Now they have witnessed many elements of those concepts in action and must face the challenge of translating that learning into everyday classrooms.

There could also be lessons for school management. "For this week," says teacher Rob Scott, "we have, in effect, run the school." The HQ (or War Room, as some people called it) was constantly staffed: the source of instant decisions about resources, arrangements, staff deployment and the hundreds of other questions this experiment produced.

The team provided detailed guidance and role descriptions for staff; written project briefs that emphasised how each group's work would make a difference to themselves, the school and the people of Cramlington; and kept up morale and pressure through frequent updates over the school's tannoy and television network.

In addition to the logbook every young person kept throughout the week, staff and students completed an evaluation. "We expect this to become a regular feature of our work," says Derek Wise, for whom Investigations Week was a reminder of the exciting curriculum innovations of the late Sixties and Seventies. "If, as a nation, we can get the balance right between knowledge and process, and enable young people to take real responsibility for their learning, supported by teachers, then we can produce the best educated population anywhere in the world."

As head of a school committed to challenging orthodoxies and looking for continuous improvement, he believes the week was an important pointer to the school of the future.

'Bold Plans for School Restructuring', editors Sam Stringfield, Steven Rose and Lara Smith, is published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

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