Lisa Fairburn's Year 6 class at St Gregory's Roman Catholic primary in Leeds has been to Mars. They went there to get some sense of what it felt like for the Tudors when they made their discovery of the New World.
The class already knew something about what it was like to be a Tudor, having travelled back to the 16th-century during an earlier lesson. It cost Mrs Fairburn's class nothing to do this and they used no resources, apart from those in their and the teacher's heads. She took them to those distant places and times by telling vivid stories while the children shut their eyes and pictured themselves at the centre.
Mrs Fairburn had been trained, along with a group of other Leeds primary teachers, in a visualisation technique under what is currently a small local scheme called Teaching Freedom. The man behind the programme, James Dakin, is a former independent school teacher whose calling is to help teachers and children to find their own self-belief and strength. His approach leads to experiential, active learning which children engage in while sitting quietly on the rug or at their desks. So while a "booster" class to revise the water cycle in preparation for the forthcoming science Sat may not sound enticing, everyone is in for an amazing ride.
Mrs Fairburn's 10 and 11-year-olds sit quietly in their rows, close their eyes, and mentally fasten their seatbelts. Skilfully, without a crib sheet, she talks them into the scene, describing the beautiful, sunny field they are running across, into a big laboratory with a shiny floor: "Do a triple back flip, land on your left foot - slide!" And then they are met by scientists, who turn them into drops of water, deck them out in protective suits so they can be winched out again at the end of their water cycle adventure, and off they go into a fast-moving stream, over the rocks, watching the birds fly overhead, crashing over the rapids, when it starts to get very warm.
"Are you flying? No, you're evaporating." And so the children travel through the cycle, ending up back in the stream. At the end, the children describe their own journeys: "I was going fast, like a speedboat, and I smashed and lost my arm," says Alex. "I'll have to go back tomorrow."
"When I was in the clouds I saw some angels," says Leigh-Ann. Pupils explain that the method "makes you feel more imaginative", "gives you ideas for art" and "you can go places every day. Sometimes you can go to places where it's impossible to go." On another occasion, their classroom was transformed in their imaginations into a Victorian schoolroom, complete with old-fashioned desks and blackboard, and they were Victorian children in stuffy clothes.
Following the lesson pattern of prepare-do-review and close, Mrs Fairburn makes sure the children have got the elements of the water cycle clear in their minds, and then grounds and calms the class with a final short visualisation. She says she uses the method two or three times a week, and it has helped build a better relationship with the pupils. The school's headteacher, David Longfellow, says the visualisation embraces all types of learners and "promotes a state of readiness for the learning to begin". It helps children retain knowledge and gives them techniques for retrieving information they might otherwise forget.
Later this year, almost all the teachers at St Gregory's will do the three-day professional development workshop which James Dakin runs, and they are among 65 teachers in 20 Leeds primaries now waiting to be trained.
In addition to the three-day course, teachers in the programme receive monthly, half-day follow-ups in their classrooms throughout the year, as well as help by phone and email. A new website will provide more ideas and eventually enable teachers to share their experiences.
James Dakin is an idealist. He wants teachers and children to have the freedom to be themselves, to tap into their imaginations, and to be respected. Even when they have been naughty, children can be praised for their imagination, during negotiations over fair consequences of their behaviour. He wants people to overcome self-limiting beliefs. For instance, most primary teachers are good storytellers, he says, but many don't have the confidence to recognise their skills.
Schools should not be dominated by fear of failure, which leads to the sacrifice of teachers' and children's creativity, he says. "Children fear exams because of the over-riding importance placed on results by their teachers. The teachers, in turn, are afraid children may not gain the expected pass marks, and thus, they might be seen to have failed. So we teach, live and act out of a fear of failure rather than empowering children to go and make their dreams come true."
Mr Dakin, 34, has worked in the field of personal development for more than 10 years, running workshops for people in many fields of work. His "A Day for Me" courses for heads on behalf of Education Leeds led to the development of Teaching Freedom.
When working with teachers, he aims to be a "positive resource", and wears casual clothes rather than a suit, so as not to look like an Ofsted inspector, or some an adult who is there to criticise. Teachers greet him with enthusiasm, keen to share their children's latest achievements.
What he can't do is be unobtrusive. At six foot seven, with blond, nordic looks, he is conspicuous the moment he strolls into a school. Some girls simply arrive in the room and giggle, some shower him with questions; other children take big jumps to try to reach his height. He manages to take all this in good part, neither embarrassed nor playing up to the attention. One of his educational goals is for boys, especially those without dads at home, to have un-laddish images of what it means to be male.
Visualising across the curriculum helped raise results in Teaching Freedom's 12 pilot schools last year. For classes where the teacher used the "technology" twice a week or more, between 59 and 100 per cent of pupils exceeded their predicted end of year levels for writing, and there were large increases in reading and maths, as well. Significant numbers also did better in classes where the system was used less often. But infrequent use had little impact.
"We have also witnessed real improvements in behaviour, especially from the more disruptive pupils," says Mr Dakin. Teachers say children are more confident, and participate more in class. Teaching Freedom plans to expand over the next few years and intends to run two-day courses in its methods open to any school or local authority early in the new year.
For further information visit www.teachingfreedom.com
With TES primary editor Diane Hofkins