A couple of 11-year-old lads on a school visit to the Bristol Art Museum struck up a conversation with a woman in front of a painting by an obscure European abstract artist from the 1930s. One of the boys asked her if she knew what the painting was about. When she confessed she didn't, he gave his own view. "I think the painter didn't know what was going on because he painted it during the time of the war, and people were confused then." To emphasise his point, he added, "It's kind of like Kandinsky."
Sally Mlewa, the boys' teacher and acting deputy head at Whitehouse primary school, Bristol, couldn't believe her ears. "These are kids who could hardly articulate what day it was. They'd come in on a Monday morning after having spent the weekend in front of the television and, asked to do a piece of creative writing, would just sit there registering nothing."
But thanks to an inspired ongoing project, these children from the Hartcliffe district of Bristol - more renowned for its almost universal unemployment and riots than for its appreciation of abstract art - have been empowered to think for themselves. They have learned how to look and experience what was previously outside their reach and to take intellectual risks without fearing failure.
It all started two years ago. As part of the education superhighways initiative, British Telecom and computer giant ICL donated 30 network computers to Whitehouse school as well as to eight other local primaries, one secondary and a special school. New software and online connections, along with a helpline, were included in the package. This has given the schools access to the Internet as well as an e-mail address for every child.
But it was Ms Mlewa and her team's vision of what should be done with all the technology that ultimately gave these rough-and-ready boys the ability to make connections between abstract artists.
"When we got the equipment, I realised we needed to transform these children into independent learners - quickly," says Ms Mlewa.
And on the delivery of the curriculum until that point, she says: "We were giving the children activities without any pegs to hang them on. Because of the national curriculum, we had to go bang, bang - with no time for children whose abilities were anything other than average."
So to provide those pegs and enable the children to learn more at their pace, Ms Mlewa set up a peer education programme among her Year 6 pupils. One group was given an intensive course on computer skills, including the use of Encarta and the Internet, which they, in turn, taught to the other children. Work packs devised by staff guided the children to the resources.
Integral to this way of working is group thinking skills. The children had to learn how to debate without arguing - how to discuss and negotiate.
"They had to learn that in some contexts, there's no right and wrong - just a difference of opinion," says Ms Mlewa.
They were also taught to take responsibility for their actions as individuals and group members. "At the end of a session," she explains, "if one child doesn't complete a task, it remains incomplete. No one is allowed to do the work for any of the others."
Next, she devised learning environments in which the children had to gather information, sift it and then apply it to different situations. The major project on modern art, which led to thegroup visit to the Bristol Art Museum a year ago, was the most ambitious.
Year 5 and 6 children were taught about abstract portraiture and landscape painting. They used the Internet to research the artists and access images of works of art, and were then taken to see the paintings they had viewed on the screen. Teachers provided a context for the paintings so that the children had an understanding, in Sally Mlewa's words, "of what was going on in the world of the painters and also in the outside world".
The children also created their own abstract work and video-conferenced with an artist in Exeter, commenting on each other's work.
Last June, these independent learners produced a newspaper. Following guidelines from staff, they were challenged to bring together their language and computer skills and their critical faculties to produce the Whitehouse Express during a single school day. During those feverish six hours, the children - from Year 2 to Year 6 - took stories off the Press Association national news agency, via the Internet, rewrote them, designed illustrations or used photo-graphs from the wire service and laid them out on screen.
An editorial board of six children oversaw the whole project. They met every hour throughout the day to monitor progress and make decisions on what to accept from the various sections and what to reject. Nine and 10-year-old boys were so enthusiastic they refused to take their lunch or get a few minutes' fresh air at playtime.
The atmosphere was like a big, busy newsdesk, with purposeful consultations and heated discussions on the top international story. (Winner: Geri Halliwell's announcement that she was leaving the Spice Girls.) Next day, staff led a feedback session on what worked and what didn't, and on what could have been done differently. The children learned from their mistakes and learned a lot about the press.
One of the great strengths of the system is that the children know that "judgment is not passed on them", says Ms Mlewa.
"The whole idea of the knowledge-based curriculum has pushed out their creativity and their confidence. They're not allowed to be wrong. But here, you're allowed to fail in the security that you can get up and try again. If you can't fail when you're learning, when can you fail?"