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Ladders for learning came in from the cold

A head's seven-hour bus journey in the dead of winter gave rise to a new way to map the curriculum. Raymond Ross reports

A head's seven-hour bus journey in the dead of winter gave rise to a new way to map the curriculum. Raymond Ross reports

At the beginning of the Christmas holidays in 2010, headteacher Ellen Muir was stuck for seven hours on a bus trying to get through the snow to Aviemore. But the hours of personal frustration turned out to be an opportunity for professional reflection and resolution.

As the head of Pilrig Park School in Edinburgh, for secondary pupils with moderate to severe learning difficulties, Mrs Muir had just taken part in a professional review with her line manager, Rosie Wilson, the city's service manager for special schools and specialist provision.

"As a school, we'd embraced Curriculum for Excellence. We had organised learning areas and were using outcomes in all areas and had developed the experiences which would allow our learners to achieve these outcomes - and we were very proud of where we were," says Mrs Muir.

"And then, bang! Rosie Wilson, my line manager, asked, `How are you going to map all of this?'"

Mrs Muir's honest answer was that she didn't know. "But it was on that long snowy journey that I had time to really think of how to map. When else, as a headteacher, would you ever have that much time?"

The result of Mrs Muir's snow-bound meditations was an innovative approach to mapping the curriculum, called "Learning Ladders".

Learning Ladders work as a colourful visual map, and they now cover the corridor walls of Pilrig Park School, offering a learner's journey to pupils, parents, staff and partner agencies.

The "sideways" ladders, which run horizontally along the walls, are formatted with red boards for each learning area, the rungs representing each level of CfE. Above the ladder at each level, outcomes are displayed. The experiences that have been developed in order to achieve each outcome are displayed below, while the middle of each rung shows the standard required to achieve the level or outcome.

"The ladders are a visual resource in a school where most of our pupils are visual learners," says Mrs Muir.

"The whole school community can see progressive pathways charted across all subjects in all curricular areas and this has certainly deepened everyone's understanding of CfE. It really works because it's such a simple concept," she says.

Above each learning area are emblazoned the words "I can climb this ladder" and within subject areas more specific "I can" statements are shown: for example, in early level art and design "I can use line in my artwork", or in first level music "I can follow a conductor's direction of speed".

"Pupils' names are not put on the boards, so there's no public grading of their work in that sense," says art teacher Catriona Ferguson, who helped design the visual ladders.

"But pupils can look at the visuals andor read and identify where they are through their own outcomes. It's very child-friendly and it's not something that's simply tucked away in a folder.

"We organise class visits to the ladders so that pupils can see where they are and we discuss what we have learned recently. It brings Curriculum for Excellence alive to them, because it provides and promotes constant involvement," she says.

That "constant involvement" can also be seen when pupils sometimes check the ladders of their own accord and it's not unknown for senior pupils to be spotted mentoring younger ones at the "red boards" as they often call them.

"Our learners are developing the skills to plot their own learning on the ladders in all curricular areas and can proudly identify their next steps," says Mrs Muir.

"It's exciting to watch some of them make connections across curricular areas, linking the skills and knowledge they are developing in different areas of the curriculum."

Since Mrs Muir, with the aid of two senior pupils, addressed this year's Scottish Learning Festival, some 40 schools, including mainstream primary, secondary and nursery, have contacted Pilrig Park School and 15 are already booked to visit in order to see the ladders for themselves and learn more about them.

"I think any school could take the concept and make it their own," says Mrs Muir. "It's about pupils being active in their own learning. The ladders can be used as part of everyday teaching as well as a visual tool to explain progress to parents. The concept has a simplicity, which gives it great potential."


Matthew Frame, head boy, Pilrig Park School:

We've been working with our learning ladders for over a year. I understand what they're about - my learning, where I've been, where I am and where I'm going.

I like using the ladders. They motivate me. I like looking at the level my work is at and when I look at the standard of the next level I think, `I can get there'. `I want to do it'. And because I can see the standard for the next level in front of my eyes, I can practise and keep comparing my work to the standard.

Once, when I finished a piece of writing, my teacher asked me where I would plot this piece of work. I looked at the English Learning Ladders and compared my work with the standards on the board. I decided level two. My teacher asked why not level three and I said because I don't use paragraphs well.

Now I will practise paragraphs, because I know I can get to level three.

I know that what I learn in school and the way I learn it will help me be successful in my life.

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