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Questions are the answer

Teachers in Devon have been examining the fundamentals of the way they work - and have enhanced their own thinking skills, as well as those of their pupils

Shaldon primary is a school full of questions. "What makes you think all these photographs were taken a long time ago?" asks a classroom display.

"Where is the nearest solar system to ours?" asks a pupil, rehearsing a question he hopes to ask that evening at a planned electronic link-up between the school and NASA.

And then there are the really big questions, the ones the teachers have been asking themselves: "What are we trying to do?", "How are we trying to do it?" and "How will we know when we've got there?"

These are the kind of issues that the primary strategy hopes all schools will start to get their teeth into. But Shaldon has been on this track for more than a decade. While many schools were sinking under tests and targets, this little primary near Teignmouth in Devon embarked on a process of enquiry into the fundamentals of teaching and learning.

"We asked: what makes a good teacher? What makes a good learner?" explains the school's head, Frances Moule. She got her staff brainstorming, sifting ideas, identifying priorities and sitting in on each other's classrooms to find the best ways forward. "And we didn't move on," adds deputy head Karen Hadley, "until we were sure that everyone shared the same understanding. We knew we had to have that consistency."

From that early work emerged ideas that have been elaborated over many years of professional development. The staff decided, for example, that a good teacher asked good questions. Then they talked about how good questions were open-ended ones. And that led on to looking closely into which kinds of questions would best promote higher-order thinking. All this has been carried out in-house. "We no longer send people on courses.

They're not good enough: they don't give value for money," says Mrs Hadley.

Aside from their own discussions, the teachers are informed by books from learning experts such as thinking guru Robert Fisher and psychologist Benjamin Bloom; the teachers have reading days to tackle these texts. "We tell them this reading is critical to their knowledge, and that we know that the better the adults in a community are learning, the better children will learn," says Mrs Moule.

"We have come to believe that if you join a profession you must take some responsibility for your professional development." However, she stresses, additional demands on staff are never made without giving them time and support to deal with them.

The result has been a deep shift of culture. Learning, not teaching, is now at the heart of the school. Staff believe their key job is to encourage children to think, and are clear that to do that they have to ask the right sort of questions and create classroom environments that reinforce learning.

They know they must expand their children's learning environment beyond the four walls of the school - for instance by arranging that day's link-up with NASA.

In practical terms, the school's approach has led to a number of initiatives: classroom displays that pose questions, not just showcase children's work; plenty of school trips and outings; a strong focus on thinking skills; and sharing ideas with colleagues through a network of local schools. It has also led to terrific test results, praise from Ofsted and beacon status.

However, going down this road can lead to unforeseen destinations. Take, for instance, the time the school set up six teams, each with a brief to research a specific area of school life and come up with ways to improve it. One group decided that the way to deal with stressed and difficult boys was to bring in a yoga teacher. To be fair, Mrs Moule says, the group came up with evidence for their conclusion.

"What we're doing is tapping into our own experience and expectations, addressing our own school's needs within our own context, and taking power into our own hands," she says. Part of this has to be acknowledging that not everything will work and that there can be different ways forward.

"What we're doing is having a professional dialogue, energising teachers," says Mrs Hadley.

"When we tell other heads what we are doing, their jaws drop. They can't believe it," says Mrs Moule.

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