In January 2001, a far-sighted Ofsted inspector identified the development of independent learning as a key issue at Huntington. This forced us to examine the quality of learning, particularly the difference between deep, shallow and profound learning. We considered the barriers to effective learning within ourselves, the organisation and the pupils and, with rigorous honesty, realised things needed to change.
And so in September 2002, our Years 3 and 4 classes began a pilot teaching and learning project based on what we called "connected learning". The project is now running throughout the school and profoundly affects the quality of learning and thinking for staff and pupils. We had to:
* Generate and extend ideas - how else could we do it?
* Look for innovative solutions - bring together ideas, combine and remodel solutions.
* Get the unusual from the usual. We were stuck with the national curriculum; the question was how to use it to meet our needs.
* Suggest and test hypotheses; come up with a model and try it.
The pilot initially sought to address two key barriers to learning; time and pupil engagement. The school had developed a secondary-style approach that was content heavy and subject driven. Pupils were unsure of what they were learning or why, and how it linked with what they had learned in the same session the previous week. We were wasting time re-capping, which limited any new learning - and especially any deep or profound learning.
Our project allows us to block-teach over two or three weeks. Literacy, numeracy, PE and RE are taught weekly, but across any unit of work; the science element, for example, will be taught for two or three weeks, followed by art for two weeks and either geography or history for a further block. Curriculum areas are in five seven-week units across the year and bound together by a focus on thinking skills: enquiry, information processing, creative thinking, evaluation and reasoning. This shift in focus solved the problem of engaging pupils.
We believe that a greater emphasis on the explicit teaching of thinking as a learning process provides pupils with the big picture for their learning, makes clear what's in it for them and shifts power within the classroom, the key to enabling creative engagement.
Each unit block involves the explicit teaching of one aspect of thinking, which encourages the pupils to apply skills across the curriculum. So, for example, Years 5 and 6 children learn about enquiry, first in a science context where they learn to distinguish between questions for investigations and questions for research, and later in the unit in history, where they use brainstorming techniques to uncover what they know and what they need to find out. They go on to consider which questions they can answer through using the internet and which through examining primary evidence on a field trip.
Between the units we reserve time for four enrichment weeks when pupils are encouraged to extend their learning in agreed areas or when artists, scientists and authors come in to school. They are asked to work within the planned skills focus and have added greatly to the pupils' understanding.
The project has been highly challenging for teachers, especially in the significant shift from a content to a skills and process-based curriculum.
But there have been significant benefits. Pupils are more motivated and excited by their learning, and find that the "block" approach allows them time to plan and to reflect. These are vital ingredients if we are to sustain the creative energy needed to continue learning about teaching in a new way.
Clare Robertson is head of Huntington community primary school, Cannock