On course for active learning

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Critical Skills has given a boost to the whole staff in an Edinburgh primary. Miranda Fettes reports

Critical skills is not new to Scotland, but never before has a whole school undertaken training simultaneously. The headteacher at Pentland Primary in Edinburgh used the May bank holiday weekend as an opportunity to change that.

Twenty-two teachers, one nursery nurse and a senior quality improvement officer gave up their weekend to take the three-day course - with no extra pay.

The school is taking the level 1 institute of the Critical Skills Programme, a division of Network Educational Press. The headteacher, Pam Mackay, took the course five years ago and has found it invaluable.

Level 1 is a six-day course, split into two halves taken a few months apart, to give teachers time to digest it and try various techniques in the classroom.

"The Critical Skills approach enables schools to develop curriculum, teaching and learning and assessment in one go," explains Mrs Mackay. "It encourages participation and active learning."

Over the three days, the teachers were presented with various challenges and had to work in groups to find a solution.

"It's an intensive, participative training course so you are the one placed in an active learning situation," says Mrs Mackay.

"It encourages creativity, enterprise, citizenship, inclusion. It's an umbrella term for something that's going to take in A Curriculum for Excellence, Accelerated Learning and Assessment is for Learning.

"Children are given challenges within the curriculum, developed by the teaching staff. It can be a five-minute challenge or a five-week challenge.

Children take responsibility for certain roles and the outcome of that challenge, be it a poster, a presentation or whatever.

"The challenges can vary from being set in a group of two to three children to a whole class challenge or a whole school challenge, so the size of the group can vary enormously."

One of the teachers points out that giving children more responsibility for tasks will help them develop critical life skills. They can gain a sense of ownership, take pride in what they are achieving and learn through making mistakes.

Other proponents believe the approach enables teachers to develop the four capacities set out in A Curriculum for Excellence, to enable all young people to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. "It creates a collaborative learning community and is very motivating for staff," says Mrs Mackay.

Being a new, amalgamated school, the teachers also feel the course has helped their own team building, as well as teaching them how to enhance the learning of their pupils.

Colin Weatherley, a retired headteacher, runs the training in Scotland.

"It's from pre-school to adult and it's not just in education," he says.

"It's about taking a bit of the curriculum but redesigning it as a complex, open-ended problem at the same time as developing critical skills and attitudes."

If commitment is anything to go by, the outlook is positive for Pentland Primary.

"It's a huge staff commitment," says Mrs Mackay. "But this will enhance our approach to what we feel is Pentland Primary."


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