Designer learning

16th February 1996 at 00:00
Tony Blair's call for 'fast tracking' brought David Winkley's school to public attention, but he says it's part of a larger question

It was interesting to be a protagonist as well as an observer of the national debate about selection and "fast-tracking" of pupils. As the media analysed the issues - some visiting Grove Primary School to examine the evidence (by no means unperceptively) for themselves - the difference between fast-tracking and streaming was well dealt with and the fact that many schools already successfully use various setting and differentiating devices was rightly pointed out.

Despite the flattering commentary, Grove, like all schools, has some way to go. The exciting school is surely more like a research laboratory on an endless search for improvement than a polished, finished monument. Monuments after all are apt to fall off pedestals.

Yet despite this volume of commentary, the debate somehow failed to get to the heart of the matter.

The underlying principle from which fast-tracking arises seems to me to be one of pupil entitlement. How, for the 25 or so hours a week we have the child do we ensure that we offer the highest quality of possible planned experiences based on: * the national curriculum (actually no more than an outline syllabus) * the need to challenge the child according to its ability * creating structures of meaning that excite, motivate and make sense to learners.

The problem we face is that what children currently experience in classrooms - especially primary classrooms - falls between the general outline map of the national curriculum and the ability of the teacher to interpret and deliver. We ask teachers to "interpret" - to create textual meanings for every moment of every day across every subject area to audiences of widely varying ability.

The outcome for the pupil is inevitably hugely varied in quality, and our current response of haranguing the teachers and providing somewhat patronising theoretical analyses of different teaching styles and generalised advice about "improvement", is simply not addressing the central and rather pragmatic issue - which is that the national curriculum has done only half the job.

If we ask the question: what is the best quality "course" or "ordered set of learning experiences" we can offer the pupils, we attack the problem from a different angle. We outline not only the objectives or the rough map for the pupils, but also describe the way each step on the course is to be delivered - including the teaching strategies, resources, cost, timing, narrative line (with a beginning, middle and end) together with ways of assessing and evaluating by teachers and pupils.

The planning is more like preparing a script of a play, addressing elements of design, production, theme, direction. If the children have exceptional needs then the course addresses this issue either by differentiation in the multi-ability class or by the fast track route. The key is a depth of planning for all subjects for all of the school day at a level of detail we have not yet currently postulated.

The next question is: who can deliver the course? Suppose a school committed to dance designs a detailed course. Further suppose that the course has been designed to a sufficiently high level of quality, but we haven't a teacher able to deliver it. At this point we either train a teacher to an appropriate level of competence, or we find someone from outside either to work alongside the teacher, or to deliver the course herself.

This immediately opens up the question of organisational flexibility within the school, sharpening up our perception of teachers' talents with a much more focused use of in-service training related to what we intend the children to experience.

The point is surely that the starting point for learning is the high-quality design brief - the text of the lessons - that is, what we believe the child is entitled to. Assessment of the course-in-action will follow, noting the pupils' views, their achievements through it, with the teachers' (and maybe an externally audited) evaluation. If it fails, we go back to the drawing board: if it proves successful we can all learn from what it is, and how it was done. The process might help drag quality teaching out by the hair from its hiding places. The texts of these "courses" are by no means impossible to transpose from one teacher to another, though different teachers, like different acting teams, will have their own unique styles.

Our experience at Grove is that this approach actually enhances teaching quality as well as helping identify much more transparently difficulties teachers have at the delivery stage. Most important of all it addresses head on the question: why should children's learning be determined only by what their class teacher can do?

This analysis turns much of our current thinking on its head and opens up new and challenging lines of thought: not least, how can "course designs" at this level of detail and professionalism be produced.

It moves to the centre of the stage the need for much more time for teachers to plan, plus an organisational planning within and between schools, managed by teachers on a huge scale. The planning needs to be local but potentially transferable, and led by teachers with vision, skills and ideas.

These plans must come from the teachers themselves, describing the best things that are currently happening. One might speculate about a course bank, maybe using the Internet, creating off-the-shelf choices from a bank of tried and tested imaginatively constructed components. These would be like Lego pieces which can be put together, interlinked and developed by teachers in a myriad different ways.

It would be naive to suppose such a process answers all our problems: this argument is all about the theatre of the educational arena, focusing on the play-script, as it were, with clear expectations of the actors: it doesn't address the complex elements of the learner-as-audience, and can do no more than anticipate the potential of pupil response. Moreover there is a limit to the detail that verbal description of the practice of teaching can cope with.

But at least we have identified a starting point based on the conscious principle of entitlement to the best we have available - and this surely might be a way to breathe new life into the current tired impasse in the debate about teaching quality.

David Winkley is head of Grove Primary School, Handsworth, Birmingham

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