Ideas grow and children branch out in all directions when schools creative thinking, as Diana Hinds found out
Just inside the entrance hall of Tithe Barn Primary School in Stockport stands a metaphor for this school's way of working: a "brain tree". Its leaves are handsomely hewn from copper and brass, and sculpted to suggest the shape of the human brain.
If the visitor to Tithe Barn does not immediately grasp the sculpture's significance, an hour or two at the school is enough to make it clear. The brain tree forms the centrepiece of Tithe Barn's Brainforest Project, which extends right through the school, disseminating new research on higher-order thinking skills and accelerated learning, activating eco-friendly programmes for recycling and waste management, and promoting a notion of citizenship which links children not only to their local community but to children in partner schools around the world. "Lots of things were happening here, and we were looking for a way of drawing them together," explains headteacher Tim Buckley.
From this autumn, the brain tree will be housed in a new global citizenship centre, to be built in the school's central courtyard, where ICT facilities will be harnessed in the interests of enhanced global communication.
It is a school where EM Forster's memorable words, "only connect", come constantly to mind. Making connections - in the thinking of each child, between different areas of the curriculum, between diverse countries - is the name of the game at Tithe Barn. Buoyed up by excellent SATs results, the school has given the detailed prescriptions of the literacy and numeracy strategy a fairly wide berth, and takes a more holistic and creative approach to children's learning.
"We have got to be creative in the way we deliver the national curriculum," says Tim Buckley. "The curriculum separates everything out, but I don't believe we learn like that: we learn by making connections."
For him, the essential nugget of the hefty national curriculum document is contained in only three pages ("Most teachers," he says, "don't even know they are there"), which briefly touch on pupils improving their own learning, thinking skills, working with others, and enterprise and entrepreneurial skills.
"Thinking skills" are a top priority at Tithe Barn, whatever the subject, whatever the age of the child. Tim Buckley has trained the staff himself, demonstrating how you can stimulate children's analytical thinking by asking questions which are more open-ended and far-reaching than straightforward knowledge-based ones. "If you are doing Goldilocks, for instance, instead of simply asking 'how many bears?' etc, you might ask children to explain whether they think Goldilocks is good or bad, or to say what couldn't have happened in the story."
Carol Cross, Year 3 teacher and citizenship co-ordinator, says this style of questioning can be difficult at first - for teachers and children. "The children are frightened of being creative to begin with, because they don't think the creative answers count. But when you get used to it, it begins to come naturally."
Year 5 children are currently taking part in an Oxford Brookes University research project to assess the impact of teaching critical and creative thinking (see box). It is typical of Tithe Barn that instead of identifying a small minority of gifted and talented children for this project, all 36 pupils in the year are included - because, as Tim Buckley says, "they always surprise you".
This is a school where everyone is encouraged to have ideas, pupils and teachers alike, and to carry them out wherever possible. Eleanor, for example, is a Year 5 school councillor who is pleased with the contribution she has made to getting aquatic murals painted in the girls' toilets.
Nikita, also Year 5, is part of a team of "Eco Warriors", carrying out a survey of the school's electricity use, and responsible for getting the council to erect a new bin at its recycling site, where people can dispose of their plastic bags.
Throughout Tithe Barn there are colourful signs of the spreading of the Brain Forest - for instance, a model tree outside each classroom symbolises its link with a school in a different continent: the jacaranda for the African class, the banyan for the Asian class - but there is also a wealth of initiatives going on inside.
In the reception class, the children have been sending emails to the (fictitious) Penguin School in Antarctica, and are full of ideas about the continent's wildlife. Year 4 are calmly and efficiently tidying up to the strains of hunting music, and Year 2 have been posting sums into the Number Machine - a big cardboard box with a child inside.
"Yes, it can be difficult to fit it all in," concedes Carol Cross, with a smile, "but you can link things together, like gardening and literacy. It's not about bolting things on, it's about believing that what you are doing is right."