Hoping for a smooth crossing

14th June 1996 at 01:00
Danish teachers now face the same insecurities over integration that their Scottish counterparts did 30 years ago. Steve Bell reports.

Many Danish educationists are excited by an approach to teaching which Scottish primary teachers take for granted as everyday structures for designing and planning the curriculum. The most recent changes to Danish education emphasise a shift from subject teaching to a more integrated approach. The Danish Folkeskole, the basic school, takes pupils from the age of 6 to 15. All staff are trained to teach at any stage and all major in two or three subjects of their choice.

But from the equivalent of Primary I, a special "class teacher" stays with the group for up to 10 years. For the first two years the class teacher will work together with one or more teaching partners. As pupils progress, more teachers with their own specialisms and expertise join the team. This provides a flexible school system with enviable security for the children. The class teacher gets to know the pupils and parents well but has the support and advice of a team of teachers, all with their own strengths.

In Denmark, as in Scotland, educational change is stimulated by changing school needs. From 1990 Danish teachers were encouraged to apply for special research grants to trial new ideas and to present their results to a committee. In Scotland, committees of headteachers, advisers, lecturers and inspectors were formed by the Scottish Consultative Council for the Curriculum with broadly the same purpose.

Our different school system means we have long had one teacher being responsible for teaching the major part of the curriculum to the whole class. In 1965, when the idea of a more integrated curriculum became a major recommendation, Scottish primary teachers felt the same insecurities as do the Danish teachers of today. They were also presented with a new curricular idea - environmental studies (or in Denmark "Natur og Teknik".) What was this and how was it to be taught?

The in-service staff tutor team at Jordanhill was created in 1967 to attempt to help teachers solve some of the basic problems by identifying and promoting strategies for integration. A method or philosophy of teaching was eventually developed to cope with this area of the curriculum. It became known as "topic work". Many primary teachers are familiar with and have used topic outlines designed by Fred Rendell, Arnold Bell, Sallie Harkness, Tricia Watterson and myself.

Creating a meaningful context for pupils is of first importance. For example, a teacher in a west coast school might introduce a topic study on fish-farming by asking a class of 10-year-olds what they thought a fish looks like. In pairs, using coloured paper and scraps, they produce a collage model. But they need the language to describe their fish before they can present their model. Again, in pairs, they write a wordbank of the words they think they will need to describe their fish - fins, tail, scales, etc. These words are then shared and the pupils present their fish. For the teacher this presentation is invaluable. It is a pre-topic assessment which helps her to understand the existing knowledge of the pupils and how she can connect this with what they have to learn.

The topic which has an underlying narrative, or storyline, may progress through questioning to discussion about how many types of fish the children know by name, how different these fish are from the model they have constructed, how valuable they are, what problems would be involved in catching or farming them, what a fishfarm might look like, who would work there and what skills would be needed, the effect on others living around the fishfarm and so on. The storyline follows a logical sequence with each activity depending on the previous one. The highlight is usually an experts visit to the class or a class visit to a real fishfarm. Pupils are then encouraged to share their experience of what they think they have learned and how it compares with their first impressions.

This approach has been developed extensively. For example, the World Wide Fund has, over recent years, sponsored a research project CADISPA (Conservation and Development in Sparsely Populated Areas) based at Jordanhill Campus, which resulted in a 1994 publication called CADISPA Primary which contains three Storyline topics - fishfarming, tourism and boglands (the Flow Country). Five primaries in the Appin area trialled this successfully last session - Lismore, Strath of Appin, Lochnell, Barcaldine and Archattan. Danish teachers who visited these schools were fascinated by the quality of the work produced.

From the early 1980s I have been involved as a consultant to the emergent LEGO educational products organisation, now LEGO DACTA in Billund (Legoland), with Kirsten Meldgaard, an assistant director of education of Farum, Copenhagen. In her study of the work of the In-service staff tutor team at Jordanhill, and of the progressive activity work she saw in Scottish schools, she quickly identified the value to the teacher of having such an approach for integrated work - this was the initial link. She was the first to organise workshop courses in Denmark.

In those early days the method was often referred to as "Den Skotske Metode" or the Scottish Method. At the same time, similar developments in parts of Germany used the title of "The Glasgow Method". Topic work as a title had different connations in different countries and therefore, as the international interest spread, these titles have been superseded by the term Storyline.

Early Danish interest mainly concentrated in the use of Storyline for mother tongue development in the Skole Start years, the infant area of the school, but this interest has developed, and more and more Danish teachers are attracted by the flexibility of the Storyline approach at any stage of the school. Team teaching has become a major aim in the Folkeskole and, with the new areas of study like Natur og Teknik, a necessity. All of this requires careful organisation.

Danish Storyline tutors, local authority advisers and teachers, have been instrumental in spreading information and expertise. In October last year eight of the nine regional directors of the Royal Danish Institute for In-service Education visited Glasgow and Storyline provided a focus for their tour.

Both Danish and German teachers are now showing interest in using this approach to help motivate pupils in learning a second language. The Royal Danish Institute for In-service Education has invited Sallie Harkness and myself with Jette Kock, a Danish language teacher, to run two week-long courses in Haderslev, southern Jutland next session on this use of Storyline.

It is impossible to transfer directly a teaching method to another country. It needs much work and application, but this is being done with great enthusiasm in Denmark.

At the end of March the seventh annual seminar of an international group formed around this approach met in Hamburg. Thirty-one educators from 10 countries - Slovakia, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Scotland and America - spent three days sharing their Storyline experiences. The European association for Educational Design (EED), which I chaired, is the international focus for the dissemination of Storyline material and only a few delegates from each country can attend. So last November an EED Scotland group met in Stirling to allow the same sharing at national level.

Curriculum challenges are different in Europe. In Denmark the need is to apply Storyline to a more integrated curriculum. In Scotland, the 5-14 guidelines have helped develop shared understanding of curriculum content, but these carry with them potential dangers, not least the risk of fragmentation. It would be ironic indeed if one of the great strengths of the primary curriculum, developed over the past 30 years, was to become only for export.

Steve Bell is in the faculty of education, Jordanhill Campus, Strathclyde University.

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