How to transmogrify lemmings

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Jacky King constructs a case for freeing learning from timetables

One of the best pieces of advice on teaching methods was given to me in my first job, by the headteacher. He said: "Teach in the way that you think is right for you and right for the children. Everything else will follow."

How perceptive he was. I never heard a word of jargon from his lips, he just used imagination and common sense. So it was that we all taught with passion and conviction, rather than with an eye to inspectors. Sadly, so many teachers feel that they must bow to inspectors, and to the constraints of narrow timetables.

This term I am gradually abandoning my timetable because local building firms in Somerset are sponsoring primaries to take an interest in the construction industry. My class of Years 4, 5 and 6 has seized the chance.

The project covers every aspect of the curriculum and I am beginning to teach with passion and conviction once more.

Inspiration was originally generated by the highly imaginative project co-ordinator who spent a morning with us building a gigantic dome in tetrahedra, which had been made by the children from 60-centimetre long sticks. Teachers were invited to spend a day with a major construction company, meeting representatives of all aspects of the trade, and visiting a building site. I was convinced that the project would be ideal for my class this year, and so we set out on an interesting journey.

Each child began by designing a house, drawing correct geometric plans with appropriate instruments, to scale or not according to ability. This includes elevations, and hence the correct measurement of angle. A builder visited us last week to demonstrate concrete mixing, and the chemical and irreversible changes that take place when the correct ratio is employed.

The children have measured, cut and glued the timber frames of their houses, which vary from cuboid bungalows with triangular prisms for roofs to complex polyhedra with bay windows and attic conversions.

Before beginning, we surveyed a very muddy field and learned to measure a site, including angle of slope and compass directions for maximum sunlight.

The prevailing winds and the water cycle were considered.

In art, the children have looked at the beautiful colours of local rock and the implications of building materials used on the landscape. Models will be made of their designs in collage, clay and paint. Wallpaper patterns from the past and other cultures will be studied.

In RE the children learn to tolerate others' ideas, and to discuss the impact such change could have on this rural community. We are a church school, and so should emulate St Peter and build our houses on firm foundations. In French, we understand une pierre, and there is no better way to learn written and spoken French than by learning vocabulary about what is so dear to us, such as ma maison.

Quantity surveying begins this week, which will involve all four mathematical rules, and percentages. Some children will use technology to type out their quotations. We are building up a database of the children's own house styles and type.

In English, there is plenty for those bold enough to break away from the narrow constraints of the literacy hour. The children have studied advertisements from local estate agents, harvesting superlatives, and are designing their own, understanding well the inference of such cynical phrases of "much improved" and "a larger life for a happy family".

We have designed advertisements for vampire castles and enchanted palaces, for those who long for some magic. How about this for the vampire castle of your dreams? Luminous toilets for various experiments. And what price this enchanted palace for sale? Fifty golden eggs from a golden goose.

There are endless poems, which speak of dwellings. Then, there are the planning debates, letters to councils, newspaper articles and so on. But be warned, if you feel you must have that dreary little addendum, the plenary session, there won't be time for it. The children will be too engaged in their work. We shouldn't constrict children's learning to rigid timetables and we wouldn't need to if we held their interest.

There is no need for behaviour management and strategies if children are absorbed in work they value. We all recognise this, for that is how adults function. So why on earth are we so pusillanimous that we follow Office for Standards in Education and Qualifications and Curriculum Authority directives like lemmings?

Jacky King is deputy head of Charlton Mackrell primary school, Somerset

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