Inspiring schools of thought

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Insights into how schools in New York and Ontario engage pupils' enthusiasm for learning have given Isabella Lind new ideas for encouraging her school

In central Greenock I have been referred to by my pupils as the psychedelic, radioactive heidie. But after a school inspection, when the euphoria of it being over has passed, I too can feel dulled and sink into the slough of despond.

To counteract this, I applied for a sabbatical and so embarked on some remarkable professional development last year.

I had been a headteacher for 18 years in just two schools (King's Glen Primary and Ravenscraig Primary, both in Greenock, Inverclyde). In Canada you are a headteacher of a school for only three to five years and then, with consultation, are moved on.

The aim of my short sabbatical - two weeks - was to examine creativity, culture and citizenship in Toronto. However, an opportunity arose for me to spend a weekend in New York with Jennifer Lang, who had been a probationer at Ravenscraig Primary the previous year, and that made a great impression on me.

On the Sunday we spent the day at her school. It was different in many ways. You entered off the street; the playground, or yard, was on the roof; and there was a rota of security guards.

The children studied an integrated curriculum which engaged them in learning that was real and relevant. All planning, record keeping and communications were done electronically. I was slightly embarrassed but nevertheless comfortable with my hard battered book for note-taking.

Jennifer kept emphasising the importance of teaching children how to question and of giving time to reflect on learning. This made such sense and took me back to college days in the 1960s, when that was exactly what we were taught.

In the hurly-burly of driving through programmes of work, we have forgotten the importance of methodology, flexibility, spontaneity and reflection.

There, at Columbia University School, a teacher with just two years' teaching experience reminded me of the importance of such matters.

A daily 10-minute slot is allocated for pupils to discuss matters that they feel are important. By Primary 7 level, pupils are able to set the agenda, keep the minutes and chair the meeting.

There was so much to learn from this inspiring school.

On my return to Toronto, I was invited to the Institute of Child Study at the university. I saw pupils totally engaged in their learning, questioning and hypothesising. The rhythm of education taught to me as a student was evident in these university schools and there wasn't a textbook in sight.

Creativity was encouraged at every stage of learning.

I have learnt so much from those two visits, but my trip wasn't over yet. A meeting was set up with John Havercroft from York region school board in Ontario. He had been involved in developing character education and acknowledged the importance of home, school and community working together.

The necessity of pupils, staff, parents and community members agreeing on the attributes to be developed at school does seem obvious.

They chose empathy, courage, responsibility, respect, perseverance, fairness, optimism, honesty, integrity and ingenuity. Much was done throughout York school board to promote and develop these attributes.

Mr Havercroft 's insistence that he did not wish to be tolerated by anyone but wished empathy to be promoted, certainly made me think.

Teachers in Toronto face the same problems that beset us: a crowded curriculum, school closures and on occasions the feeling of being undervalued. Yet all the staff I met shared resources and ideas freely and with enthusiasm.

My sabbatical has given me new ideas, yet confirmed the worthiness of my own educational philosophy. It has been the most exciting and worthwhile CPD in my career.

1sabella Lind is headteacher of Ravenscraig Primary, Inverclyde

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