It works backwards in Oz

30th March 2007 at 01:00
THERE ARE 10,000 long miles of land and sea from Queensland to South Lanarkshire. But distance is no barrier to good ideas. At Biggar High, the entire second year has been working on a great idea pioneered in Australia's sunshine state.

Rich tasks are at the heart of Queensland's new approach to curriculum and assessment, which aims to "empower and encourage teachers, unclutter the curriculum and prepare students for a future in an uncertain world".

These rich tasks help break down barriers between subjects and students - who work with colleagues on real-world projects that focus their thoughts and motivate their activities. "There has been a huge amount of learning going on," says Elizabeth Clingan, a modern languages teacher.

"It's not about doing an exercise in a book or a piece of folio writing. It has purpose. That changes their whole attitude to what they are doing."

With a comprehensive curriculum review and the New Basics project that arose from it, Queensland has moved a long way down the road mapped by A Curriculum for Excellence. So it makes sense to try aspects of the Australian approach here. This is what several schools in South Lanarkshire and Argyll and Bute have been doing.

"All our second year pupils and four departments - English, geography, modern languages and RME - have been involved in the rich tasks pilot,"

says Ms Clingan.

Working in groups of four, pupils were asked to devise ways of promoting a Scottish product or service to another country. Teams had to research product and market to improve their prospects of a successful enterprise.

A key aspect of the Queensland curriculum is that it is designed backwards from the rich tasks. This too was part of the Scottish pilot. "Teams had to prepare promotional material - which might be leaflets, posters, PowerPoint presentations," she says.

On the final day, they presented their material to an audience of classmates and individuals from the target country, invited to the school to take part. Working back from this end point, each department devised lessons to prepare pupils for their forthcoming task.

Covering a range of knowledge and skills, these were delivered in the preceding two to three weeks, explains Ms Clingan. "Cross-curricular projects sometimes tend to be the lowest common denominator. This wasn't like that. The Aus-tralians have a particular terminology: It's 'trans-disciplinary' rather than 'inter-disciplinary'.

"What they mean is that subjects retain their integrity. That's how we approached it, with separate specialists in each subject working to-wards a common goal, but keeping the standard high in their own discipline.

"The departments had very few meetings to discuss the project. They knew what the pupils were working towards, and they decided themselves how to prepare for it. In English, for instance, the teachers worked on a particular use of language," explains Hannah Bruce. "It was called 'persuasive' language. We needed to use it to persuade people to buy our product. Then in German or French, we were learning the vocabulary for our presentations.

"It was quite difficult when we started working on the presentation. But it was fun. I liked having a deadline to work to, and the skills we'd learned made it easier to see how you could tie it together."

Not all the teaching was about specific skills and hard knowledge. "They said we would need soft skills too," says Harry Thundow. "That's like being nice to people, helping and encouraging them, using our imagination, coming to group decisions.

"Teachers told us about these. But we were also discovering them ourselves while working as a team with people we wouldn't normally talk to. It's hard to explain how that happened, but it was a really good experience."

What Biggar has been doing is a snapshot of what Queensland schools do, explains Annette Rose, the depute head. "They spend eight to nine months on a project. We only had a few weeks. But it was a great way to build on A Curriculum for Excellence work we've been doing for some time now, in our Pace and Challenge days."

This is a programme of events designed to stimulate different departments to work together on projects which include Common-health Games, heart-start, food and drink challenges and multi-cultural days. "The rich tasks project allowed us to explore and expand on all this," says Ms Rose.

"More than half our staff have been trained in co-operative learning. We use this approach to deliver all these projects, including the rich tasks."

Individual pupils were assigned to teams using co-operative learning principles in such a way that each team ended up with a nice blend of skills, abilities and personalities. There were four different jobs, explains Grant Russell.

"We had a co-ordinator, an encourager, a timekeeper and a materials manager. In our team, I was the encourager. My job was to motivate the group, keep them going, get the ones who were a bit shy to start with interacting. It was quite different for me, because I was working in a group with people I wouldn't normally talk to.

"But it was really good to talk to them, work with them and generally have fun with them."

Product promotions put together by the 40 different teams included winter woollies and wellies, food and drink, Scottish scenery, wildlife, theme parks and activity holidays. Presentations were delivered mostly in English, but teams had to display a familiarity with the language and culture of their chosen market.

This was probably the hardest part, says Andrew McCammon. "We had a helpsheet on making a presentation, though, which was very useful if we hadn't a clue what to do next.

"My most enjoyable part was thinking up new ideas - the name of our company, what we were going to sell, how we were going to show it off to people."

The key difference between rich tasks and everyday schoolwork can be summed up in one word: "responsibility", says Vicky Hodge.

"In a normal day you don't have much of that. Your responsibility is to do your work and get it finished. With this project we were responsible for everything - making appointments, getting computer time, meeting deadlines, doing the presentation." she said. "We didn't have teachers telling us what to do all the time. I found that exciting."

On task Tasks are designed in such a way that to complete them successfully pupils must combine and use the knowledge and skills they learn in different subject areas.

Syllabuses for the subjects are designed backwards from the tasks.

The outcome of the rich task - whether presentation or product - is used as the assessment for each pupil.

Queensland New Basics project:

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