It's a mystery: how learning happens

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
What happened on the Mary Celeste in 1872? Or at the Flannan Isles lighthouse in 1900? Primary pupils applied their minds to these and other intrigues. Su Clark reports
What happened on the Mary Celeste in 1872? Or at the Flannan Isles lighthouse in 1900? Primary pupils applied their minds to these and other intrigues. Su Clark reports

The girl with the hair combed fiercely back into a tight bun is staring up into the face of the adult towering over her, patiently explaining how much time she has spent over the past term on this project.

Earlier in the morning she had sat on the stage in front of a large, invited audience, acting the part of a lawyer in a courtroom drama to find those responsible for the disappearance of the captain, his family and crew from the Mary Celeste.

Now she has dropped the clipped English accent and is speaking in her natural Scottish burr.

She doesn't bat an eyelid when another adult steps up and begins questioning her. She demonstrates that she clearly knows her subject.

What she perhaps doesn't know is that she is also demonstrating one of the aims of A Curriculum for Excellence: that she is a supremely confident individual, at 11 years old.

More than 60, equally confident, children from 11 Stirling primaries gathered recently at the grand Dunblane Hydro to showcase their collaborative work at a conference. It was the culmination of a project entitled Mysteries Inc, which had involved 300 children from the schools in an opportunity for deep and enriched cross-curricular learning, done as part of A Curriculum for Excellence.

All the schools had been allocated a mystery to try to solve, intrigues that have puzzled people for centuries: the lost city of Atlantis, the Mary Celeste, the Bermuda triangle or the Flannan Isles lighthouse, where in 1900 three keepers mysteriously disappeared.

The project was developed by three teachers, all seconded to Stirling's Curriculum for Excellence unit. For the past year, Helen Fleming, from Fallin Primary, and Seona Dow, from Allan's Primary, both class teachers, have worked part-time with Helen Sneddon, a principal teacher from Callander Primary, who has been seconded full-time to the unit for three years.

Their aim was to devise a challenge that would fulfil all the Curriculum for Excellence "capacities" - to develop successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors - through collaborative learning and cross-curricular activity.

"We invited all the schools in Stirling to participate and 11 primary schools responded," explains Mrs Fleming. "Sadly no secondaries did, but we are hoping to get some on board for next year when Stirling plans to run a similar network project."

All the schools involved language work in the project, through diary writing that could be used as evidence, crime scene reports, poetry and stories, and blended it with information technology, maths, personal and social development, environmental studies and art.

David Brown, of Cambusbarron Primary, whose P7 group presented the courtroom drama, spent hours using the project as a channel for learning. "We did it most days through some set pieces, but also through other topics. We did world time zones in maths and some pupils did co-ordinates using the Mary Celeste as a starting point. We also used it in art, PSD, drama and language," he said.

Siobhan Hewitt, P67 teacher at St Mary's Primary in Stirling, also used their investigation - into the Bermuda triangle - as a way to cover curricular topics in subjects such as maths, drama and physical education.

To help with their projects, the council linked the schools with professional investigators from the wider community, who came to talk to the children. They included fraud investigators from the council, lead investigation managers from the Royal Bank of Scotland, police officers, people from the fire service and a gentleman whose father had been a Flannan Isles lighthouse keeper.

"It helps the children put it into the context of work," says Linda Kinney, Stirling's head of learning and development.

The pupils' enthusiasm for the project was almost palpable at the conference. As they showed guests the fruits of their learning, nearly all of them, when questioned individually, asserted their preference for this type of educational acitivity over learning from a text book. One girl even declared herself addicted to learning, following the experience.

Balfron Primary challenged the adults to create a pyramid from straws and then suspend a boat from it.

"We are going to let them do it first to see how they get on and then we are going to give them roles to see if they can work together better," says Christine Steel, who is in P6. "At the beginning of the project we were really bad at co-operating."

"But after we were given roles, it made it much easier," adds her classmate Maisie Price.

As all the activity was going on at the conference, David Cameron, Stirling's director of children's services, said: "With A Curriculum for Excellence you need opportunities to showcase successful learning and this is an ideal way to do it. It also, in itself, satisfies the capacities. Having the children present to an audience helps builds confident individuals and effective contributors."

Stirling now plans to develop a resource for continuing professional development for other schools from the project.

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