Life skills hook for slow learners

1st December 1995 at 00:00
GNVQ-style teaching methods are capturing the imagination of low achievers in an inner city school. Clare Jenkins reports

Many history departments are worried that the subject will suffer fallout from the decision to remove it from the compulsory curriculum at key stage 4. History is seen as a dry subject for the academically gifted, the argument goes, and low-achieving pupils will vote with their feet to spend their time on more vocational courses.

But a Hull teacher is now turning this theory on its head by showing how GNVQ-style teaching methods can be used to make history more relevant to disaffected pupils.

The teacher in question is Sue Johnson, head of history and deputy head of humanities at the Amy Johnson School in Hull. When she joined the inner city from a post in a leafy suburb two years ago, she was shocked by the low expectations of its 500 pupils, more than half of whom have special needs.

Those expectations included a belief that history was a difficult subject, requiring literacy and numeracy skills far beyond many of them. A subject involving books and lots of reading and note-taking. Sue soon realised that that kind of didactic approach wasn't going to work in a school where motivation and attendance were a problem. So she set about trying to make the subject interesting and accessible to low-ability pupils.

She came up with a structured yet flexible key-stage 3 project involving active research, using quality resources, and developing GNVQ-style core skills. These skills include oral and written communication, teamwork and independent study, decision making and problem-solving, research, use of IT, selection and synthesis of information.

A bid to the TVEE for the development of a resource base resulted in a resources room - formerly a junk room, now complete with Pounds 2,000 worth of computers, tape recorders and videos - and a non-teaching assistant to develop quality materials in-house.

The pilot study unit was "the impact of war on civilians" in the 20th-century world. The project was the creation of museum displays for 10-year-olds - the average age of language skills among her Year 9s.

Weeks of preparation preceded the June launch of the eight lessons. Then pupils were given their instructions. In groups of mixed gender and ability they were to research aspects of the Second World War, such as the role of women, the Hull blitz, air raid shelters, and the Holocaust.

Work packs included instructions, basic information, lists of sources and resources, and task sheets. Each pupil had individual and group responsibilities. Each display had to include written information, pictures or posters, a list of 1-12 key points, and a radio news bulletin. It could also include slides, videos, posters and artefacts - a gas mask, ration books, an air-raid siren.

Once the lessons were up and running, the pupils were allowed to move between the classroom, the resources room and the computer room. Far from absconding, they became engrossed. It was a risk, but one that seems to have paid off. When Mike Smith, a language consultant,was brought in to assess progress, he found a "purposeful buzz" around the room. The independent work was "very impressive". And there was a lot of "tolerance, patience and understanding, which has to be excellent".

The result was not just half-a-dozen displays but, according to Sue Johnson, an increase in confidence and self-esteem. Even statemented children contributed through posters, maps of the Blitz, and tape recordings. "It shows them that they do have skills," she says. "Children here don't respond to the didactic approach," says deputy head Paul Myers. "But the notion of an open-ended project would be disaster without the amount of preparation Sue has done."

At the end of the course, Mike Smith submitted his report. While primarily enthusiastic, he did find some room for improvement. The pupils' communication and decision-making concentrated too much on organisation, too little on content. Less able students were allowed to avoid writing skills by concentrating on tasks like accessing the CD-Rom. And some were still merely watching a video and copying down the words.

"Education," he says, "has to shift from what still goes on predominantly in schools - transmission of knowledge - to an approach that enables students not to be teacher dependent but at the heart of the process themselves. If we make use of data bases and Internet, we can't any longer be the gatekeeper handing out tickets. We have to become the guide to help children find their own way around. Leaving them with just knowledge is not enough."

It's a view shared by Carol White, senior secondary adviser for Humberside, who confesses to having "a real bee in my bonnet" about history's reluctance to incorporate the vocational dimension.

"The work Sue has done is part of an attempt to encourage history teachers to look at real contexts," she says. "A lot of them say history is about the past. It's not just about that. It's about understanding the present in the context of the past. Even a topic like medieval realms or the Industrial Revolution doesn't stop you from getting children involved in problem- solving."

The skills developed may not lead to a GCSE, she says, but they are transferable and valued in adult life. "We don't come from a GNVQ perspective but as teachers wanting to improve the kind of experiences pupils are having. "

What do the pupils themselves think? Many said they had talked to relatives about the war. Philip Hassan and Lucy Norrie helped put together the display on the Blitz. "We didn't know anything about it before," they say. "It was very interesting. You learned how it happened and why. And where the children went when they were evacuated. It's better to do things, find out things, and work as a team. It's boring, just sitting there working."

Emma Fletcher, Andrew Stark and Rachel Hoggard compiled the display on the atomic bomb. One problem they found was how to make difficult concepts accessible for 10-year-olds. Sue Johnson encouraged them. The result is a news bulletin using simple words to explain the bomb's effects, accompanied by easy-to-read information sheets. "We had to pick the pictures carefully so they wouldn't scare the little ones," says Emma. "It's different from history before, because then it was sitting in a classroom writing out questions. With this, you were finding things out for yourself, a teacher wasn't just telling you."

Now Sue is looking to develop more enquiry-type projects, as well as refining and extending this one lower down the school. "If children are going to achieve, you have to start the skills lower down the school. Which has major implications for the way you teach."

But unless history teachers wrestle with those implications, Carol White believes, the subject itself may be marginalised. "A lot of youngsters by the end of Year 9 vote with their feet. It's very easy to make history boring, particularly for less able pupils. You do have to work hard at it. But if teachers don't, it could go the same way as Latin, seen as being elitist and difficult, and needing higher levels of literacy.

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