Makes you think on your feet

6th April 2007 at 01:00
St Ninian's Primary in Stirling reaped the benefits of a flexible approach to learning when it ran a School of Science week

IT'S a long time since people first began to wonder about the twinkling lights in the night sky. Were they gods, or distant fires, or holes in a darkened dome? Science grew from the quest for answers.

The same stimulus works today but the answers come more quickly, particularly when a school can adapt the timetable to its own requirements, as illustrated by HMIE in this week's interim report, Making Effective Use of Curriculum Flexibility in Primary Schools.

Earth in Space is just one of the science themes that transformed every classroom at St Ninian's Primary in Stirling this term. For one evening, the school opened its doors to display the results of a novel approach to a subject that can struggle for time and space.

School of Science was about tackling the subject as a whole school, said Elaine Wyllie, a P7 teacher. "It's a coherent approach that immerses children in motivating and memorable science, rather than spreading learning thinly.

"In a weekly science lesson, too much time is wasted reminding them what went before. It's harder to engage and motivate them. You often simply scratch the surface, without invoking curiosity and wonder. You lose the depth, the love of learning, the cross-curricular links."

All these are retained by an approach that begins, as does science itself, with questions. In prominent positions in every classroom are now posted big questions about the nature of the world, which began in the minds of the pupils.

They asked: "Where are we in space?" "How did the planet form?" "How does light travel?"

The questions were distilled from a larger set, dreamt up by pupils during age-related activities set by the teachers at each stage. "I asked them first what they knew about light, which was our topic," said Julie Wilmot, a P6 teacher. "Then I asked what they would like to know."

Guided partly by children's thinking and partly by teachers' knowledge of the curriculum, every class homed in on half a dozen big questions.

These provided the focus and the framework for all the work in the weeks that followed. "We carried out a wide range of experiments aimed at answering our big questions," said Ms Wilmot.

This approach to school science has the huge advantage of being exactly how real science is done. Scientists formulate questions, propose tentative answers, then design experiments to test them.

But science is not the only subject in which teaching benefits from a clear focus, a whole-school approach and learning paths that are shaped by curiosity.

"Last year we took this approach with People in the Past," said Ms Wyllie.

"It worked really well and motivated all the kids. It was really exciting for them."

The shift to child-centred learning brings a few risks along with the benefits, said Gerald Casserly, an infant teacher.

"You have to think on your feet. It didn't make sense to my kids that the sun is a star, because stars aren't hot.

"So I reminded them about bonfire night, and what happens when they move away - they can still see the fire but they can't feel it. If you relate what they're learning to what they know, kids will understand the science.

"You never know what questions they'll come up with. But I like working that way. It keeps you on your toes."

It's a feeling that was shared by parents at the packed open evening.

"Jordan comes home now and tells me amazing things he has learned at school - things I could never have imagined," said Elizabeth Hamilton.

Examples from the HMIE report Balance of time Over the last three years one primary school has used time flexibly to improve attainment in mathematics. During a recent session, additional time had also been allocated to personal learning planning and to pupils'

private study. Pupils were fully involved in the development of their learning plans and had ownership of their targets. They chose to use their private study time to revise French vocabulary, review key facts in mathematics or improve their spelling. Staff planned the curriculum in 6-8 week blocks and regularly reviewed timetables to ensure appropriate balance over the year. They reviewed the curriculum against the four capacities, and decided that pupils needed more emphasis on life skills.

Confident individuals Staff in a school in an area of social deprivation prioritised the development of pupils' confidence through an extensive programme of expressive arts. Class timetables were adjusted to allow each class, each year, to put on an impressive, well planned show. All pupils were heavily involved in script-writing, directing stagecraft, set design, publicity, performance and review. Aspects of English language, art, music, PE, mathematics and, in particular, personal and social development were very well developed through this approach.

Effective contributors

Pupils at all stages were involved in organising and running a successful Highland games event. Each class took responsibility for different aspects and worked to clear remits. Pupils worked co-operatively in groups to organise appropriate sporting events for different age groups. They took responsibility for all aspects of the organisation including publicity, refreshments and arranging for a local dignitary to open the event. This provided opportunities to develop skills in English language and mathematics as they contacted local businesses to request their support and sponsorship. Pupils worked with a drama specialist to choreograph a dramatic highland skirmish and P6 pupils recorded the event.

Cross-curricular initiatives In one primary school, the principles of cross-curricular working and contextualised learning were well established. The school held a number of focus weeks throughout the session, during which there was emphasis on learning through expressive arts. During French week, nursery children learned basic vocabulary through singing. Pupils worked well collaboratively to develop drama presentations on the theme of a French cafe. As one enterprise project, senior pupils organised a French cafe which was visited by pupils from other classes. At P5, pupils had carried out a successful "Whacky Science" enterprise project. This involved presenting science concepts to peers and parents through song, poetry and active learning.

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