Malleable mind-maps have proven very handy

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Blu-Tack or Plasticine can work wonders, writes Peter Greaves

Teachers continually seek to build sound practice based on their knowledge of how pupils learn. But it is hard to cater for everyone.

After giving an in-service session on the variety of learning styles, a colleague was heard to say, "Why can't kinaesthetic learners just sit still and listen?"

Behind that statement is a frustration that all class teachers know: kinaesthetic learning is one of the hardest styles to work with in a typical classroom.

What is needed is an easy-to-manage, versatile item of classroom stock which these pupils can get access to and manipulate independently. It should occupy the hands, allowing for improved concentration, and give its users the opportunity to demonstrate understanding. In other words, it should be a means to an end as well as being an end in itself.

In fact, there are some readily available substances which meet all these requirements: Blu-Tack and Plasticine.

I discovered their miraculous qualities accidentally. Ben was a "fidget".

An educational psychologist, who was in my class to observe another pupil, asked me whether I had ever tried giving Ben a "fiddle ball". She suggested a lump of Blu-Tack so that he could squeeze and stretch while he listened - the theory being that the brain would be free to focus if the hands were occupied. And it worked. I noticed that Ben soon began to adapt the way he fiddled with the ball, depending on the lesson. It was not a very big piece of Blu-Tack. Even so, in maths I saw it transformed into a "+", "x", "-" and "V". Religious education saw it take the form of a cross as we discussed Easter. In literacy, it became a question mark, in science a copy of Newton's apple. (Sadly, the latter case led to its confiscation for a short time.) As I observed this, I wondered whether, on a bigger scale, this might be a valuable tool for some in the class to show their understanding. Since then, Plasticine has proven its worth.

Every year, novelty is a problem that needs to be overcome. Plasticine is perceived as a plaything in key stage 2 classes, so the chance to use it in "work" time is like a dream come true for many. An opportunity to express understanding through Plasticine means that desks everywhere grow what look like unsightly warts. Nondescript blobs lie in random piles on desks as pupils try to convince you that their misshapen lump is in fact a Roman legion heading to battle or a working model of the heart. But each lesson turns out some staggering quality and pupils quickly realise whether or not it is a useful tool for them.

Its novelty value does not last because, as a learning tool, it satisfies only those who can express themselves through it. In my experience, kinaesthetic learners benefit most. They seem to be the ones who can channel their thoughts clearly into the medium and have the will to manipulate it until they are satisfied. Once their thoughts have been crystallised into this form, they can usually articulate - verbally or in writing - their reasons for making whatever they have made.

The process is formalised by using WILF lists (what I'm looking for). These are standard in setting targets for writing, but they can also set the tone for work in modelling, art and drama.

The expectation is set that a finished piece of modelling should be the result of a clear planning process, attention to detail, evaluation and modification during the process, and then a clear explanation of what has been learnt in the lesson. A standard pro-forma allows pupils to monitor for themselves how they did and to set themselves a target for the next time. This is stuck into their books alongside a digital photograph of what they made. This does not detract from the joy of Plasticine, and it validates the efforts and skills of those who use it to demonstrate their learning.

Plasticine becomes a daily resource for those who find it helpful, not a treat. Pupils can be given access to it whenever they think it will help them to concentrate or think about what they are learning - in much the same way as other pupils might take notes or draw mind-maps.

If only those musically gifted pupils would stop humming.

Peter Greaves teaches at Coleman primary in Leicester.Any thoughts? Email primary@tes.co.uk

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