More than a sum of two parts

16th September 2005 at 01:00
There was a slightly stunned silence in the office at Port Glasgow High as the occupants tried to absorb Maggie Hancock's statement.

In her quiet voice, she had said: "Take maths, for instance. Kids at this school love maths."

She smiled, realising how unlikely it sounded - few people love maths. Getting youngsters to see any point or pleasure in Pythagoras is an uphill struggle. So what is the secret at Port Glasgow High?

Paul Smith was offered a record-deal before coming to Port Glasgow High as a probationer three years ago, so he is not your average maths teacher. But he says: "I was overwhelmed by the type of teaching I found here. It got the kids involved and it taught me a lot."

Whiteboards are just one ingredient in the learning mix with "Fusion not confusion" as the motto at Port Glasgow High, says Dr Hancock. "The thread running through it is that pupils learn far more effectively when their learning is active."

Underpinning everything is a behaviour management system that accentuates the positive - teachers issue referrals for anything praiseworthy - and eliminate negative punishment exercises. "They didn't work," says Dr Hancock.

Instead, staged sanctions are applied throughout the school - Stage 3 is lunchtime detention, for instance, Stage 4 a behaviour report to parents.

The second ingredient folded into the blend at Port Glasgow High is a multi-layered approach to giving pupils responsibility for their own learning, explains headteacher Alan Dick.

"At one time, teaching was about throwing stuff at kids and hoping some of it would stick," he says. Our teachers are much more aware of how learning happens and of the different learning styles and they consciously use that knowledge in their lessons."

Nearly half the teaching staff have attended courses on self-empowered learning run by Glasgow-based education company The Learning Game.

Dr Hancock says: "What teachers like most is that it provides a recipe-book of practical techniques, and a way of looking at learning that encourages them to devise their own."

With Traffic Lights, for example, all the pupils are given green, red and orange cards, and after they have worked on a problem the teacher asks how well they did.

"At a glance she can see, by the number of red and orange cards, if she can move on or needs to work with a few individuals or go over it again. It's a simple but very effective technique."

Another is Walk About, Talk About, in which half-a-dozen statements about a topic in personal and social education are written on flip-chart paper and distributed around the room: "The kids move in groups and comment in writing on the statement and on the previous comments. At the end they pull it all together.

"They get into all sorts of animated discussions. We tried it one night for a parents' evening. It was wonderful!"

The third element Dr Hancock and her colleagues will talk about is formative assessment, and again the emphasis is on practical techniques.

Knowing, for instance, the importance of allowing a class thinking time, after asking a question, does not make it any easier for a teacher to let the seconds slip silently by.

A technique devised by maths teacher Paul Smith does: "I have a dozen mental maths questions on the whiteboard hidden by coloured blobs. Then I ask one of the kids to pick a colour, then count to 10 when I reveal the question, and pick a colleague to answer it.

"They soon realise that if people aren't paying attention you can catch them out, and if they've been caught they try to get each other back.

"Before you know it you have 33 kids all paying close attention and knowing that in 10 seconds 'It could be you!'

"The 10 seconds is done for me and every single person is paying attention.

The kids love it."


Fusion Not Confusion by Maggie Hancock and Paul Smith of Port Glasgow High, Thursday, 12.45pm Also of interest: Using Whole-Class Interactive IT to Support the Learning and Teaching of Numeracy by Lee Carson of Queensferry Primary, Wednesday, 4.45pm

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