My secret? Let pupils lead, says teacher of the year

19th June 2015 at 01:00
Allowing pupils to choose what they study boosts motivation

Scotland's new teacher of the year has revealed the secret of her success: she lets pupils decide what to learn in class.

Anne Hutchison (pictured, right), principal teacher at Glasgow's Carmyle Primary School, said that giving children such freedom had never caused any problems.

In fact, a particularly memorable P7 project around Anne Frank and the Holocaust took off precisely because pupils decided it was what they wanted to study.

"People are frightened of that too much in education. But if you hand over ownership to children, you'll be amazed how sensible they'll be," said Ms Hutchison, who has been at Carmyle Primary for 18 years.

She received the accolade at the Scottish Education Awards last week, seeing off Julie Petrie from Crieff High School in Perth and Kinross, and Jenn McEwan at Doonfoot Primary in South Ayrshire. Find the full list of winners from the awards at Education Scotland's website (bit.lyEduGongs).

Once Ms Hutchison's class has settled on a topic, she works out how crucial aspects of learning, such as literacy and maths, can be woven into it - not the other way around. Pupils help her to create a "curriculum map" at the start of term and she sees her job as being to gently steer learning, without deciding in advance exactly where it will head.

`Let's try it'

Ms Hutchison is wary of concluding early on that children can only reach a certain level or handle particular tasks. "In education, you should never think that - you should think, `Let's try it'," she said.

She also believes that literacy standards - a source of much debate after the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy reported some disappointing results across the country - are not best served by relying on specialist reading books or schemes.

"For me, to get literacy standards up, you do reading materials that will enthuse the children," Ms Hutchison said.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank had been a "challenging text", but everyone in the class studied it in its entirety and reading ages "shot up", she added.

One of the most memorable experiences came after Ms Hutchison helped to establish a link with Whitwell Middle School in Tennessee, US. The small community famously aimed to collect one paperclip for each of the 6 million lives lost in the Holocaust; since 1998, it has amassed closer to 30 million. Carmyle Primary adapted the idea by collecting bottle tops - their sturdiness was deemed a fitting symbol for the resilience of the human soul - and pupils made a mural for the school.

Ms Hutchison's pupils decided that they also wanted to learn about the First World War. This led to one of her proudest moments: the class discovered that several local men had died in combat - including one boy's great-grandfather - and decided to write nine short plays about their experiences. They took on the roles of the fallen soldiers when they performed the plays last month.

Infectious humour

Ms Hutchison, 41, believes that curricular reform has given teachers freedom to "bring learning to life" and take children in unexpected directions.

"I know Curriculum for Excellence has had a lot of bad press, but I love it," she said.

Teaching can be hard and exhausting, Ms Hutchison acknowledges, but she tries to be unstintingly positive around pupils, no matter how bad a day she might be having.

"Some days I might not feel that great, but they come in the door and it lifts me up.I'd rather be there with them than at home being miserable," she said. "If you do that, they know it - and then you have the mutual respect between you, and you'll have no discipline problems either."

However, the most important quality for teachers - on which Ms Hutchison and her pupils are in firm agreement - is humour, "because they see you're a real person then".

The judges singled out comments from pupils saying that Ms Hutchison "includes us all in everything" and "takes time out of her own life to help everyone out".

She encouraged one boy to complete homework on Anne Frank through the online building game Minecraft, because this was something he excelled at. Another pupil summed up her personalised approach: "She makes our strengths even stronger and our weaknesses into strengths."

The judges also noted a parent's observation that "all of Anne's pupils think they are her favourite".

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