Now we're all in the same boat

1st February 2008 at 00:00
A novel topic-based approach to the curriculum is encouraging every pupil to climb aboard.

With fangs bared, nostrils flaring and eyes as black as a Norse night sky, the dragon-headed prows of two longboats occupying one whole wall of a double classroom are frightening and ferocious. No one seeing either surging through the surf would linger long on the beach.

But there is something indefinably different about the red dragon-head of the longboat on the right. It's not exactly softer than the green dragon it faces - it seems more alluring somehow.

"The red dragon was designed by one of the girls," says Rob Paterson, P5 teacher at Wallace Primary in Elderslie, Renfrewshire. "As part of the project we had a competition for the pupil design the class liked best on the prow of each Viking ship. Then, as a whole class, we built them both."

"Look at the eyelashes," he adds. Sure enough, red dragon is the proud possessor of long dark lashes, perfect for fluttering - which somehow only heightens the sense of menace conveyed by the beast and its boat.

It's the kind of pupil influence and impact that lie at the heart of Joyning the Learning, a novel approach that pulls the primary curriculum together around one interactive theme and transforms a classroom for a term.

The active learning method began in the fertile mind of Elaine Wyllie, who turned her St Ninian's Primary classroom in Stirling into Harry Potter's Hogwarts several years ago and was delighted by the enthusiasm it engendered in her pupils - all of them. A key feature of the approach is its inclusiveness, with every pupil in a class bringing something to the party.

Since then, while continuing to teach at St Ninian's, where she is now depute head, Ms Wyllie has been advising Learning Unlimited, which has developed her idea, codified its principles and good practice, and brought the whole thing to a much wider audience.

Teachers from Shetland to the Borders have been delivering child-centred learning using the original resource that resulted from this collaboration - the Magic Castle.

Michael Burke, one of Learning Unlimited's directors, says: "I've been in education all my life. I've never seen better evaluations."

So, in partnership with Renfrewshire education authority, the Paisley-based provider commissioned teachers to write three new topics aimed at lower, middle and upper primary. At a one-day course for teachers on the new resources, former head Margaret Byrne connects their content and philosophy to the curriculum.

"Breadth and progression were what 5-14 was good at," she says. "It was less good at delivering depth, challenge and enjoyment."

The approach harks back to the idea of topics, while building on the gains made in the intervening years. "In those days, everybody shut the door and more or less did what they liked," she says. "The key difference now is that we have great guidance from 5-14 and Curriculum for Excellence on the content."

For Marie Wilson, who developed one of the new sets of materials and is jointly delivering the professional development, learning works best when it's fun.

"By Christmas, the Primary 7s often get this 'too cool for school' attitude and would rather be in secondary," says the principal teacher at Ralston Primary in Paisley. "This changes all that. It's about giving the power of the classroom back to the children. The teacher becomes a facilitator. You let the children run with their ideas."

It sounds unstructured and a little scary for a teacher but doesn't have to be, says Ms Wilson. "The secret is to provide those new to it with as much detail, advice and materials as possible."

For Margaret Byrne, training in a particular topic is just the start. That lets teachers "internalise the methodology"; they can then "try it out in their classrooms, get success with it and decide what to do next."

This is precisely what the teachers at Wallace Primary have been doing. The Egyptians, the Chronicles of Narnia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and huge Viking longboats are not in Learning Unlimited's repertoire. But these are all topics the Wallace teachers have been delivering, says headteacher Susan Carlton.

"Two of my staff were trained in the Magic Castle," she says. "One came back and did it in her class, the other adapted it to her own topic - the Egyptians. Both teachers also delivered staff development to my other teachers, who again went away and adapted it. What I'm aiming for now is for every stage to have the experience of at least one of these topics."

This means pushing the methods down to younger pupils - something Learning Unlimited is also doing - with two of its three new topics aimed at middle-primary and infants. In the other direction, the new curriculum means secondaries could also benefit, says Renfrewshire senior adviser Gordon McKinlay (see panel, right).

But most classroom experience of Joyning the Learning has so far been gained with middle-upper primary pupils. Back at the Viking classroom, the reason is obvious. Children in these classes are old enough to make creative contributions - as a group or as individuals - while young enough to be unembarrassed by immersion in an imaginary realm.

Constructing one 15ft Viking longboat seems like a colossal undertaking, but the Primary 5s taught by Mr Paterson and Morag Glaister in their double classroom actually built two boats and a lot more besides. "The whole room was transformed," says Mr Paterson. "We built longhouses. We had a group organising weaving and another painting the woven parts. We had a group sticking straw on to sheets to make thatch, and another painting those. We had a team of 10 children building and painting the longboat.

"There were groups of children everywhere, doing all different jobs at the same time. I had never tried anything like it in a classroom."

Halfway through the project, Mr Paterson attended a Joyning the Learning course and discovered that by diving right in at the deep end, you don't always learn to swim like everyone else.

"I didn't realise it could all be pre-planned, so you'd know exactly what you were going to do at every stage. We did it all in parallel. We had looked at how many curriculum areas we could bring into it, and it was a lot. But then we looked at what we needed - ships, longhouses, Viking clothes and jewellery - and made a start.

"For a long time we had nothing finished. All you could see everywhere was bits of cardboard painted brown. It was frantic, but everyone was motivated and enthusiastic. Once they knew what jobs needed to be done, it was great to see how they organised themselves to get them done. I noticed that almost as soon as we started the project.

"Would I do it differently next time? I don't think so. Well, maybe we'd have only one longboat instead of two."

At this point the alluring eye of the scary red dragon winks at the teacher as if to say, "That would be mine."

That's the thing about Joyning the Learning - the classroom world it creates soon comes alive.

- The new Joyning the Learning topics are 'Fairyland' (pre-5 to P1); 'The Unsinkable Ship' (P4-5) and 'The Very Important Bear' (P6-7). For details see:

- See and hear what it's all about with Elaine Wyllie's class at:


A teacher sometimes has to throw caution to the winds, says Wallace Primary's Lucia Murphy, who attended Magic Castle training, then tried the methods with her P3 class, and then again with this year's P5.

"I came back and did the Egyptians, and this year we're working on Narnia," she says. "You worry at first that you might not be covering some areas of the curriculum, but the course gives you so many ideas - and you get confidence from seeing that other teachers have made it work."

Bethany experienced Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last year with her P5 teacher Marel Harper. "It was fun and interesting," says the pupil. "It tied together all our subjects, especially maths and language, and you could see that at the time."

Grant, now in P6, says: "We did art and technology and science. We made big doors, for instance, with a room behind them that showed you the chocolate factory."

It is easy to get the idea that nothing educationally important is happening if a class is having a great time, say the teachers. But while some pupils are learning almost by stealth, others notice more than might be expected.

The most striking impact Jennifer (P6) recalls was on class dynamics. "It wasn't just the teacher telling you what to do," she says. "Lots of ideas came from the children. The very best bit was that we weren't doing things just by ourselves. We were learning about each other, helping each other.

"For the first time, the whole class felt like a family. The topic brought us together and we've stayed together. We are more friendly now. We are kinder to each other."


Joyning the Learning is an ideal vehicle for getting Curriculum for Excellence into primary schools, says Gordon McKinlay, senior adviser in Renfrewshire, where teachers have been writing - and are now delivering as continuing professional development - the new Learning Unlimited materials. But its potential goes much further than primary.

"The seven principles of Curriculum for Excellence are just as relevant at senior secondary as in primary," he says. "There's an increased focus on subject content as you go up the school, but that doesn't mean it's fine to do an integrated approach in primary and not in secondary.

"The active learning ideas in a Curriculum for Excellence work just as well in Higher physics as in early years. We are now seeing inter- disciplinary working in secondary schools as vital, and we're looking for more opportunities.

"Attainment matters and our secondaries do a fantastic job. But employers want skills beyond the purely academic. So we need our young people to have core skills - literacy, numeracy, working with others. We need them to get up in the morning, to get to work on time, to answer the phone coherently.

"If we can do all that through approaches such as Joyning the Learning, then young people stay engaged. They stay motivated. They stay in school."


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