Pick and mix from strategy's box of goodies

24th September 2004 at 01:00
It could be argued that the National Primary Strategy is trying to make the national curriculum more - dare we say it - child-centred through its latest pack of staff development materials.

Just out and available for ordering, this box of goodies is meant to be used "as and when", with enough material to work over several years. Among its themes are cross-curricular topics, formative assessment, helping children work together and designing learning for the individual child.

Schools don't have to use it; Maureen Lewis of the Strategy describes it as a starting point, and as work in progress. The idea is that schools first evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and decide what they want to work on first.

This is one of the reasons this box of materials has gone out all at once - so schools can make their own choices. But there is a danger that some will be daunted by the sheer size of the thing, and put it in the back of the cupboard where it can't bite. However, local education authorities and schools who began working on the preliminary booklets sent out over the summer appear to be taking them on board.

One of the most interesting sections demonstrates how personal and learning skills can be "mapped" onto the national curriculum, and how progression in these skills can be monitored. For instance, motivation in key stage 2 can be seen in the maths attainment target "find different ways of approaching a problem in order to overcome any difficulties". Reasoning through the primary years appears in ways such as these:

* Foundation stage: use talk to organise, sequence and clarify ideas, feelings and events.

* Key stage 1: think about what might happen before deciding what to do (science); express preferences, giving reasons (English).

* Key stage 2: identify and describe reasons for, and results of, historical events, situations and changes (history); analyse evidence and draw conclusions (geography).

Key skills include: communication, working with others, problem-solving, improving own learning and performance, information technology, application of number. Thinking skills include enquiry, reasoning, creative thinking, information processing and evaluation. The pack aims to demonstrate how children can get better at different aspects of learning. It encourages teachers explicitly to draw children's attention to them, pointing out how pupils can use methods employed in design technology, for instance, to evaluate their writing or maths work.

Dr Lewis explains: "At the end of KS2, what might a child look like if they're good at enquiry? And we say, this is already here in the national curriculum. Here are some examples." The pack gives descriptions of the characteristics a child good at, say, problem-solving might have, and offers case studies. For instance, some indicators of problem-solving skills are:

* understanding the concept of cause and effect

* applying prior learning to a problem

* considering a range of possible solutions

* asking questions and selecting and recording information relevant to the problem

* predicting the possible effects of different kinds of solutions or modifications.

But Dr Lewis emphasises: "What we don't want teachers to do is use this as an assessment tick list. It is better to use the pack as a starting point for staff thinking and planning."

In one of the case studies, Year 1 children were set the problem of finding all the different ways of paying for sweets when the shopkeeper had asked for exact money.

Children worked in pairs and recorded their solutions as number sentences, then discussed them to decide whether the solutions were the same or different. The teacher's comments made clear what she valued in the ways the children were working. Finally, ideas were shared among sets of partners so children could build on each other's thinking. The materials look at getting children to reflect on not only what they have learned but how they have learned.

The aim, says Kevan Collins, Strategy director, is "building better learners".

Sceptics will be wondering how to reconcile this emphasis on assessment for learning, personal skills and school ethos (one of the pack's topics) with continuing pressure from on high to meet literacy and numeracy targets and climb up the league table ladder.

Steve Anwyll, director of the National Literacy Strategy, says these materials will help to broaden schools' understanding of assessment, so that it is not only focused on Years 2 and 6, when Sats take place. The work should help improve results by improving learning.

"Teaching to the test almost certainly damages children's learning," he says.

"Excellence and Enjoyment: learning and teaching in the primary years" is available from www.standards.dfes.gov.uk or dfes@prolog.uk.com


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