Pioneers must fan the flame of enthusiasm

11th January 2008 at 00:00
Imagine how it would feel if there was a real buzz in the classroom because the children are so motivated and enthusiastic that they actually want to learn. You're going to tell me to be real - especially in secondary schools, where it's just not cool to be keen. It is the done thing to adopt a laconic, laid-back style for any class credibility. Only swots work.

Yet there are schools that have turned their learning processes inside out, defied the conventionality of traditional boxed lessons, and produced an environment which makes it an absolute joy to work with young people. I've recently visited one and it set my world on fire.

It takes courage to shake up the standard pattern of teaching in secondary schools.

The lead schools in England are probably John Cabot Academy in Bristol and Cramlington Community School in Newcastle. But Ysgol Gyfun Llanhari, a Welsh-medium school in Rhondda Cynon Taf, is really hot-footing it behind.

Headteacher T Anne Morris says she used to watch Year 7 come to school excited and then witness their enthusiasm switch off.

"It was like watching candles and suddenly seeing them snuffed out," she said. There had to be a better way of learning."

Ms Morris did her research. She liked what she saw happening in Cramlington and in John Cabot Academy. Over a period of two years she began tailoring the schools' Inset days to look at new possibilities. She identified the staff that were as keen as she was on concepts that she was beginning to formulate, based on the good practice she had read about and seen.

She was acutely aware that these Y7 youngsters came from primaries where they were used to one teacher all year, as well as one classroom. Suddenly, the pupils were thrown into a school of more than a thousand children, moving at the end of every lesson to another classroom through long corridors where pupils coming the other way could be as tall as adults.

They also had to get used to 14 different teachers, all of whom have different expectations and ways of controlling a class. Is it any wonder that Y7 felt submerged? Ms Morris wanted to make these newcomers feel part of Llanhari straight away. She wanted them to feel they belonged.

Alyson Davies, assistant head, was in charge of the transition year and key stage 3. She was crucial to a remarkable turnaround. The new pupils now spend 40 per cent of their timetable in one room. They have a fixed base that they feel secure in and they only have to meet another seven teachers in a more conventional teaching environment.

But within the curriculum there are also exciting new projects to complete, far removed from the former traditional academic focus. Each of these projects has a passport full of skills which pupils can gather stars for as they progress. The children begin the year investigating their own learning styles, understanding what makes them tick in the classroom.

I was overwhelmed by the pupils' enthusiasm to show me what they were learning and discuss how they liked to learn. I was having trouble keeping up with them. These pupils are going to be a joy to employ. They will have already chaired and recorded meetings, spoken at them and, importantly, worked in a team.

The new year is an ideal time for all schools in Wales to become more pioneering. We could all start to think about how we can keep the pupils' "candles of enthusiasm" burning every minute during the school day. It's such a joy to teach when pupils are motivated.

Helen Yewlett is a former ICT teacher who now works with adult learners.

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