Place where we are all learners

27th February 2004 at 00:00
School staff can learn as much from students on placement and other visitors as we can teach them, writes headteacher Carol Omand

Aberfoyle Primary is a small rural school in Stirling with 95 children plus 30 in the nursery class. There are five teachers and a headteacher, so it is important to us that we embrace any opportunities to extend our personal and professional development. We have been able to do this on an international scale.

Over the past seven years we have been developing Storyline, a child-centred approach to topic work, that provides children with opportunities to use problem solving strategies, critical thinking, creativity and decision making. Storyline is highly regarded in many countries and Aberfoyle Primary is featured on an international website. We have had visits from teachers, professors and directors of education from Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

In the spring term of 2001, for example, we had two Danish students on a three-week placement for their four-year degree course. They came to study Storyline and our education system.

We had the whole staff of a Norwegian school for a day, 25 visitors in all, including the caretaker, support for learning assistants and the administrative assistant. Such a party can put quite a strain on the resources of a small school and requires a concerted effort to make it possible. The day finished with the Norwegian staff (who are also a choir), led by their headteacher, singing on the school steps. Our pupils and staff listened and then joined in a Norwegian dance. It was a wonderful day.

Our visitors gave us a copy of the core curriculum for primary, secondary and adult education in Norway, which has proved a powerful document for questioning my own thinking and our collective vision for Aberfoyle Primary. We hope one day to go on an exchange visit; meanwhile we correspond regularly.

In recent weeks we have had four student teachers from the Faroe Islands on a training placement as part of their degree course. Their main aims were to study Storyline and improve their English. In the Faroe Islands they teach children aged seven to 17.

I used a Storyline approach, starting with where they were in their knowledge and understanding and together building a programme to meet their needs.

As a former lecturer in primary education, I conducted a series of tutorials to give time for reflection on their observation and practice and stimulate discussion. The students were given opportunities to observe, team teach, plan lessons co-operatively and, as their confidence grew, to take on more responsibility for groups and eventually, in pairs, whole class responsibility with the teacher present.

Their placement provided a rare opportunity for all the school staff to be involved in aspects of training and for individual staff members to become leaders.

In the mornings the students were involved with language and number work.

This triggered discussion in the staffroom about the age children start school, behaviour, respect, handwriting, phonic work, resources and teaching methods. The Faroese students also began to think of the practicalities and possibilities of cross-curricular work within a secondary timetable and came up with some exciting proposals.

The students settled well into our environment and each day in the staffroom we shared stories, facts and laughs, dispelling myths about our cultural differences.

Their evaluations included the following comments.

"In maths you use different methods and tools, compared to the Faroese system, to explain the functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division."

"In your composite P234 there is flexibility. I've noticed how well it works for the benefit of each child."

"I hoped this practical period would give me new ideas to enable me to vary my teaching and even more hopefully to the benefit of my pupils."

"It is always good to experience something new that challenges you and broadens your horizons."

"I have learned another way of teaching children how to read."

Our pupils have benefited from having enthusiastic student teachers able to answer questions from personal experience and bring topic work alive.

The parents are delighted that their children can hear first-hand about other countries and cultures.

The staff are now writing papers on children's learning and their recent experience in delivering staff training to add to their professional development portfolios.

I see Aberfoyle Primary as an environment where we are all learners. When we are asked questions about our own practice, it helps us to reaffirm or rethink what we are doing and it helps us to widen our horizons from a small rural environment to a strategic knowledge of education. We are indebted to our northern European colleagues for enriching our experience.

Carol Omand is headteacher of Aberfoyle Primary, Stirling

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