Real-life approach gets rich results

15th August 2008 at 01:00
Inverkip Primary's Africa Day proved so successful it will appear on the LTS website as an example of good practice. Shirley English finds out more

When amie Forbes spotted a businessman who had failed to reply to her school's sponsorship letters, she marched straight up to him and politely asked for an explanation.

The red-faced company director found himself put on the spot by the 12- year-old and was naturally embarrassed - not least because the exchange took place at Inverclyde's enterprise showcase, where schools celebrate their links with local business. He apologised and promised to rectify the situation, although the school claims to be still waiting.

The incident was significant for other reasons, however, according to Amie's class teacher, Rhona Findlay. She believes Amie acted with a confidence built on four months working as project leader for Inverkip Primary's P7 Africa Day. The fund-raising coffee morning, with an African theme, was organised by pupils in aid of their twin school, Malawi's Malavi Primary.

It grew out of a pilot project launched by Inverclyde Council in January to explore ways of teaching and consolidating maths through rich tasks - multi-disciplinary activities that place skills and learning in real-life contexts. But by the end, Amie and her classmates had gained more than extra maths skills.

"Amie wrote lots of letters to businesses asking for donations," says Mrs Findlay. "When she realised who this man was, she went over to speak to him. He claimed he had not seen her letter, apologised and said he would get back in touch. But nothing came of it.

"Africa Day really did meet the four capacities for A Curriculum for Excellence. By the end, all the pupils were successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors."

Rich tasks were first developed in Queensland, Australia, and are being piloted by several Scottish authorities because of the similarities to A Curriculum for Excellence. Education Queensland claims rich tasks "empower teachers, unclutter the curriculum and up-the-ante intellectually, while placing the classroom within the global village". They are based on the theory that children learn most when confronted with real problems to solve.

For the maths pilot, Mrs Findlay chose to develop the "planning an event" task, and after some discussion the class decided on a coffee morning. They wanted to raise money for the 1,200 pupils at Malavi who walk three miles to school each day, often on an empty stomach, and work in classes of 80-plus in a building without electricity.

A steering group was set up and Amie was made project manager. Her 25 classmates were divided into seven teams with special responsibilities for publicity; African costumes; African music; fair trade and local business links; making craft items to sell; pupil maths activities and competitions; raising awareness about Malawi.

Between January and April, the pupils did everything from ordering food and drinks, working out costs and keeping financial records (all good maths skills), to seeking sponsorship, making bunting and learning an African dance to perform on the day, with help from dance troupe Ayawara. "The pupils were so enthusiastic and had so much fun," says Mrs Findlay. "Africa Day related skills and learning to real life and it was truly cross-curricular. They had a clear focus and understood what they were learning, and were able to think and act flexibly with what they knew."

For example, the children decided they wanted to dress in African costume and started researching typical African dress. The maths involved measuring pupils, estimating how much material was needed and working out costs.

They quickly discovered it would be too expensive but, rather than give up, they asked local businesses for donations and Ikea responded immediately, inviting the class to visit the shop and take as much material as they needed.

Similarly, the group responsible for crafts researched African symmetrical patterns and made cards, book markers, candle holders and fabric pictures. They invited Jambohut, a fair-trade company, to visit the school and talk about fair trade, placing maths firmly in the real world.

Another team designed maths-based competitions for each school year from P1-6. They liaised with the class teachers over content, then devised a variety of activity sheets, from two-dimensional shape games for P1, to puzzles involving angles and compass directions for P7.

Amie says: "Everyone worked together. We raised Pounds 940, which was great. Africa Day was all our lessons put together and it was lots of fun."

In feedback sessions, the class were amazed to discover how much of the curriculum they had covered in the rich task: every area, not just maths, was touched on.

They made African-inspired arts and crafts (art); learned a Swahili song (music); found out how to write formal letters to businesses (language); did a PowerPoint presentation on Malawi (ICT); discussed fair trade (personal and social development); and took part in African dance workshops(PE). The list was endless.

Learning and Teaching Scotland sent numeracy and literacy co-ordinators to examine the project. They were so impressed it was made the subject of a presentation to HMIE, and will appear on the LTS website as an example of good practice.

A presentation on P7 Africa Day will be made at the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow this September, and Inverclyde is using it for staff training on A Curriculum for Excellence.

Next session, Mrs Findlay will explore how rich tasks work with younger children, with a P4-5 pilot on the rainforest and endangered species. She says it met ACfE draft outcomes for maths but, more importantly, gave pupils a sense of achievement. "For many, the success of Africa Day was much greater than they expected and they were surprised by how much they achieved. I'm proud of them."

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