The sky's the limit

10th February 2006 at 00:00
In the second of three reports from a primary in Canterbury, Crispin Andrews finds Year 2s blasting off into a learning experience that's out of this world

A small dark-haired girl looks proudly at her creation. "This is Planet Stephanie," she explains with a mischievous flicker of self-assurance.

"Lots of pink fruit grows here and only other people called Stephanie are allowed to visit."

"Could my mum come? She's called Stephanie," another girl chips in, peering over at the drawing.

"Only if she leaves you at home," says the planet's creator, with a grin.

Year 2 are excited - imagining what the life of an astronaut might be like is lots of fun. While Stephanie and her friends describe all sorts of weird and wonderful encounters in their space diaries, another cohort are making clay models of astronauts and a third group is constructing their own space helmets out of cardboard and tin foil. Three different creative responses to a single stimulus is typical of the learning style promoted at Kingsmead Primary School in Canterbury.

"Teach to a rigid subject-specific schedule and think how much time is taken up introducing new content," explains headteacher Kate Hester.

"Imagine it - Tudors in history, rivers in geography, not to mention a science topic on sound or forces and, of course, any number of literacy texts. Art, DT or RE - even French, music and PE - if taught separately, each could have its own specific content with which children would need to become familiar."

Kingsmead's cross-curricular approach is giving these Year 2s more time to learn. With initial activities designed to stimulate creative thought, which can be channelled in any number of directions later in the lesson, they are not doing science, literacy, music, art or design and technology - they're simply learning.

A catchy song introduces the lesson. Sung to the tune of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", it recalls the order of planets in our solar system and makes the point that being so far away from home, in space, things are likely to be very different indeed.

Next, teacher Susie Whitmore displays a short story on the interactive whiteboard and as the children read, her questions encourage them to make observations about what is going on and to empathise with the small child in the story who dreams about one day becoming an astronaut. What can he see on the alien planet? Imagine how good you would be at seeing if you had five eyes like that alien.

"Seven year olds might find it difficult to imagine what sort of message an astronaut might send home to their family," explains Susie, who developed a fascination for space after visiting Nasa and meeting real astronauts as part of an International Space School educational delegation several years ago. "But if I ask the children what messages they might send to me if they were in space, then there is a recognisable relationship against which they can process and manipulate new and unfamiliar information."

Four years ago, when Kate Hester took over as Kingsmead's headteacher, strict adherence to QCA schemes of work had been the norm for some time.

While Ofsted criticisms of the quality of teaching and learning had stung everyone, Ms Hester knew an extremely restrictive curriculum had to be reshaped if her staff were going to be able to teach in a way that would raise standards.

"Children's learning requirements - not a set of abstract distinctions between subject matter - should form the basis of any curriculum," she says. "When, for instance, focusing on the development of research skills, why should we get bogged down with what is history, literacy or geography?"

Four years down the line, this cross-curricular approach is bearing fruit.

The school is out of special measures and Sats scores are on the rise. At key stage 1, in particular, improvements have been marked; the percentage of children achieving level 2 and above has more than doubled since 2001.

Straightforward, with a clear structure, Year 2's astronaut activities have been designed to encourage the sort of open-ended learning outcomes common these days in Kingsmead's classrooms.

While some of the less able children use the information they gain from the astronaut story directly; for others the story provides a springboard for more imaginative responses. "My space helmet is just what astronauts need.

It has a button for almost everything," announces one child.

"This one stops you floating around in space and makes you stick to the ground and, if you press that red one, you get instant breakfast or dinner depending on the time of day."

"The blue one? Hmmmm ... well that one means you can send a message home or an email on your phone to anywhere in the universe."

l Next week: story-telling

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