Spot the difference in pupils learning for life

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
Moray children and their teachers have been branching out in recent years by taking part in a critical skills programme designed to support their learning long after their school days. Jean McLeish reports. Photography by Simon Price

Miss Bowen has a classroom full of spotty children - all fortunately in good health. Some mums must have been up at 5am to get this collection on the catwalk. There are spots on faces, spots daubed on hair and as fashion statements on pyjamas and T-shirts.

It's all in aid of Children in Need at Logie Primary, deep in the countryside near Forres in Moray. The theme is spots and everyone has clearly gone to town to create this epidemic.

Twenty-seven children come to this country school and this morning probationary teacher Tracey Bowen is teaching her class of 17, who range from P1 to P4.

They are working in a "Carousel", moving round three tables to explore the sun at one table, the moon at the next and on to the stars. "We have the moon on a piece of paper, on the other piece we have the sun and on the other we have stars," Miss Bowen tells the children.

"There will be a scribe for each group and you need to write down what you know about the sun, moon and stars."

She explains they have to move round the tables and tick what they agree with and add anything new to what previous groups have written on each topic.

"Can people show me their thumbs if they understand what they are doing, if you're maybe a wee bit unsure or if you are totally unsure?" Some children give her the thumbs-up, a few have thumbs sideways and one or two are thumbs down.

"We'll keep you right as we go along," she says and gives them three minutes to start writing down their ideas.

"Stars are spiky," says one boy, "Stars are flying bits of rock," says another, "Stars are fire," says his friend, as their scribe notes the results of their brainstorm.

Miss Bowen is one of more than 600 Moray teachers who have been taking part in critical skills CPD on topics children will learn, such as communication, leadership and management. The focus is on creating collaborative learning communities and encouraging effective group learning. Children take roles within groups and learn to use tools like "Carousel" to explore ideas in a group.

The tools Ms Bowen is using in today's lesson - "Carousel", "Thumbs" and "Sweep" - are used in lessons across the curriculum. "Sweep" lets her quickly sweep round the class to hear what children have learnt or to get their ideas - they know they have to listen and can't interrupt each other.

Communication is one of the key critical skills Logie Primary pupils are currently learning and they've been shown how to use these practical tools to communicate. They're also taught how the same tools can be used in every other skill they learn, improving learning for individuals and the group.

Other key skills they will move on to are organisation, problem-solving, decision-making, critical thinking and creative skills. These will help them throughout their lives - through their education, into jobs, as parents and in their communities.

Moray Council started critical skills training for teachers six years ago using an external provider, then went on to develop their own bespoke programme to help teachers deliver Curriculum for Excellence effectively. Council officers and teachers now run two separate blocks of three-day training for colleagues with a break of several months between each three- day session. More than half the authority's teachers have now completed this CPD.

"Critical skills came about in America because they realised that young people didn't have the skills that were necessary for the world of work," says Irene Ross, former headteacher at Logie, now the learning and teaching officer with Moray Council who runs the CPD in critical skills training.

"So some educators and some business people sat down and talked about what they wanted young people to be able to do, to know and to be like in the wider world."

This experiential CPD programme helps teachers to create positive, collaborative learning communities, she says. "I think lots of teachers think they are doing group work, but in fact the children are working in groups almost individually. So this is showing them how they can actually make sure that small groups and large groups can work together."

Teachers discover how important roles are in the group - someone to chair, timekeepers, quality checkers and materials managers. "This is so that everybody is involved and these are life skills that they will have to use as they go out into the wider world," says Mrs Ross, during a break in CPD in Elgin.

During this session, teachers are experiencing the same active learning programme their pupils will have in class. But Mrs Ross says task roles have to be made explicit for children: "I think teachers sometimes think children know what a chairperson is, but I think they have to be taught that. That has to be discussed with them, what the chairperson might say and what they might do."

Posters on the wall at this session describe the characteristics of the learning environment teachers should strive to create, where students work as a team, actively solving meaningful problems, able to demonstrate and reflect on their learning and apply quality criteria to their work.

Another vital component, Mrs Ross believes, is that children are encouraged to take ownership and responsibility for their learning and that they should be able to express their views.

Sarah Badenoch, another trainer at this session, teaches critical skills to her P5s at West End Primary in Elgin. "I like to think of it as a toolkit, like a bag of tricks you can take to the class and apply to all aspects of classroom life," she says.

"Most importantly, the key thing from critical skills is establishing a community where all the children feel really safe, using a lot of community-builders. So you're establishing that if children don't feel comfortable with an activity, there is an option to pass. That really creates a climate where if you feel safe, you are more likely to give."

Mrs Badenoch is absolutely convinced this all works. "I get a sense that the children are thriving. They really enjoy this ownership of their own learning. I have seen classes blossom when you guide them, rather than instruct them," she says.

In a further development at Logie Primary, acting headteacher Janet Cornall has created a colour-coded framework of resources, activities and tools to support those teaching critical skills. BOULTS - Building Organisation Understanding Learning Thinking Skills - aims to encourage more active, independent learning and improve the transfer of critical skills into other areas.

Mrs Cornall drew from Building Learning Power by Guy Claxton to include children's different attitudes to their learning in her approach and help provide them with language to talk about how they learn.

"If they know how they learn, they can see how they can progress. So they can look at next steps and discuss learning with each other and their teachers," she says.

Bloom's Taxonomy, classifying higher thinking skills, was incorporated in the framework, along with Edward de Bono's CoRT thinking skills programme with tools like CAF (consider all factors) to help children understand how they learn and PMI (positive, minus, interesting) to broaden the scope of their learning. The CoRT programme also gave teaching sessions which explicitly isolate skills that teachers want to teach.

"We noticed when we started teaching the older children the explicit skills through the CoRT programme that they were beginning to talk about what they were learning," says Mrs Cornall. "So if they were working in a group and coming up with an idea, one of them would say, `Let's use a PMI and look at it in a bit more depth.'"

This project was carried out as part of her work for the Flexible Route to Headship programme and is being used in Logie, Aberlour and St Gerardine's primaries, where there are also continuing trials using skills ladders to track progression.

Her pupils think these techniques are helping their learning. "It's giving you different things to think about - little things which help improve the big things," says Laura MacPherson Zieger, 11.

Laura says her work has improved and she has appreciated using the CAF tool. "So, for instance, if you wanted to build a swimming pool somewhere. It might affect people because there wouldn't be woods any more and they wouldn't be able to walk their dogs. So you have to think about it from their point of view and think if it would actually benefit them or not."

Her friend Ashleigh Young, 11, likes using peer- and self-assessment: "I get to see all my work and what I've been doing right and what I've been doing wrong and it helps me."

Sounds like thumbs are up.

Learning that makes a critical difference

Critical Skills training in Moray is making a big difference to children's learning, according to surveys with teachers.

"I think it does make children a lot more confident and willing to contribute," says Lisa Munro, who teaches P7 at Logie Primary.

"It's made learning a lot more active and made the children a lot more independent and responsible. It gives them a lot more leadership and lets them take the lead, rather than learning being teacher-led."

Quality improvement officer with Moray Council, Lynn Whitelaw says: "We have found that it's made a huge difference to what's happening in our classrooms."

Inspectors have also identified an impact in schools: "When HMI are visiting schools, we have had very positive responses about the Critical Skills training programme and the impact that they are seeing in the classroom on the quality of experiences that the children are engaged with - the group working, the ability to discuss and interact with each other and the activities they are doing which are making them think, and that is using the strategies."

The authority has also done follow-ups. "All of the responses we have had from those have been very positive, people saying it has made a significant change to their practice," she says.

"We also asked teachers to report from children in their classes and the children say that since their teachers have done Critical Skills training, they feel that what's happening in the classroom is better for them.

"We have done phone interviews and questionnaires with headteachers and they also say `yes this has made a difference to what's happening in our classrooms'."

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