Transition project: stellar progress for pupils
Photographs of children's work, indoors and out, adorn the walls. Planets spin. Skeletons dangle. A vase of flowers, made from recycled bottle necks, jostles for space with elegant shoes and a big, yellow robot arm. Work surfaces and passageways are clean and clear, and the overall effect is of colour, craft and creativity.
But Morag Ferguson, the teacher whose secondary science lab this is, has a concern. She is reluctant to have something said about her in print. The headteacher at Grange Academy, Kilmarnock, and the principal teacher of science are both saying it, however, and it is a key aspect of the story.
"Secondary teachers can learn a lot from primary teachers like Morag," says headteacher Fred Wildridge. "That's not a criticism of the secondary teachers. We have very different mindsets and ways of working."
One of the advantages of a campus like Grange, with a secondary, a primary and a special school in the same building, is that teachers learn from each other almost without effort, he says.
"I've walked with groups of secondary staff around Annanhill Primary, which shares this campus, and at the end the teachers told me they were going back to improve the look of their classrooms.
"A lot of them now have displays of pupil work that make them more captivating for kids. Children respond to their environment. We don't have a problem now with graffiti, for instance. But we did at the old school. The campus looks great and the kids want to keep it that way."
But the potential synergies between primary and secondary are more fundamental than colour and cleanliness, and it's this deeper ore that Grange has been mining in its science transition project.
"Morag teaches the children from Primary 3 up to Secondary 2 and has been writing part of our new first-year science course," says Mr Wildridge.
The model is an imaginative one that needs some funding from the authority, says East Ayrshire head of schools Andrew Sutherland. "But not as much as you might think.
"Fred had the idea of buying a probationer, using the devolved school budget, and then giving her to the primary school and getting Morag in return. So the cost to the authority is just 0.3 of a full-time teacher," he explains.
"It's a great idea. As an authority we recognise that managing transition is one of the key areas for improvement for Curriculum for Excellence. The model is now in its second year at Grange and working well. It is innovative, but I was confident we would quickly see an impact on pupils."
Besides funding, the authority also had to come up with that confidence, says Mr Wildridge. "That willingness, if you like, to take a risk.
"We now know the wee ones love coming here and getting taught in a real science lab. But they might not have. Some primary kids are half the size of secondary pupils and might have got scared.
"There was also the possibility that Morag wouldn't be accepted in the science department. She was, partly because she had been a secondary biology teacher before re-training. But also because of the staff we have. We had to get not just their agreement but real enthusiasm - and we did."
The opposite might have been expected, since science teachers tend to regard contact with primaries as one-way transmission of expertise to scientifically untrained colleagues. It's not the view of Kevin Christie, Grange Academy's principal teacher of science, although it might once have been.
"When I was a physics teacher at Grange, some of us used to go out to the primary schools and teach the P7s one afternoon a week, during exam time in May. We were keen to improve their knowledge and skills before they came to secondary. This new model is very different and has been a real eye-opener for most of us in the department."
Big changes in classroom practice have been recommended, since even relatively young teachers qualified, he says: "New methodologies such as critical skills, collaborative learning and Assessment is for Learning strategies. There is no doubt that the primary teachers are at the forefront of these changes.
"Some of that is because they don't have the same pressure to get through courses and exams that shapes a lot of our teaching in secondary schools."
But whatever the reason, the experience of working alongside primary teachers such as Morag Ferguson has convinced Mr Christie and his colleagues that a lot can be learnt from them.
"Seeing these methodologies in a live setting is very different from hearing about them in CPD sessions - where you're told what to do but not about possible problems," he says. "If you watch a primary teacher using them, you get a real sense of what works and they tell you what doesn't."
Besides pupils, who no longer suffer from the secondary fresh-start, and teachers, who are learning new methodologies that work, the science transitions project at Grange has also had an impact on first and second- year science courses. These had been around for years and were showing signs of age and origins.
"5-14 was about recollecting facts," says Mr Christie. "We were enabling pupils to become masters of science trivia, rather than science."
It was passive learning, says Mr Wildridge. "We were spending too much time on knowledge, and not enough on skills."
The new first-year course, written by the science department and Mrs Ferguson, has fewer facts, more life and colour, and a lot more learning.
"We teach skills and set challenges," she says. "We get them active. We use videos and other online resources. We make lessons engaging and skill- based."
"I have a class coming in right now," she adds. "It's Primary 3 rather than secondary, but it's the same methods we have been talking about."
When the little ones have filed in, clambered up in a business-like way onto seats around clean, white surfaces, and settled down expectantly, Mrs Ferguson begins. "When you're a science teacher, people bring you presents," she says, holding up a large, dark object that one pupil identifies.
"Yes, it is a sunflower. A wee boy grew it from just one seed, but look - we've now got hundreds. What would we get if we planted all these?
"Lots of apple trees," one lad suggests, clearly answering a different question in his head.
Mrs Ferguson gently corrects him and soon segues from sunflowers to the sun itself, finding out first the facts in their heads rather than hers. "What do you know?"
"It's all burny and if you touch it you'd be in flames."
"It's our nearest star."
Several pupils express dissent, but Mrs Ferguson confirms that the sun is a star, chats about why and moves on. She projects a short, online video from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and as the orange surface of the sun bubbles and boils, listens to the children's comments.
She reminds them of the structure of the solar system, using a plastic model, talking them through the planets, taking eagerly offered answers, pulling little Pluto off, when she gets to it, and tossing it aside, because "the scientists have decided it's a planetoid, not a planet".
She reminds the youngsters of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and makes the connection with the position of planet Earth, in the zone that is "not too hot and not too cold, but just right for life".
Soon it is time for the activity, with each pupil decorating and writing facts about the sun on a piece of yellow card, which ends up on heads rather than in folders. The smiling faces under the personalised sunhats tell a soundless story that the children confirm:
"I like how we get to do stuff in science," says Andrew. "And how we learn new things all the time."
"Science is cool and interesting and amazing," says Sophie. "You get to make potions that go bubbly. You learn why chocolate melts in your hand."
The little suns troop out of the lab and another class comes in. But Mrs Ferguson gets a chance at lunchtime to offer last thoughts for now on science transitions.
She is concerned at the absence of science skills from the new curriculum. "Skills are embedded within experiences, they tell me. But unless you are an experienced scientist, you won't know what they are. They should be made explicit, for primary teachers in particular. So we're still using the 5-14 framework for skills, which is good.
"If my understanding of Curriculum for Excellence is right, the lessons we now give do everything we should be doing - the literacy is there, the measurement, the context, the experiential learning, the working together. Our lessons tick all the boxes.
"Except there are no boxes."
The focus at Grange campus is on smoothing the transition from primary to secondary school. But once that is negotiated, pupils experience smaller but equally abrupt transitions every day. Here, too, Grange has been making innovative progress, learning lessons across sectors and placing science in the front line.
Graeme Crosbie was appointed principal teacher for VCOP and transitions - a one-year post - at the end of May. "I'm an English teacher working on literacy across the curriculum, using methods such as VCOP (vocabulary, connectives, openers, punctuation), which are widely used in primary schools around Scotland."
He responds to recent criticism of this approach in The TESS (April 30, 2010): "Literacy is very rich and you can't simplify it down to just four things: vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation.
"But my role is to help other departments tackle literacy across the curriculum, which a number of teachers are uncomfortable with. So giving them that VCOP structure is a valuable starting point."
Other techniques known to work well are also in the armoury, he says. "I've been going into all departments, picking out good practice in literacy. We've been working with Morag and other teachers to connect VCOP and Assessment is for Learning to Curriculum for Excellence outcomes, and produce self- and peer-assessment checklists."
Starting with science, the initiative now includes the maths, art and design and technology departments, he says. "Do I think it's ambitious to try to embed literacy across the curriculum in just one year? Well it focuses minds and gives us a target. I believe we can get the foundations in place that will allow the departments to make progress by themselves.
"But yes - it certainly is ambitious."
- Original headline: Transition project brings stellar progress for pupils big and small