Umbrellas essential, passports not needed

15th August 2008 at 01:00
Two schools in West Lothian have significantly increased engagement among P1 pupils by disposing of textbooks and persuading teachers to talk less. Now thedirector of education wants other schools to follow suit. Emma Seith reports

Over the past three months, children from Peel Primary in West Lothian have travelled to Ireland and Greenland; soon they will head off to Africa.

The bout of globe-trotting began when staff at the Livingston weather station were struck down with flu. They needed enthusiastic and skilled reporters to take over the weather report. P1 was the obvious choice.

So professional were the children, that Livingston weather station made contact via email for a second time: could P1 report on the weather from other countries, first stop Ireland? And so their journey began.

This is an example of the kind of work in which Peel and Murrayfield primaries have been engaged since Christmas when, with Pounds 5,000 from West Lothian Council, they transformed their P1 classes through active learning.

Now, instead of whole-class teaching for much of the day, teachers talk less and pupils, who spend a far larger chunk of the day in groups, talk more. Text books and worksheets, for the most part, lie gathering dust, and learning has become less rigid, with teachers more able to respond to pupils' interests. Joined-up learning - rather than single lessons on different subject areas - is also far more common.

The new approach has led to "a significant increase" in pupils' "engagement with activities" and "a significant increase in on-task behaviour during lessons", according to research carried out by West Lothian psychological services, which compared the old and new approaches to learning.

Research assistant Kristen Allen says: "At the beginning, it was very much traditional lessons: bums on seats with the teacher in front of the class. There was also a lot of waiting for teacher instruction."

But 13 weeks later, she and fellow research assistant Elaine Beck witnessed a transformation. "It has been just fantastic," continues Ms Allen. "The children are completely engrossed."

Now, with a successful pilot project completed in two very different schools, director of education Gordon Ford is calling for all primaries to follow in Peel and Murrayfield's footsteps and improve active learning opportunities. "The aims must be raising attainment, recognising achievement and bringing fun and enjoyment to the classroom", he says.

At Peel Primary, a "Storyline approach" is proving to be an effective means of introducing active learning and enabling cross-curricular planning.

Storylines, such as "The Weather Crew", mentioned earlier, allow pupils to travel to different countries (mentally, if not physically), while also taking them on a whistle-stop tour of different subjects, including social subjects, science, maths, language, art, and health and well-being.

P1s at Peel Primary now know how to read a thermometer and record and describe the weather. They have improved their communication skills by speaking clearly in their weather reports and learning to convey a short, straightforward piece of information.

When they were in Ireland, they made rain gauges and measured rainfall; when the wind picked up, they made kites. They have even written poems inspired by the storm their boat hit on the way to Greenland, describing how they felt.

Five-year-old Iona Valentine's poem reads:


Exciting and happy

Sick, noisy, wavy


Nicola Jamison, a P1 teacher at Peel, says her classroom has been transformed. Desks and chairs have been pushed aside to make way for "learning zones", including an area for role play, an area for construction and an area for art and craft.

"Primary 1 has changed dramatically," she says. "We have moved from a teacher-directed approach to child-led learning. The child has a more active role in the classroom and takes more responsibility for his or her learning. The suggestion is: children learn best if they have first-hand experience."

The instant the day begins, the new approach is apparent. In the morning the children come in and conduct registration themselves, using the Smartboard. With their fingers, they touch the screen and drag their name across to select one of four or five activities which they start straightaway. Doing this lets the computer know that they are present.

By choosing the correct icon, they also take responsibility for recording whether they are having a packed lunch, going home or eating a school dinner. Ms Jamison occasionally has to intervene if someone who would normally be revolted by the very thought of fish pasta selects it for lunch. But, generally, things run smoothly and she has more time for all the stories the children are bursting to tell her.

"Before, you were trying to get them to sit down so you could do the register and if someone came over wanting to tell you something you would say: `Not now, tell me later.' Of course, you never got round to it later."

Headteacher Graeme Logan says the new start to the day - called "smart start" at Peel and "bright start" at Murrayfield - is infinitely preferable. "Previously, they would have been shuffled in and sat down on the carpet, waiting for the teacher to talk to them and direct them. Now they take control."

Linda Povey, a teacher of more than 20 years' experience who also teaches P1 at Peel, had a sense of deja vu when active learning was initially introduced.

"I did think initially: `been there, done that.' But the children are now involved more in the decisions. And I think it's clearer what we are expecting from them."

The whole class is on task, something that certainly wasn't the case before, she says. Ms Jamison agrees: "Everyone is busy, everyone is doing something. No one is sitting staring out the window."

P1 is beginning to co-operate better and to share, say the teachers. And this is, they feel, quite simply a more fun way to learn. "It's amazing to see how absorbed they become with a theme and how imaginative the children are," she says.

Like the day, during the farming topic, when Daisy the cow escaped. "It was a crisis that spread like wildfire throughout the school," according to Jackie Alexander, the principal teacher at Peel Primary.

She feels the children are smiling and laughing more - as are the staff. Ms Jamison and Ms Povey, she says, are frequently to be found huddled in a corner giggling, planning their classes' next adventure.

Now, Mr Logan says, active learning is set to become the "main methodology" through- out the school. "The main difference is the independence in the young children. It has given them the confidence to manage and organise themselves and has allowed them to take control of their day. It has given them an exciting start to their school career."

At Murrayfield, headteacher Margaret Brown also wants to see active learning throughout the school. "The growth in the children has been fantastic to watch. They are just so confident."

Support staff had to be redeployed to make active learning possible in P1, but Mr Logan believes "it's not as big an issue up the school".

"Active learning does not have to be physical," he says. "It's about engaging them as soon as they come into school."

Other teachers in the authority agree that active learning is the way forward. Helen McCulloch, depute head of Carmondean Primary in Livingston, believes the primary school day had become too fragmented, with every subject timetabled into a separate slot. She welcomes the move towards "trying to join things together and link them".

The acting head of Uphall Primary, Lorna MacDonald, is keen on active learning because it allows teachers to react, and tap into their pupils real interests.

"I visited our nursery recently and picked up a toy dinosaur," she says. "One child was able to tell me its name and that it would eat the other dinosaurs because it was a carnivore. That learning came about because the child had shown a genuine interest and staff had developed it and taken it further. A Curriculum for Excellence should allow teachers that flexibility in P1."

Nevertheless, there is one concern. Because active learning uses jotters and worksheets less, some teachers fear they will not have the evidence to satisfy inspectors. But HMIE assistant chief inspector Kate Cherry insists that active learning is exactly what inspectors want to see.

"We want to see children who are confident, able to work independently, who don't need constant reassurance from the class teacher, and who are engaging with what they are doing.

"We don't need a jotter or a piece of paper to prove that. Inspectors are professional people. We don't need children sitting in desks. We are well aware when we go into a class when a child is, and is not, engaged."

Murrayfield Primary

The transition between nursery and P1 at Murrayfield Primary has been eased, with children from the different classes working together.

Now more parents than ever have opted to send their children to the school. This year, it will have two P1 classes (last year they had one class of 23).

The collaboration between the different groups revolved around the book We're Going on a Bear Hunt, a story of a family's adventure in search of a bear.

P1 began by drawing story maps in their "challenge groups", presenting them to each other and getting feedback. They then presented their maps to nursery.

Both nursery and P1 then set about deciding what you would need if you were going on a bear hunt. "We discussed things like which would be better for lighting your way in a cave: a candle or a torch?" says nursery teacher Julie Bruce.

Next was art. The classes had to think about the equipment and the colours they would need to create a wall mural depicting the bear hunt story.

A personal and social education element was introduced when the bear (P1 teacher Abi Buchanan in disguise) visited. The bear zwas lonely, he told the children, because people kept running away.

"Someone suggested its cave was too dark and it needed to make it more welcoming," says Ms Buchanan. "Another suggestion was that the bear throw a fancy dress party, then everyone would just think he was in costume."

The topic came to an end when the classes were challenged to recreate the bear hunt, using an obstacle course. Crash mats covered in brown material became the "oozy" mud the family had to wade through and paper snow flakes were strung up representing the "swirling, whirling" snowstorm.

The teachers warn, however, that team work does not always come naturally to young children. Before they embarked on the project, the children were taught how to work in groups by completing challenges like building a tower.

"The first one was chaos," says Ms Buchanan, "but the next one went really well."

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