Upset that apple cart

11th July 2003 at 01:00
The latest thinking you should adopt is abandonment: be prepared to throw out an established idea for an even better one

The man in the tourist information office could have been forgiven for thinking he was on Candid Camera. There was 13-year-old Laura Bellamy and her mates, moustaches drawn on their top lips, demanding to know what there was for kids to do in Nottingham - and in French. And it was all being captured on video.

"The first man was rubbish," says Laura, "but then we found somebody who had O-level French."

And the point, Laura? "It was an assessment to show what we'd learnt in French."

What Laura and her friends were also demonstrating with their Saturday afternoon video was that they learn better kinaesthestically. It's not a term usually bandied around by Year 8 students, but they know all about it at George Spencer technology college, on the edge of Nottingham, 130 miles north of London.

In the first two years, every child has done their VAK (visualauralkinaesthetic) tests, working out whether they learn better visually (by reading or looking), aurally (listening) or kinaesthetically (by doing). They use "mind maps" to work their way round a subject and know all about multiple intelligences. While schools talk about the balance between teaching and learning, George Spencer is moving decisively from one to the other.

George Spencer has long been a vanguard school - one of the first to go grant-maintained (independent of its local authority), one of the first technology colleges (specialist schools), the first beacon schools (examples of good practice), and the first training schools (where teachers train on the job).

But none is likely to compare with the new project to put students in charge of their own learning in an example of what is called "abandonment" - dropping established ideas to try something better.

In the past, the school has used the usual tactics - targeting, summer schools, mentoring and the like - to lift attainment with impressive results. Now, for many students, tactics are being dropped in favour of strategy.

The headteacher, Tom Clark, says: "We reached the point where the nervous energy we put in to get up another point or two in the league tables was huge. So we embraced the concept of abandonment. It's risky. It requires great self-confidence. But you need to energise staff and keep them interested."

Starting last year with Year 7, each class spends an hour a week on "learning to learn" and they are encouraged to use the strategies that work best for them in other subjects - hence Laura and co's video in French.

There has also been a huge staff training programme for staff.

The model is not fully operational - that is likely to happen in September 2004 when the school hopes to abandon such features such as the one-hour lesson and classes in "boxes of 30". Within limits, students will have more say over how, when and even where they learn.

Seminars of 200 could run alongside individualised tutorials, with cross-curricular teaching. Students could learn off-site, at home, or even at other institutions. A building programme will make the school site more flexible. Some teachers could specialise in pedagogy, others in subject knowledge.

With some passion, Mr Clark says: "We're not going to let kids down. We have to meet the benchmarks at least as well as before. We're changing the balance (from teaching to learning) but if it isn't effective, we'll change it back.

"But whatever else we've done, we've got more teachers with more understanding of how students learn, and more students understanding how they learn and wanting to take responsibility for that. There are already benefits."

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