On the waterfront

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Year 6 pupils in Selby are redesigning a dilapidated area of their town as part of a pilot project to get them talking. Elaine Williams reports

As you drive from the north over the toll bridge into Selby, the imposing medieval tower of Selby Abbey, rising above the town, beckons. But before visitors can enjoy the startling grace of its full structure they must first take in the sorry sight of the town's dilapidated water frontage, sagging industrial buildings by the river Ouse that have seen better days.

Few are more aware of the negative image of the town this creates than the Year 6 pupils of Selby Abbey Primary School, who are working on a waterfront development project. This involves taking walks from the town centre school, along the high street, past the Abbey to the toll bridge and waterfront, to assess the site's potential.

Back in class and divided into groups, they engage in lively talk, arguing the pros and cons of their development ideas, appointing a spokesperson to present their proposals. What about having picnic tables by the waterside and a barbecue for people to cook food? But wouldn't that be a fire hazard? What about painting a mural along the old walls? But people working nearby might not want to look at it all the time? What about putting up temporary boards for people to paint on so that they can be taken down and changed? What about a team of volunteers to keep the waterfront landscaping in good shape?

The ideas come tumbling out. In each group however, pupils go to some trouble to listen to each other and develop each other's ideas. This is an essential ground rule. Before discussions started, class teacher Martin Wynne made them think about how they would work best as a group in getting ideas across. The key rules the class decided to use were: ensure everyone is involved, share ideas, extend ideas and listen to each other.

In a Year 6 science lesson in the next room, rules of engagement are being thrashed out in a similar fashion. Respecting each other's opinions would be at the heart of how these pupils would operate.

Talking underpins much of the work this Year 6 undertakes. Selby Abbey is one of nearly 50 schools in North Yorkshire taking part in Talk for Learning, a pilot project to promote dialogic teaching, orchestrated by Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University, whose seminal work on comparative primary education in Russia, France, India, England and the US in 2001, Culture and Pedagogy, highlighted the importance of high quality teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil discourse.

The pilot teachers are using video and an array of indicators to analyse their classroom talk and its strengths and weaknesses, and to develop practice. Professor Alexander says: "We have tended to emphasise the social dimension of talking in this country, its potential for building confidence, but now we must grapple with its cognitive dimension. We know from psychological and neuroscientific evidence that talk is fundamental to the development of thinking. This pilot is about teachers homing in on the quality of interaction, examining the way they handle responses. It's about extending talk, staying with the child, staying with the idea."

The National Literacy Strategy placed renewed emphasis on a whole-class focus and the pace of teaching, but Professor Alexander believes the drive for pace has led to neglect of the quality of talk. In France and Russia, for example, he observed that the pace of teaching was slower because discussion was more thorough, that children were given more time to think and were generally more articulate.

The use of video to analyse their teaching for quality of discussion has transformed the way many teachers are working, says Fiona Lovell, North Yorkshire primary adviser. Martin Wynne says using video had made him re-examine the way he questions children "to make their learning move forward". In some schools, pupils themselves are using the videos to engender selfcriticism of their own talk skills.

Sue Tite, headteacher of Selby Abbey and a former teacher trainer, says she had long realised the importance of talking in child development. The Talk for Learning pilot, which has been running for a year, had given the school a focus and had led to more "real learning" - children going out and about in the community and discussing their findings. "There has been a significant change, in that at one time this kind of project (the waterfront development) would have come at the end of Year 6, after SATs, as the icing on the cake. Now it comes first," she says.

She believes the change of focus has helped to bring about significant improvements in achievement. Last year, the school's key stage 2 Sats scores improved.

Selby suffers significant levels of deprivation as an ex-mining, post-industrial community. Out of 360 children, around 40 are on the special needs register, 25 of those with statements. However, last year the school rose to the top 25 per cent in the country for its value-added scores. Sue Tite says: "Not all of this achievement is down to this project, but I do believe it is having an impact."

Pupils certainly seem to appreciate the change of emphasis. Last term they looked at traffic management measures in the town high street. George Trotter, 10, says he enjoyed the chance to talk over ideas. "I remember everything from last term. It's the best thing I've ever done. If it's fun you don't forget it," he says.

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