What children want to find out

6th June 2008 at 01:00
When it comes to showing what A Curriculum for Excellence means in the classroom, Highland is leading the way. Henry Hepburn travels to Inverness to find out more
When it comes to showing what A Curriculum for Excellence means in the classroom, Highland is leading the way. Henry Hepburn travels to Inverness to find out more

Vikki Shand is a model teacher. Her P4 reading group is absorbed in its work, responding enthusiastically when she leads discussion of events in The Goalie's Secret, by Paul Shipton. The group of seven settles down when asked to read Chapter 3 by themselves. When one or two of the boys giggle in the corner, a gentle admonishment from her is enough to get their attention back.

Vikki is eight years old. Without any supervision, she is skilfully handling a 45-minute session involving several different tasks - and every one of her classmates has also fulfilled that role at some point during the year.

The scene takes place at Raigmore Primary in Inverness, a go-ahead school at the forefront of efforts by Highland Council to convert A Curriculum for Excellence from airy aspiration to tangible benefits.

The authority has become a champion of formative assessment and, with the help of outside experts, has set up a detailed programme of continuing professional development that has won high praise from teachers.

This entire process has become known as A Highland CPD Journey 2004-08, a crucial element of which has been the Highland Future Learning and Teaching project. Commonly known as FLaT, the national scheme has funded the secondment of learning and teaching development officer Kevin Logan to oversee the Highland project since 2006.

Raigmore is part of three clusters which have explored practical ways to help primary and secondary pupils become "self-directing learners". Moira Leslie, the head, believes the results are obvious: "The classroom looks different and sounds very different."

It is less than 10 years since the school's last inspection, at which time Mrs Leslie recalls an inspector advising that children - especially in upper primary - should be working quietly. Now, however, the school can put children's voices to the fore.

A poster on the wall of the P4 classroom shows 14 examples of what pupils wanted to find out at the start of a farming project; only two suggestions have come from teacher Autumn Macaulay. The children's curiosity often veers into areas beyond the mundane agricultural routine: they ask how to make a scarecrow scary, and how to put a ring in the bull's nose. Her questions are more predictable: "What is organic farming?"; "What jobs are to be done in the spring?"

The flights of fancy on the poster prove that what children want to know is not always what teachers plan to teach them.

Emphasis is always on what the children think and want to find out. "What do you think speech marks are?" Miss Macaulay, who has incorporated ideas from the Highland Literacy Project as well as the FLaT work, asks a member of her reading group. "What do you think this is going to be about?" she prompts, always with heavy stress on "you".

Vikki's role on the other side of the room is the same: not to boss her classmates about, but to tease out their thoughts. She is taking control of a group single-handedly for the third time when The TESS visits - "it's not too difficult if you've done it a few times," she says. She does get nervous at the start of a session, but that soon goes because most people listen (except for one "silly" person whom she declines to name).

Vikki has an effective strategy for when things get noisy: she picks out one classmate and tells him or her to stop talking; then does the same with another; then another. Soon, only a few people are left chattering, and the infectious quiet makes it easier to calm them down. When asked who gave her this tip, Vikki says she came up with it herself.

Later the same day, pupil autonomy is again in evidence during a session on problem-solving. The children hear about Clint, who has been given a new cactus for his ranch with one pad. Two new pads grow each year on the previous year's pads. The pupils, split into groups, must work out how many pads there will be after four years. From a list of "strategies", groups must decide which will work best to get the answer; the class then votes before each group uses the winning three strategies.

Miss Macaulay's classroom has changed profoundly. "I think it's completely different," she says. "It's awesome to see how much the children can take control themselves."

No longer is her planning dominated by the ground that has to be covered. Instead, the children are "telling me what they want and they're more motivated, and that's making me much more motivated - it's just so much more exciting".

As Mrs Leslie notes: "If teachers aren't excited, why should we expect children to be?"

There has also been a paradigm shift in terms of expectations about behaviour. Miss Macaulay says teachers are asking themselves, "Is your lesson worth behaving for?"

Highland children are also being encouraged to think about thinking - technically described as a step up from cognition to meta-cognition - in an attempt to prioritise deep thought processes over mere retention of facts.

A wall in the P4 Raigmore class is peppered with children's responses to the question: 'What helps you think?' Some answers are practical - lots of water, healthy eating, sleep - but others border on the poetic: "I close my eyes and look into my brain," says Denver.

Philosophical reflection is even more evident when pupils are asked what thinking feels like. "Little folders in your head," says Vikki; "It feels like I'm drifting away," suggests Madison; Rebecca finds it "calming", and Reece sees "a picture in your head". Not only are children's voices becoming better heard, but what they are saying is increasingly profound.

Much of the above will sound familiar to teachers in other parts of Scotland and Mrs Leslie says such practices were becoming more common long before Highland Council made getting to grips with formative assessment and A Curriculum for Excellence a priority.

But the authority's wide-ranging CPD programme has given teachers the confidence and skills to take things on beyond a previously piecemeal approach. Behind-the-scenes support for teachers considering bold new approaches and growing links between innovating schools have also helped.

At first, Mrs Leslie thought the ideas being proposed were already happening in her school, but now she sees more "quality and depth" and "teacher-to-teacher dialogue", including "really powerful" exchanges of ideas with secondary colleagues.

"I sometimes go to CPD and everyone thinks it's great, but afterwards it's a case of 'So what?" says Mrs Leslie. Now, however, there is a "clear structure" to continuing professional development, teachers are more confident about A Curriculum for Excellence - and there is a clear impact in the classroom.

"There are fears that perhaps attainment will drop, but I don't share that," she adds. "And in terms of achievement, we're seeing the results already."


Getting pupils more involved in their learning is a laudable idea, but in the two-term dash to Higher, it's impractical - like it or not, pupils at this level need to cram in the information that will get them through exams.

Such is the attitude that often faces curriculum reformers when, after a fruitful time at primary schools, they turn their attention to secondaries.

A Higher English class at Millburn Academy in Inverness, part of the FLaT project, is proof that that attitude can be overcome. Nine days before the exam, there is an atmosphere of calm activity. Teacher Helen Vandenhove has asked pupils, in small groups, to scrutinise each other's critical essays on the poem "Stealing", by Carol-Ann Duffy. There is no sign of dissent, of pupils demanding a last-minute run through of crucial tips for the impending exam: they are clearly accustomed to peer and self-assessment.

"It's useful - it's better than having the teacher telling you what to do," says Tor Sudmeyer, 16, who believes that having pupils as assessors helps, because a teacher would not have time to answer all his questions. Ideas stick better, according to Louisa Barrett, 16: "You can see yourself where things have gone wrong, rather than just being told."

Tor does not hold back about classmate Fiona Bowie's essay, but his criticisms are constructive - she makes good points, but could have been more concise. "You feel you can criticise each other," says Fiona, who sees the frank exchange of ideas as a positive.

Not everything goes smoothly, however: at times there are signs of an end-of-year lack of spark and discussion becomes flat. Some admit they get drawn in if discussion strays into non-academic chit-chat; Tor says he works best with people he doesn't know well.

Miss Vandenhove is clear about the benefits: "The processing of information is better and more valuable. A pupil is more likely to think about something because her peers have helped her, rather than me sitting down with her and saying 'You should do this'."

She cites one girl who gains a lot as she is "very shy" and would not ask teachers for an explanation if she were struggling. The approach is also "very good for pupils who are not inquisitive or curious", meaning those who will never go to a library of their own accord.

Pupils say they trust a mark from a teacher more than from a peer, but Miss Vandenhove stresses that they often end up with the same feedback as if she had marked their essays: "They will forget about metaphors, but what they will remember is how to tackle a problem using their own brains."

Miss Vandenhove is puzzled that "The TESS" wants to sit in on what she considers an unexceptional lesson. The use of peer assessment days before a Higher English exam at Millburn Academy is like nine-year-olds leading discussion groups at Raigmore Primary: pupils in control of their own learning have become an unremarkable feature of school life.

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