What links insects and chocolate?

7th September 2012 at 01:00
The answer is the creative curriculum. That way madness lies, writes Jo Brighouse

I'm struggling with my medium-term planning. Curriculum planning in August is normally a doddle, when a brand new class awaits you and you're not competing with piles of marking, but I've reached a dead end now it's September. This is because all our planning must be "creative", which in my school translates as "teach everything under one title", however bad the fit.

These days, it's not enough to teach a variety of subjects. Like children's parties and Star Trek weddings, everything has to pivot on a theme. This is known as the "creative curriculum" and it's currently the holy grail of the primary school world. Ofsted inspectors and headteachers love it. It can work brilliantly, but it can also have the opposite effect to the one intended.

While I'm all for teaching children creativity (after all, you never know if one of them might grow up to be a politician with expenses), encouraging creativity by teaching all subjects through one theme can force you to make connections that are more contrived than the plot of the latest Hollywood romcom.

You may have a great tried-and-tested art topic on Van Gogh, but you can only teach it if you can work out a way of fitting it under the title "Our local area". Want to teach the Tudors? Focus only on the parts that tie in with "Our food". And if you can figure out a way of linking friction to the theme "Chocolate", you are a better lateral thinker than I am.

I was once invited to an interview at a Catholic school in a letter that stated: "All of our curriculum is based on the four Gospels." Really? Even maths? You can imagine the lessons: "If you have 12 disciples and one betrays you, how many disciples do you have left?" or "Five thousand people can be fed from five loaves and two fish. How many loaves and fish would you need to feed 20,000?"

One of the problems of being constantly creative is that activities seen as too teacher-led or focused on closed questioning are viewed as implicitly stifling children's creative impulses. It's not too bad in maths, where learning times tables and number facts is still encouraged, but try teaching comprehension or devoting a whole lesson to grammar and you're seen as hopelessly out of touch. I now have a class of children who litter their writing with words like "dilapidated" and "surreptitiously" but are still unaware that every sentence needs a verb.

What seems to be more in vogue is letting the children take the lead. A few years ago, my Year 3 class took part in a scheme where someone artistic from the local community came in and worked with the children in a "creative" way. Cue eight afternoons with Frank, an actor and drama coach who led the pupils down a creative path so mystifying that even after eight weeks we were at a loss to say what, if anything, we had learned from the experience (other than not to employ Frank again). "I never plan the sessions with the children," he told us at the start of the project. "I want this whole experience to be totally child-led. Let's just sit back and go where they take us."

It didn't take long for my bullshit-o-meter to begin to twitch. Frank's creative experience, ostensibly based around the children as detectives investigating a fictional Roman murder, degenerated into bored children wandering around the classroom drawing endless Roman soldiers on bits of paper. When they started to ask if they could play a times tables game, I realised how little impact the sessions were having on them.

The whole experience taught me that, just as trying to play a game with no rules holds no challenge and therefore no excitement, giving children too much freedom does nothing to spark their creative impulses. You can't get creative with the facts if you don't know the facts. In my experience, one of the best ways to bring out creativity is by telling children what they can't do. Write a story about a worm but don't use the letter O. Find as many ways as you can to make 100 but don't use the + sign or the numbers 2, 5 and 9. Move your team across the hall using two benches without anyone touching the floor. Explain to your headteacher why you are still at level 3 without using the sentence, "Mrs Brighouse tells us that trying our best and being kind to others is just as important as being at level 4."

Still, I'm not knocking the thematic approach. In fact, I'm going all out to embrace it. This term, all lessons will be introduced under the twin themes of trying your best and not talking when the teacher is. Under such an approach, who knows where our creativity will lead us?

Jo Brighouse teaches at a primary school in the Midlands.

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