Should pupils have a say in what they learn? Crispin Andrews hears how two primary schools in Cheshire are helping pupils set their own goals
One of the walls in the Year 3 classroom at Holmes Chapel Primary in Cheshire is almost entirely covered with Post-it Notes. A small girl puts a note up. On it is written a question: "How do birds stay in the air for so long?" She has listened to teacher Tiffanie Noble outline what they will be learning during the next few weeks about the classification and variation of animals, and this is what she wants to know.
During Tiffanie's lesson, indeed throughout the whole topic, children make regular trips to this wall which has become the focal point of the classroom - a way of ordering learning around children's own enquiries.
Later, their questions will be put in a special scrapbook so that the children can continue to search for the answers. "How can we make sure teaching and learning is really geared to the needs of the individual without first asking them what these needs are?" Tiffanie asks. "Children hate to be told, so why not let them take ownership of the direction of their learning - better still let them mould it themselves."
At Garswood Primary School, also in Cheshire, Year 3 and 4 children are looking at the ceiling as well as the walls. They are near the end of a topic on the environment and it seems as good a place as any to display answers once the class or an individual has researched and found them. The questions are displayed on the walls.
If anyone wants to find out "Why there are no butterflies outside during the winter?" or "What do snails eat?" they know where to look. At present however, most of the children are otherwise engaged. While a small group put the finishing touches to a paper model of the life cycle of a butterfly, three girls are studying film footage of severe weather conditions in the US, downloaded from the internet.
"Creative responses to the topic depend on what the children are interested in," says teacher Lucy Price after being asked why a group of boys are gathered round a pile of Liverpool FC magazines, while one girl appears to be studying the Vikings. The boys, she explains, all avid Liverpool fans, are looking at how the football club maintains and develops its own environment, while the girl, fascinated by the Vikings ever since she read a book about Norse myths a while ago, is investigating what a typical Viking settlement might be like and how villagers manipulated their surroundings to meet their needs.
What both teachers do is plan on the basis of children's responses and recommendations to ensure that subsequent activities match their needs more closely. "As long as the key skills and programmes of study are focused on, where the children need to go in terms of national curriculum requirements, how and through what means children learn can be flexible," insists Lucy.
These lessons are indicative of the teaching and learning strategies being developed at both schools, but there is another connection. Last year, in the midst of an investigation into personalised learning commissioned by the National College of School Leadership, Garswood headteacher Kevin Cooney visited Holmes Chapel to see how children are being asked to set their own learning targets. Impressed, he started to think about how to incorporate similar ideas into his own school and during the spring term strategies were trialled by his Year 34 team.
So successful is this new approach that Kevin decided that he would eventually like to see it incorporated throughout the school. "How can we as teachers decide what a child needs to develop as a person?" he says. "It is up to teachers and learners to work this out together and organise a learning environment that allows each child to follow a path that leads them towards their own particular goals."
How do you organise the sort of environment that allows children to take a lot of responsibility for their own learning without the classroom descending into chaos?
* Set up an area devoted to the next project a couple of weeks before it starts. When children enter, perhaps in role as an explorer or scientist, they can fill in books or cards on this new topic to give an indication of what they already know and what they want to find out.
* Design a series of activities in core subjects that are skill specific but open ended, which will give children plenty of leeway to follow their own interests. For example in creative writing: You are an explorer and you've found an animal in the jungle that has never been seen before. What happens next?
* Short interviews with children can also gauge their interests before designing activities.
* Use a mind map to adapt plans so children's requests are met.
* Should the children's requests veer away from the national curriculum, research activities can be set as homework and the results communicated through, for example, a maths or science investigation or creative writing.