When being different matters

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Teaming up with their classmates gets pupils' creative juices flowing

The expression on Laura McCann's face, as she watched her pupils deliver one of the best presentations at this year's Scottish Learning Festival, said it all. She thought they were wonderful. So did the standing room-only audience.

A month later at St Mary's Primary in Dundee, it is still there, as the P7 teacher listens to those same pupils explain how they tackle enterprise projects - such as the one that took them to the festival - and why they work so well for them.

"You have to be creative, keep your mind open to different ideas," says Ellie Kean. "Anything might turn out to be really good if you take time to work on it. And if you get upset with team-mates, try to resolve it without getting the teacher in. It'll bring you closer together as a team."

While Miss McCann is keen to give credit to her pupils, even a "very good class" would not achieve this level of maturity in group-work by itself. But teacher and class have been together since P5, so much of the behaviours and attitudes they take for granted have been taught over three years and many projects.

Being independent is the most important, says Miss McCann. "I talk about that a lot. If they don't have an idea, they know to go away and read books, go on the computer, do a bit of research, listen in to other groups. I teach them not to rely on me for ideas."

At first this might not work well and people might still need help, admits John-James Low. "There was one project I left to the last minute, so I was rushing and did get stuck for ideas. I asked Miss McCann that time, and she gave me a bit of information which got me started."

Getting stuck wasn't a problem this class had with the Scottish Learning Festival project - to design a computer game and present it at the Dragons' Den. Just the opposite, says Ellie. "We had tons of ideas. But we didn't know which to use.

"Sarah and me wanted to do an outdoor survival game, but John-James wanted to do a brainteaser. That's when we thought if we combined the two it would be a unique game that wasn't on the market."

Combining different personalities, ideas and ways of looking at the world is important when forming groups, says Sarah Houghton. "You need different talents - like maybe a creative, arty person, a computer whizz-kid and somebody who likes to talk in front of lots of people."

But those differences that are so essential to making groups effective and productive can cause difficulties at the start of an enterprise project - or any project, says Miss McCann. "When children are new to it, I give each member a card that tells them their specific job - researcher, reporter, materials manager and so on.

"It gives them all a purpose. Some can get left by the wayside when they first start doing group and project work. It's also something I'd do if a group was having problems working things out themselves."

Even with an experienced class, problems arise in projects, she points out. "We still get laughter and tears. Sometimes people decide they don't want to work in a group and would rather work alone. If that happens, I'll often let them. Next time they'll try harder to work things out as they don't like the isolation. It's learning by experience - as long it's understood that they will be welcomed back, get a job and move on."

A whole-class project spread over several weeks and culminating with a presentation at the festival would not be the starting point for a class or teacher new to enterprise, says Miss McCann. "We began with small projects that lasted an afternoon - such as building a bridge from paper, Sellotape and paper-clips, the pupils had pound;100 from me to buy materials."

Other examples include using the children's newspaper First News for writing projects and ideas - "one of the best things I've seen coming into school"; holding Macmillan coffee mornings; designing an ideal classroom or a place to play, and imagining being someone famous for a day.

"We had a Victorian afternoon where we got to dress up and teach other classes and parents," says Morgan Falconer. "We had to pick a famous Scottish person and do a presentation. We chose Elsie Inglis, one of the first women doctors."

Classes across St Mary's, not just senior pupils, are encouraged to tackle at least one enterprise project a year, says headteacher Nicholas Marra. "It gives their work a sense of purpose. Skills like writing become more meaningful when it's put in an envelope and sent out - and then the reply comes back. You can feel their excitement."

"Little snippets of projects" get pupils used to doing different jobs, working in groups and learning skills they'll need on bigger ones, says Miss McCann. "If you find something that really interests them or, better still, let them find it themselves, the projects grow arms and legs and the children soak up the learning."


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