Tree of knowledge

The University of the First Age aims to take learning out of the classroom and make it fun again - for teachers and pupils. Reva Klein reports on the pilot project in Birmingham.

If you didn't know better, you'd think you'd taken a wrong turn and mistakenly wandered into The Big Breakfast studio. The mood in the room is one of orchestrated mania. There's some sort of competition going on - two madcap comperes run up and down the aisles asking participants for answers. There's lots of shouting and clapping. Then comes the music: one by one, groups of two and three are urged to come on down and sing their own rap compositions about a guy named Pascal. Some are shy, some enraptured. But shrinking violet or shrieking extrovert, they're all 100 per cent there - and learning about maths.

This is Birmingham's University of the First Age, which aims to introduce children aged 11 to 13 to multi-sensory learning - which works by stimulating not just the logical faculties but also the visual, musical and kinesthetic intelligences usually ignored by mainstream education. It was the creative conception of Birmingham's chief education officer Tim Brighouse, who put Pounds 20,000 of his own money into it after an out-of-court libel settlement in June 1994 from former Education Secretary John Patten. City Challenge has provided Pounds 60,000 for the first two-year pilot and funds are being sought elsewhere as the demand rises.

From its temporary base on the campus of the University of Central England, the UFA is designed to make learning an exciting and challenging experience by moulding it to the skills and, to some extent, the aesthetic values of the children it strives to reach. UFA is not so much a seat of learning as a run, jump, sing, laugh, shout, build and connect place of learning.

The thinking behind it is straightforward and visionary, practical and idealistic, and draws on Harvard professor Howard Gardner's research on multiple intelligences. His work is based on the belief that all children have the ability to achieve academic success, but it is school which stands in the way of their potential. The premise may not be new, but his way of looking at children's learning is.

He contends that while children have a number of different ways of learning - multiple intelligences - the education system is focused on the logical or linguistic channels of acquiring knowledge. This is fine for those who excel on these cognitive levels. But for those whose intelligences are more visual or kinesthetic, it can at best spell difficulty and, at worst, failure.

Gardner believes that to save these children from the abyss of low achievement and low self-esteem, we need to develop a multi-sensory approach to teaching, one which will synthesise teaching methods in such a way as to be relevant, challenging and engaging to children, no matter what particular intelligences they have. With many inner-city children finding school irrelevant, it would seem that we can ill afford to continue working solely along traditional tracks. The UFA is trying to think laterally and equip teachers to communicate in different ways.

Its pilot scheme targets children aged 11 to 13, the most vulnerable ages for switching off from mainstream education. "Our aim is to get them to feel good about learning through a very challenging curriculum - [national curriculum] level 6 and above - that is delivered in a way designed to give them quick success," says Maggie Farrar, former deputy head of Haggerston Girls School in Hackney, and now the first principal of the UFA. "With young people at this age, so much is wrapped up in their self-esteem. Our job is to be positive all the time, to make them feel good about learning."

The 300 children chosen for the three-year pilot are all 11 and 12-year-olds in their first year at five comprehensives and one grammar school in Birmingham. They volunteered to be part of the project after attending taster courses that Farrar took to all the schools involved. The courses proved so popular that more children applied for the project than could be accepted.

Schools selected children in order to ensure a mixed intake. Along with high achievers who need enrichment are children who, as Farrar puts it, "haven't experienced success at school, who may be turned off altogether or are turned on by one particular subject or who may have special needs". The main thing is that they wanted to be part of a learning experiment, opting for one of the following subjects for the three-year period: science and technology, maths, French, Spanish or Urdu.

From July 15 to 26, two groups of 150 children attended the first summer school. For six hours a day they enjoyed the multi-sensory approach, a highly interactive experience that takes pupils out of the classroom, both literally and metaphorically.

In science and technology, pupils worked outside the university as well as inside the environmental science laboratories on a project about safe and unsafe water. This led to an investigation into the idea of safety - and its political ramifications. "We are looking at the concepts and then applying them by designing an environment," says UFA's information technology coordinator, Mike Kendall. "Our intention is to challenge the pupils so that they can then decide what they want to pursue further."

A similar approach was adopted for the rapping maths lesson. To introduce patterning, pupils first explored the man after whom Pascal's Triangle - a pyramid of numbers used to calculate probabilities - was named. As well as writing a rap about him, they had to carry out their own research with the aid of the Encarta encyclopedia on CD-Rom and via the Internet. For some, it was their first experience of using computers. As Mike Kendall explains, learning to use technology is a central plank of the UFA. "You can't develop, deliver or attain within the curriculum unless you can use and apply information technology. Our challenge is to support pupils through the technology."

This leads into the second phase of the project, which kicks off in the autumn. Pupils will begin an individual study and distance learning programme in which they will communicate with tutors via faxes and Internet connections that have been specially set up in their schools. The hope is that, fuelled by their enthusiasm for the summer school, they will return to school with a positive outlook towards learning and the determination to get on with their own projects with weekend and IT-aided support.

No one can say whether this faith in children's ability to sustain interest will be justified. But judging by their response on the second day of the first week, this new way of learning was firing them up. Daniel says, "If we were at school right now, we'd be doing maths for half an hour, then we'd have to change classes in two minutes. Things get jumbled in your head between one class and another. Here, we're doing maths for the whole day for five days in a row. It's more relaxing this way - even though we're always doing things. "

Teachers are enjoying the change, too. Chosen from the participating schools, they have helped develop the curriculum and 12 of them - along with 35 sixth-form peer educators - will teach the sessions, after undergoing training with Maggie Farrar. "The most exacting and challenging thing about this is that we've had no model to work from, there's no prototype. So we've read a lot, shared ideas, talked about what makes a good lesson and how it can be made multi-sensory."

Sumat Panchel, who teaches maths at Handsworth Wood Boys, has found the work at UFA liberating. "We've been given the time and freedom to be more expressive in our teaching. With traditional teaching, the energy of the kids is often suppressed. Here, we can use it to their advantage." He is also positive about taking some of these new methods back to his mainstream classroom.

The project, which is being evaluated at the end of each phase, is meant to complement the national curriculum. Farrar admits that some mainstream teachers are unsure how the two will dovetail. "There's some apprehension among teachers of kids being challenging after this in terms of what kind of teaching they want." There will be a follow-up dialogue with schools.

But even before the evaluation of the pilot, Tim Brighouse is chuffed at seeing his brainchild up and running and inspiring both children and teachers. "It's quite remarkable to see so many young people so enthusiastic about subjects that they're studying not because they have to but because they want to learn."

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