US lesson plan lifts primaries

David Henderson

A RETHINK on classroom teaching led by the American state of New England is drawing unprecedented superlatives from experienced Scottish teachers who are ready to back evidence of sharply rising standards of work and behaviour.

Joyce Kirkland, a teacher at Dalbeattie primary in Dumfries and Galloway, who gave up three days of her summer holidays to attend the latest "critical skills programme" course in the capital, said: "I have got about eight years to retirement and I did not think I would see the holy grail in my lifetime in teaching."

Others strongly support her view that the teacher-driven initiative injects fresh life into their class work after testing it in the past year.

Ian Glen, head of schools in Midlothian, would want many more teachers involved if costs can be brought down. "It seems to rejuvenate teachers, brings back their old enthusiasm and gives techniques and skills they can use. It's about looking at things in a more stimulating way and it's the sort of programme that changes classroom practice," he said.

The programme sets pupils challenges in small groups, allowing them to discuss and set standards for behaviour and work, take far more control over their learning and leading to more time on task. The Scottish Executive is showing interest along with education authorities and senior researchers.

Linda Marshall, an assistant head at a Lancaster secondary, travelled north to attend the three-day course after visiting a school in New York State in June that is based entirely on the new approach.

She said: "This is the most challenging experience I have ever had as a pupil, student and teacher and it delivers results. I have never been as creative as a teacher as I am now."

Mrs Marshall said the programme provided the classroom structure for much of the brain-based learning and motivation techniques that teachers have taken to in recent years.

The programme operates widely in New England and New York and was launched in Britain by Colin Weatherley, a retired secondary head, based in East Lothian. With support from American trainers, Mr Weatherley is running a series of packed courses in Scotland and England.

The programme was devised by New England teachers 20 years ago and long before the latest research about brain-based learning came into vogue. But it dovetails with the evidence, Mr Weatherley said.

Brian Speedie, a teacher at Bruntsfield primary, Edinburgh, said critical skills now underpinned most of his teaching. "You are trying to create a classroom as a community."

Mrs Kirkland used the approach once a week to begin with, creating trust and respect in the class through circle time before offering a series of challenges to pupils. "It was a leap into the unknown but it worked immediately. The way I did it was to say, 'when I've got this clipboard I'm observing and I won't interfere'.

"Five minutes later, someone came up and said, 'she's got my pencil'. I said, 'you go and sort that out'. Up until then I would have said I had another one. But they sorted it out in two seconds," Mrs Kirkland said.

Bruce Bonney, critical skills co-ordinator in New York State, said: "I have lots of anecdotes of teachers saying I would have quit 10 years ago had it not been for this. It's more project based, less directive and consciously asks to consider the emotional environment. Real learning is always at the edge of our comfort zone."

Mr Bonney said teachers' data showed children do better academically, absentee rates go down, discipline referrals plummet and pupil satisfaction levels rise.

Contact: colin.weatherley@gullanes.

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