When seeing is believing

Primary schools now emphasise - driven not least by OFSTED - the ability of children to study with a degree of independence and to make their own sound judgments.

Consequently, the phrase "pupils taking responsibility for their own learning" crops up frequently as a description of good practice.

I talked to practitioners about this, and to inspectors, chiefly Sue Mulvany, an inspector in Kirklees and a former primary head.

I wanted to know, simply, what I would see were I to walk into a classroom where pupils were "taking responsibility for their own learning".

All quickly pointed out that at any given time, in any classroom, one of many things might be happening - teacher giving a whole class lesson, or reading aloud, for example.

However, I learned that in a school where the children are taught to have a lot of responsibility for their learning, some or all of the following characteristics will be visible at various times during the day.

* The atmosphere will be calm but purposefully busy - not silent, but not chaotic.

* Children will all be on task, but tasks will probably be different, even within the same subject.

* The whole of the classroom area - desks, carpet, book corner - will be available for work.

* The children will be noticeably considerate of each other's needs.

* Some may be working individually, but others will be in groups and pairs. (In some subjects - art is an example - pupils are given considerable individual independence, but may need to have more opportunity to work in groups.) * Children will be serving themselves with easily available, labelled equipment and resources. These will not be "passive" resources, unchanged from month to month. Rather, they will have been selected and organised by the teacher in line with curriculum planning and will change as the work of the class progresses.

* The children, when skilfully questioned by a visitor, will have lots to say about their work.

* They will ask questions of their teacher, of each other and other adults in the room.

* They will use study skills, referring to indexes and catalogue systems.

* At the computer, children will be building and interrogating the database, and composing (writing andor music) rather than copying.

* The teacher will be teaching skills and mentoring the learning. Pupils will be drawing conclusions and making evaluations. These will be further checked by the teacher.

* There will be a lot of direct intervention by the teacher, carefully judged and tailored to pupil needs. All the practitioners I spoke to emphasised that classroom styles are not casually chosen, but are carefully planned on the basis of agreed aims and philosophy.

Sue Mulvany was also keen to underline that this style of working "is not sloppy or unstructured. It is not a matter of saying, 'go off and find out about this'. It needs much more structure than that, and is directed, overseen and monitored by teachers."

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