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Young citizens think to learn

Pupils in P5 and P7 at Balbardie primary in Bathgate in West Lothian are "thinking to learn" through two citizenship projects, as part of their curriculum changes.

The P5 "Portrait of Britain" project examines "what makes a community?" and has involved problem-solving situations such as a council plan to knock down houses to build a road and the consultation exercises involved, and using ICT to model a play park.

The P7 pupils have been set the task of designing their own playground on open space in front of the school. They have consulted with council officials and had to modify their plans in line with the advice given. It has involved them in their own Powerpoint presentation and, in the process, they have improved their ICT, spoken language and team-working skills.

Doreen McPhail, Balbardie's headteacher, says that this particular work has its roots in a previous action research inquiry into thinking skills carried out nearly two years ago with a P6 class.

"What we learnt from that project was shared with the whole staff," she said. "We were all of the opinion that we wanted our children, after seven years here, to have knowledge and to have attained the best they could, but also to have a range of transferable skills. We therefore asked, are we planning our learning and teaching in a way which facilitates that? And we were not, because we were looking primarily at 5-14."

The starting point for the current projects was to consider what knowledge in the 5-14 guidelines they wanted to teach, then to think about what the natural context was for children to learn. Staff went on to decide on an investigative, problem-solving approach.

The strategy is to give the children information and learning skills and for the teacher then to throw in a problem to which the children have to find a solution. This corresponds with the purpose of creating "successful learners" but also gives them the knowledge of how to acquire information and be "lifelong learners".

Mrs McPhail said: "I wanted thinking skills to be taught and I wanted it to be explicit. I also wanted collaborative learning to be part of it. For many years, the children have worked in small groups, pairs and trios, but we have not actually been teaching the skills of learning together.

Teaching children not to dominate and how to take turns is part of it."

She added: "While you can teach thinking skills in a context and ensure pupils use questions to clarify their thinking, I also wanted to introduce visual organisers. I saw that the children needed tools to sort out their thoughts as well. Included in that is formative assessment which we are embedding throughout the school.

"At the parents' evening, some of the parents were asking about the project because they noticed that the children were coming home and asking lots of questions. That is part of their learning - using questions effectively themselves."

In its thinking and learning lessons, Balbardie sets considerable store by having a very strong question structure around an activity where children have to work through the thinking process on organisers. Teachers share the learning intentions.

The children themselves are asked to look at how effective they have been as a group. Above all, they face the metacognition test - "how did I learn what I learnt?"

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