The trouble with schools is we try to replicate things ‘by the book’ and it’s not always for the best. While writing this mini-series of imperatives for schools in the 21st century, I’ve steered clear of giving actual examples and stuck to basic principles and rationale. I believe that practice should come from a sound understanding of the principles and basic philosophy of whatever it is you are trying to achieve. Yes, it’s good to have examples to look at, but in education there is a propensity jump on to the next big thing and try to replicate it in your practice or school, without really exploring whether or not it aligns with your’s or your school’s principles and ethos.
It’s important to get to grips with what you really believe in and what you hope to achieve in your school. And to do that, you need to question the extent to which you are in it for your own gains and the extent to which you also have a a vocational calling and truly want the best for young people. In my last blog, I attempted to explain that what we mostly do in schools is deliver a curriculum in the easiest possible way, which are not always in the best interests of pupils. We prefer to be in control and manage behaviours, which I would argue, curb the development of good habits of learning (read my last blog for more on this). The trend in education over the last 6 or 7 years has pulled us further away from meeting the current and future needs of young people and it’s partly because we are obsessed (certainly in my time as a teacher) with reading and trying to put into practice whatever it is the latest educational guru is telling us to do. We do this at the expense of exploring our own philosophy of education.
And so the description below, of the curriculum we hope to develop at Eastern High, comes with a health warning. Organisationally, it’s not an easy path to follow, but it’s one I believe in. You may not, which is why I ask you to explore your own principles and philosophy and as with any educational book you read, pick out bits that may work for you and don’t compromise your ideals for education.
The curriculum at Eastern High
The content below was written for staff and describes our goals for teaching and learning at Eastern High. Accomplishing these will necessitate a stepped journey for all staff, moving from didactic training programmes (which let’s face it, are a lot easier to deliver) and uniformity of practice across the school, towards the collaborative highly skilled pedagogy we hope to achieve. For students also, learning will move from instructional/didactic approaches, through a stepped process towards greater personalisation and autonomy. It’s worth adding that this curriculum is also aligned to the ideals of the new curriculum for Wales
At Eastern high we strive to ensure every student who joins our learning community will leave at the end of their time with us, with the knowledge, capabilities and wherewithal to ‘Flourish in Life’
Underlying this vision is the assumption that we need to do a lot more than simply aim for as many of our students as possible to gain good GCSE or equivalent qualifications. GCSEs are a passport to future employment, but without the confidence, aspiration or wherewithal to use this ‘passport’ our students will not achieve their full potential.
The values and beliefs mentioned above require us to develop a curriculum and ethos that accomplish two things:
- Enable our students to develop practices and habits which will be sustainable throughout life and which maximise employability in an uncertain future.
- Enable us as a school to develop practices, systems and procedures, which ensure we attain the highest possible standards and levels of achievement for our students.
For this reason, our school improvement plan and our day to day running of the school, focusses on 4 areas of sustainability (which are not incompatible with the Four Purposes of the new curriculum for Wales) we hope to instill in both our students and all our practices throughout the school:
- Sustainable approaches to learning
- Sustainable relationships and partnerships
- Sustainable mind, body & soul
- Sustainable use of resources available and the environment
A new curriculum structure and pedagogy
We are committed to creating a student-centered learning curriculum and a participative approach, which will develop both pride and ownership in our growing school and enable our learners to thrive amongst the unknown challenges of the 21st Century.
To achieve this and to reach ambitious targets for student performance, there must be a significant focus on developing good habits of learning and the essential literacy and numeracy skills which will enable them to access the curriculum effectively. Enquiry based learning through both project-based and teacher-led activities, will increasingly become the delivery model, phased in gradually as we begin to develop the pedagogy underpinning this.
This model will provide the following opportunities:
- More access to and a greater focus on, literacy and numeracy development
- An excellent framework for developing good habits of learning
- Personalised learning, at a rate which is appropriate, but which challenges the learner
- Independent learning and greater student autonomy,
- A wider range of ICT related learning opportunities ICT.
- Equipping students with 21st century adaptable skills valued by 21st century employers
- Prepares students for exams as well as meeting coursework deadlines at KS4
- Encourages outstanding teaching practice; at times the expert, but also the expert facilitator of learning.
This has implications for the way we develop our learning model.
How we aim to organise our curriculum – Phase Learning
Our curriculum will be divided into two “Phases.” (Although we could move into 3 phases if students are ready to progress to A levels early).
Phase 1 – We will ensure every student is able to access the full range of the curriculum effectively; therefore, it is essential we focus on the development of literacy & numeracy skills and good habits of learning initially. For this reason, students remain in this phase (for a max of three years) until they have attained at least Level 1 (roughly ‘D’ grade at GCSE) functionality in literacy, numeracy and ICT.
It is questionable how effective current practice (across the UK) in relation to cross curricular literacy and numeracy is. Regardless of the training given to subject teachers, their own subject priorities push the literacy or numeracy development backwards to become at best, a sideline to the lesson.
In this phase we aim to reverse the notion of cross curricular literacy and numeracy; instead, literacy and numeracy are the main ‘subjects’. While students will still do languages, PE and the arts discretely, for the remainder of their time, in any one week, they will work on two different projects, one of which will have a focus on English/literacy and one on maths/numeracy. Within these projects we use other knowledge areas as a context to deliver the literacy and numeracy. For example, humanities taught as part of the English time allowance, with English using humanities content as a context to deliver English. Maths is similar with Science and Technology providing the context. To put it another way, we want our students doing lots of literacy/English and numeracy/maths, without them realising they are doing it. The high proportion of English and maths teachers delivering this, ensures literacy and numeracy remains the priority.
Phase 2 – incorporates the more traditional qualification framework at Key Stage 4 focusing on Level 2 qualifications. Students are back in traditional subjects, but a similar PBL pedagogy to Phase 1 can be utilised. We envisage a large number of students will be ready to progress into Phase 2 from Year 9 onwards, while other students will be ready by Year 10. This may in time necessitate some vertical learning taking place in the School. Students who are not ready to progress by the end of Year 9 will join a personalised pathway route through Phase 2/Key Stage 4.
Obviously, all of this (especially Phase two is dependent on how the new curriculum for Wales finally looks. This curriculum model is certainly in keeping with the spirit of it.
How learning will be organised – Project Based Learning
Throughout the school we will be developing Project Based Learning (PBL) as a means to deliver the curriculum. Before describing this, it’s important to bear in mind the following:
- PBL at it’s core is no different to any 4- part lesson
- Introduction/Setting the scene
- Discovering new information (this can include normal teaching from the front)
- Practical Application/Making sense of the information discovered)
- PBL can be taught by one teacher in a class, but there is so much more scope for personalisation and sharing of expertise and strengths when taught collaboratively.
- It is easier to deliver collaborative PBL in larger spaces, but classrooms can also be utilised for different purposes.
- Students will make mistakes and errors of judgement initially. For example, they won’t meet deadlines, they will be distracted, they won’t work collaboratively or listen with empathy, they won’t show resilience and will be forever asking for help, but . . . THIS IS PART OF WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO DEVELOP in our students.
The PBL curriculum breaks student learning down into 3 areas:
- Seminars/lectures – Although the teacher no longer has a monopoly on information, we recognise that there will always be difficult concepts within various topics/subjects which will require personal explanation or elaboration in order to ensure real understanding. In addition, concepts often need ‘brought to life’ by an enthusiastic practitioner. For this reason, seminars are necessary, where the concept can ‘taught’; at times, if need be, in ‘lecture’ format, delivered to large groups in half year blocks, groups of 60, 30 or lower. Times and length of seminars could also vary on a daily or weekly basis. If the timings of a particular repeated seminar are spread out rather than always taking place at the same time (as we currently do when blocking a subject) as students become more adept at working within a project setting they could begin to book a time slot which suits their plans for the seminar they wish to attend.
- Focus sessions – Using concepts gained from the seminars mentioned above or from other sources of information, students will work on their projects in open spaces or in classes, with learning facilitated by teams of teachers. At times one teacher may facilitate project work/learning with a large group with a group, while another teacher takes smaller groups or individuals for extension or catchup work.
- Tutorials – During Focus sessions students can also be taken for tutorials by their allocated tutor. In addition to the work described above, this may be a 1:1 or small group tutorials, where feedback related to progress and quality is focused upon. Focus sessions allow space for individual teachers to take tutorials. These can be held in the same area or in adjoining tutorial rooms.
Other Features of PBL
PBL also utilises the following features to ensure learning takes place and good habits of learning are developed:
- Driving questions which are open challenging and relevant direct students as they progress through the project
- All students focus on specific learning skills/capacities in each project and keep a log/blog/portfolio of their development in these areas (linked to learning stages below)
- Every student has a learning tutor who monitors progress, but they will have access to a wide range of staff, they can pull on as a resource for specialised support.
- At the end of every project students will have to answer the driving question, referencing what they have learnt during the project. For example, this may be in the form of a written essay or a lab report.
- As we are in an education system where high importance is placed on exams, students will also sit a test/exam at the end of every project.
Avoiding the chaos – How we ensure good habits are developed – Independent Learning Stages
We recognise that the PBL style of learning gives students certain freedoms they may not have had in a traditional curriculum; this is why PBL is an excellent delivery model to develop good habits. There is greater opportunity to learn from mistakes, however while this is vital to learning, it can also lead to disruption of learning for others. For this reason, we will introduce a system of ‘Independent Learning Stages’ where at each stage as student is given greater freedom and responsibility.
Throughout the School, we will operate a four-stage independent learning programme:
- Stage 1 (Asteroid Stage) is didactic. Students at this stage are not yet ready to make their own decisions in relation to their learning and are not yet trusted to work independently. At this stage, put simply, we tell them what to do, and when to do it.
- Stage 2 (Moon) is centered on negotiation. Students at this stage negotiate certain ‘freedoms’ with their teacher.
- Stage 3 (Planet) allows far more independence in learning. Students at this stage are motivated and trusted to make many decisions about where when and how they learn.
- Stage 4 (Star) focuses on independence and leadership. Students at this stage are not only trusted to learn independently, but to lead other students in their learning.
These methods of learning provide greater opportunity for focused literacy and numeracy intervention strategies.
Through this process, we hope to achieve the following for our learners:
- Accelerated literacy and numeracy development at KS3, leading to learners being able to access the curriculum effectively
- Students at KS4 who have good habits of learning which are especially relevant to KS4 & 5 and university. For example, self-study, successfully meeting deadlines, self-motivating, resourceful
- Students who will have good habits of learning and attributes which will enable them to become successful employees and future employers. For example, in addition to above: flexible, reliable, collaborative, resilient.
- Teaching staff will become skilled practitioners (masters of pedagogy), with their subject knowledge taking second place (Sounds extreme, but none of us know the answers to everything, but that device in your pocket does).
- The school will be the top quartile for its family of schools and similar schools.
- A school that is truly preparing students for successful lives in the 21st Century.
None of this is easy. I’ve tried implementing it with various degrees of success. The change implications are huge and it needs everyone onboard, but this requires a bit of a paradigm shift in everyones minds. Someone said to me a few weeks ago – “but our kids can’t work like that, they don’t do well when it comes to working independently”. I totally agree, few young people do initially, but isn’t that one of the good habits we are trying to develop? They will fail at first, but these failures will reduce every time the learn from their mistakes.
If we don’t give them the chance to make those mistakes, we won’t ever develop the autonomous and flexible individuals that the 21st century demands. Isn’t that our job? Isn’t that what makes us professionals?