Painting the Bigger Picture

A decision this week by one of Scotland’s 32 local authorities to delay the introduction of new national qualifications has re-ignited the debate over the implementation of the revised curriculum guidelines, and raises a number of important issues. With one media commentator referring to the aforementioned council as a ‘flagship authority’ (one wonders in what sense an authority which is, by its own admission, unprepared for changes it has known about for at least two years can be described as a ‘flagship authority’), you have to ask yourself whether those in the mainstream media have really made an effort to understand the extent of the changes, or whether they are happy to perpetuate the simple notion that successful educational outcomes and good exam results are one and the same thing. This kind of conservatism is disappointing, though hardly surprising, but increasing resistance from some within the secondary sector begs the more serious question of whether real change and ‘joined-up learning’ can actually be achieved in our secondary schools within the restricting constraints of timetables which send young people on a daily tour of subject departments.

Big History Naked from bgC3 on Vimeo.

This question was uppermost in my mind again today when a friend on Twitter directed me to the Big History Project, a scheme described as ‘an attempt to understand, in a unified way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity’, initiated by the Anglo-American historian Dr David Christian and supported by Bill Gates. I suppose it may be asking too much that all our young people leave school with a complete understanding of life and the history of the universe, but wouldn’t it be good if we were able to give them more of the bigger picture than a few random pieces of the jigsaw?

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Warning. Joined-Up Learning Ahead

I’ve just been reading about a really interesting experiment in Kirn Primary School in Dunoon on the west coast of Scotland. Faced with a reducing number of full-time staff, supplemented by an increasing number of part-time teachers who had been re-deployed from other schools with falling roles, the headteacher decided to play to the strengths of his team, while providing stability and continuity to the learners. An early years and first level ‘department’ was created for P1 – P4, staffed by full-timers, where the nurture and support so critical for youngsters in the early stages of schooling would not be compromised. From P5 – P7, however, the learning would take place in what are described as ‘subjects’, with part-time teachers offering specialist topics to each of the classes in turn, according to their own (that is, the teacher’s) strengths and interests.

The gamble seems to be paying off. One of those part-time teachers, who specialises in music and RME, describes how she and the children worked on a school production called The Peace Child, where they had to pull together all the aspects of theatrical production while exploring the theme of conflict resolution, and where they now had ‘time and space to reflect on their learning’. The six-week block of time allowed them a greater element of personal choice, and the opportunity to explore in greater depth aspects of the topic which had a special appeal. A welcome by-product of the new way of working has been an increase in the amount of outdoor education offered to the pupils  – surely a welcome development at a time when Play England reports that 42% of children in England and Wales have never made a daisy chain and 32% have never climbed a tree; there’s no reason to believe that the figures for Scotland would be very much healthier.

One particularly interesting – and slightly curious – aspect of this story for me is that the headteacher himself describes the six-week blocks which teachers offer as ‘subjects’, causing the TESS, where the story was reported this week, to wonder:

“But the solution does seem to go against the grain of recent experience, where separate departments in the secondary school, as well as rigid timetables, are making the new curriculum harder to implement there.

It also seems contrary to conventional wisdom that the primary-secondary transition is problematic for pupils, because one teacher and a close relationship become many teachers, who flit in and out of their lives. Surely forcing that transition earlier can’t be an improvement?”

The reason for this concern and confusion, in my opinion, is in the terminology. Potentially, what Kirn seems to be offering here is successful project-based learning, the very antithesis of learning in ‘subjects’. The learners are engaged in one topic at a time,  over a relatively short period of time, with one teacher, not many. In other words, it is nothing like a secondary model. Other schools have experimented with versions of the ‘rich tasks’ approach with mixed results, but this is one experiment which should definitely be worth watching.

This is the Common Craft team’s take on Project Based Learning: