Laurence Ball writes …
As someone who works in primary education, I often find myself walking a fine line between the creative and the coverage, the educational experience and the mastery. These outcomes often seem to be in opposition to one another. In our bids to meet government floor targets, the temptation to simply fill children up with facts and hope they remember them is strong and the sense of fear various bodies and agencies create can feel overwhelming. So, is there a better way?
Having recently taken part in the ‘Pathways to Understanding Changing Climates’ project outlined in the introduction to this special issue, I have come to realise a few things which I believe can allow practitioners to reclaim their ownership of and creativity with the curriculum; ensuring both thorough coverage and opportunity for mastery alongside increased engagement and enjoyment for the children we teach.
It is simply how we use our school’s local setting. Children have a tremendous sense of place – think back to your own childhood memories. But to what extent do we actually use this as part of our teaching? As we took our Year 3 and 5 children out around Soham and asked them about the places which matter to them, engagement increased and an understanding of what children were learning about their environment formed links between Soham and our school. Get a child interested in their locality and you will get them interested in their learning. For our Year 5 children it was about developing an understanding of how the fens have changed and sharing that with students in Mexico. International links are a great way to cover various aspects of the curriculum and SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural) guidelines, as well as an innovative way of promoting engagement, enjoyment and learning. We saw our most challenging children happily writing letters and willingly attempting to insert Spanish phrases. From Mexico, children drew pictures and sent photos of their area and, as knowledge about their localities was shared, a bond was formed. No matter their differences, children on both sides of the Atlantic still have special places, still enjoy playing and above all else, an interest in football reigns supreme!
It is a tremendous way of bringing people together, even in a 30-minute video call, our children gladly stayed late (the Mexicans came in early) and as they left, the children were buzzing and that enthusiasm transferred to their parents. In all of this, though, were opportunities to cover various aspects of the curriculum. Children have tremendous knowledge of their locality and how it is changing and I firmly believe that by starting with this local knowledge you can begin to address broader global issues that children often struggle to grasp by starting with the places which matter to them most.
For example, an issue that is significant in our region is flooding and building houses in unsafe areas. Soham is built on land that was surrounded by marshes. It is constantly being drained to avoid inundation (I’m told that if you switched off the pumps it would re-flood in five days). In the face of changing climates, this drainage is likely to become ever more important and the question of developing further housing in the region ever more pressing. It is also contentious in terms of the cost of keeping the area drained and creating more wetland habitat to help support wildlife whose habitats are threatened elsewhere. Through working with local museums and local town planners, we were able to raise some of these questions with the children. We have been able to incorporate this work into our curriculum and are going to have an annual visit to the local museum to enable pupils to develop their interests in and satisfy their curiosity about the place where they live. By making the local environment matter, you then have a platform to engage and promote further learning (with relevance) across the curriculum.
In taking part in this project, I realised how essential it is to give teachers ownership and a licence to find the best approach for their children. As a school leader, I am tempted to impose set ways of doing things on my staff under the guise of conformity. While this is necessary to a degree, when trying to shoe-horn teachers into an approach, we can stifle their ability to teach, which in turn undermines their effectiveness. In this project I found that teachers need to be equipped with a deep understanding of the curriculum so that they were aware of all the maths and English they were covering by focusing on the foundation subjects. As our Year 3 children dug up the school field (the Caretaker has still not forgiven me!), I watched as they sorted objects according to criteria, carefully observed, worked in groups, recorded and mapped out findings. There was a huge amount of learning and application of ideas taught in class without an LO (Learning Objective) or WALT (We Are Learning To) in sight.
I have alluded to the further challenge here. As a school leader I must be brave to give my staff the freedom to make choices and be creative in a bid to empower them. The benefits are obvious: by supporting staff to have an awareness of how English and maths can be discreetly covered, they are able to teach the rest of the curriculum without guilt or fear of missed targets, because they understand how it all links together. Each of my staff has a unique set of skills and attributes developed over the trajectory of their careers and lives and I must endeavour to give them the freedom to use these skills to bravely go where no-one else could ever go; and to take our students with them on a journey of discovery that turns the curriculum into an exciting world of both familiar and unfamiliar places.
Laurence Ball is Deputy Headteacher at the Weatheralls School in Soham. Contact: LBall@weatheralls.cambs.sch.uk
This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017 journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 114). To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.