Bailey’s Court Primary School set out to explore accelerated learning back in 2002. Here, class teacher and Learning Manager Andrew Bowman explains why and how they began their journey towards a more learning-centred ethos.
It was in late 1999 that I first heard the term ‘Accelerated Learning’ in a staff meeting being led by Bailey’s Court Head Teacher Wendy Davey. She clearly saw a role for a more learning-centred ethos in the future development of our school. We began to experiment with some ideas such as introducing background music here and there, and exploring effective ways to use ‘brain breaks’ to aid learning.
After around twelve months of discussing, experimenting, and reviewing, Wendy introduced us to a book entitled ‘The Learning Revolution’ (Gordon Dryden and Dr Jeannette Vos). It paints a picture of a school of the future which places children in the driving seat of their learning, and developing independence, co-operation and creativity at the core of its mission statement. The over-powering thought that struck me was that we cannot possibly predict what the adult world will be like for our current pupils, so above all else in school, we should provide pupils with creativity, vision, self-motivation and a familiarity of the ICT culture to enable them to approach an ever-changing world with confidence.
The challenge was how to begin to turn this vision into an every day reality.
Step 1 -‘The Big Tweak’
The word ‘revolution ‘can conjure up a range of images. Some people may immediately think back to the days of growing their hair and sitting on the roof of the college canteen singing. Other people may find it hard to see anything past the word ‘revolting’. Whichever way you look at it, the word ‘revolution’ implies that the way things have been so far is to some extent flawed. This implication could be hugely demoralising for professionals who have spent a considerable amount of their own time putting their heart and soul into a system they believe in. What we needed to initiate was a ‘learning evolution’ by simply ‘tweaking’ the good practice that was at the core of our approach to teaching and learning.
It was vital that every member of staff had a shared vision of the direction in which our evolution would hopefully take us, and so every adult working in the school was given a ‘learning’ book-let that could then be added to in order to guide our progress along the way. The first page was titled ‘Learning At Bailey’s Court: The Big Picture’, and contained a visual representation of our shared vision. As Dryden says, ‘remember jigsaw puzzles: they’re much easier when you can see the whole picture first’.
Our Learning Story
We wanted to create an ethos of ‘Independent Learning’ in which each child was encouraged to keep their personal ‘Learning Story’ going. It was essential that the environment supported this ethos, and so we set about ‘tweaking’ our classroom resources and the nature of our displays.
Independent Learning Resources
Many of the resources listed below are found in every classroom, so the ‘tweak’ came in making the children aware that they were learning aids rather than teaching aids, and that each resource was there to be used as and when the child felt it would help them to learn. We aimed to create a learning resource bank containing as many of the following as appropriate:
- Number fans
- Number cards
- Word lists (key words, tricky words, etc…)
- Laminated blank 100 squares
- Laminated blank concept maps
- Laminated ‘Look, cover, write, check’ sheets
- Desk screens
- ‘Koosh’ balls/beanbags/squash balls/ plasticine
Displays have long been recognised in schools as being an invaluable means of sharing success, but they are also ideal for presenting information and processes to the more visual learner. So as well as using our displays to celebrate learning, we also began to use displays to provide cues and frameworks to support the children’s independence:
- ‘Things to do if you are stuck’
- ‘Things to do if you have finished’
Sharing the ‘Big Picture’:
- ‘This week/half term/term’s Big Picture is…’
- ‘Today’s objective is… It links to… It will lead on to…’
Sharing our development as learners:
- ‘This week’s learners of the week are…’ (children and adults!)
- A child’s learning tip of the week.
- A learning motto of the week displayed as a screen saver on the class computer.
One significant idea that we aimed to instil in the children was that they should try to get themselves to a point where they were stuck. While applying their learning is always important to clarify their understanding, new learning only takes place when they reach the ‘Sir, I’m stuck’ point. The phrase ‘Stuck? Excellent! You’re about to learn’ became something of a motto to the extent where one boy insisted on raising his hand when things became more challenging to dramatically exclaim ‘Mr Bowman, I’m about to learn!’.
Pausing for thought…
By the end of ‘The Big Tweak’, we had begun to establish a learning environment in which:
Interactive displays were used to encourage children to think about what, and how they were learning.
- Children were encouraged to make decisions regarding where and how they prefer to learn through the organisation of classroom furniture.
- Background music was used to support learning.
- Resources to support learning were available to be accessed independently by the children.
- Discussions regarding ‘learning’ were frequent and spontaneous.
- The word ‘learning’ was commonly and comfortably used in everyday conversation between children and staff.
Confident that the learning environment would continue to evolve from the point we had reached, we began to think about how all the people involved in planning or facilitating learning in school could ensure that all pupil’s learning needs were being addressed…
Step 2 – Preparing to ‘Let Rip’
The fact that we all have different learning preferences is now well documented and widely acknowledged. It immediately became clear that the children I spoke to were, in the main, acutely aware of their own learning needs. After all, they are the experts!
Shortly after reading ‘The Learning Revolution’, I was discussing learning styles with my then mixed Year 5/6 class. I asked the children to choose what they perceived to be their main learning style (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic) and then move to a different part of the room according to their preference. Out of a class of thirty-three, only three of the children were unable to immediately recognise their ‘group’. We continued the discussion with the children sitting in their chosen groups, when a few minutes later I was distracted by the ‘kinesthetic’ table. Every child sitting in this group had subconsciously reached for their water bottle, pen-il case or ruler, and was holding, shuffling or shaking it as they looked or listened. I wonder how many times in the past I had asked those children to stop fiddling so they could concentrate?
This raised several whole-school issues: How do we ensure all children can learn in their preferred style or styles? Should we channel children into groups of similar learners? How can we equip children with the skills to cope if the teaching style does not exactly match their learning style? If a child is finding a list of written sums too challenging, is it right that we differentiate by giving them an easier list of written sums – would long term attainment be greater if instead of compromising the level of content, we adjusted the method of presentation?
There was clearly a balance to be reached between exploring their preferred learning style or styles, whilst also helping them to develop an awareness of the need to be pro-active in developing a flexible approach to learning. After all, the phrase ‘I’m sorry sir, I’m not an auditory learner – unless you’ve got that story on video you’re wasting my time’ is the tip of a very large iceberg.
Our conclusion was to address the issue in three main ways, which is where ‘Let RIP’ came in…
R = Resources
The thinking behind our focus on resources was very simple. We restructured the Literacy and Numeracy weekly planning sheets so that the ‘Resources’ box was divided into three sections marked V, A and K to indicate visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. When planning a lesson, we could then ensure that each of those learning styles would be supported, by making appropriate resources available for the children to access. Older children were able to choose a particular type of resource, understanding that it would help them to learn kinaesthetically, for example. Key Stage One children were still able to use resources that helped them to learn in a particular way, even if they were not fully aware of the vocabulary connected with this preference. In reality, providing three types of resource for every lesson was not always possible, however it did enable each teacher to monitor how well they were supporting all children over the course of several lessons.
I = Input
Lesson inputs are in the main verbal with plenty of interaction, which means that the more auditory learner is well supported. However, even with the use of visual aids, maintaining the attention and enthusiasm of every member of the class is consistently challenging. It would be interesting to make two lists: one showing all of the under-achievers in a class, and one showing all of the children who, during the whole-class input, are forever being asked to sit still/ leave Billy alone/ stop playing with the Velcro strap on their shoe (delete as appropriate!). In my experience, most of the names on one list would be duplicated on the other. This may sound an obvious observation to make, however looking at the familiar types of behaviour listed here suggests that it is children with a preference for kinesthetic input who become drawn into a cycle of de-motivation, inappropriate behaviour and under-achievement.
Here are some strategies we began to use to try to deliver a more ‘VAK-friendly’ input..
- Use the whiteboard to make informal jottings of incidental words used by the adult or the children.
- Allow children to make their own notes using the smaller whiteboards.
- Plan short drama or role-play activities to repeat the learning point, but from a different angle.
- Use an informal self-assessment system to frequently gauge the extent of learning through the input, and use this feedback to form a target group of children to demonstrate the point practically or to receive additional kinaesthetic support during the next part of the lesson.
P = Personalise
We wanted every child to feel that their learning was something that was unique to them, and something for them to feel proud of, excited about and responsible for. It was important that we gave each child the opportunity to connect new information with past experience and understanding in order to learn in a way that was relevant to them. We began to do this by…
- Building frequent ‘Talk Time’ into lessons of just thirty seconds to a minute in length, in which pupils can discuss with a partner their learning, and how it fits into the ‘Big Picture’.
- Providing opportunities whenever possible for independent and collaborative research and self-directed learning.
- Encouraging pupils to discuss their learning with the familiarity and confidence with which they might discuss their pets, or what they had for breakfast. They must see learning as personal to them: their own ‘Learning Story’.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for adults responsible for facilitating learning in a classroom is creating what could be called a ‘Query Buffer’. This is a thinking space between what we have always done and said in the classroom, and what we will do and say in the future. It enables us to question all areas of our practice and filter out things we do or say that may be hindering the learning of some children. The origins of many things we do or say may be rooted in our own pre-erred learning style, perhaps even in the preferences of a past mentor or colleague, or maybe it’s just ‘something that teachers always do’. For example, is it essential children sit at a table to do their ‘best work’? Can all children really read a big book most effectively if they are sitting on the carpet? If a child has misunderstood a verbal instruction, were they really not listening care-fully enough? Is there anything wrong with a child asking their friend for help if they are unsure of something? If a child is looking out of the window or spinning around at the back of the room, does that mean they aren’t listening? Developing a Query Buffer gives us space to ‘freshen up’ our practice, so that we can be confident that our good intentions aren’t being poorly served by our habitual actions.
The original ‘Big Picture’ for our Learning Evolution indicates that as with any evolutionary process, there is always a need to be moving forward. A place on the South Gloucestershire ‘Learning Through Innovation’ project means that we are now exploring ways to use ICT more creatively in order to support and communicate learning. A system of class and school councils now gives children a say in decisions that affect their life and learning in school, and an insight into how the world around them works, and we have begun to develop links with local industry and global communities.
Our experience has shown that possibly the most successful way to promote effective learning is by demonstrating it. We have tried to learn from our successes, our mistakes, and perhaps most crucially from each other. Maybe those are the key ingredients for keeping a ‘Learning Story’ going. TEX
Andrew Bowman began his teaching career at Bailey’s Court (Bradley Stoke, Bristol) in 1999. Since then he has taught Years 2, 5 and 6, and is a member of the school Learning Management Team.