Staff at Park View Community School, Chester-Le-Street, describe how introducing a competence-based curriculum has enabled students and teachers to begin a learning journey

Park View is an oversubscribed, DCSF-designated high performing school which has both leading edge and language college status. Our last Ofsted report concluded that ‘Park View is a very effective school. It is led with vision and energy. A strong focus on how well pupils learn shines through all activities.’ Increasingly, colleagues in school had expressed concerns about the emphasis placed on passing exams, believing that students were missing out on vital aspects of learning because of pressure to achieve outstanding results. Although the majority of the students are well-rounded individuals who have a lot to offer the communities they live in, it was clear to many members of staff that we had become too accustomed to ‘spoon-feeding’ them as a reaction to pressure to maintain a strong record of exam results. As a consequence, students had become too used to simply accepting all the help they were given, and demanding ever more, without ever learning how to do things for themselves. We were creating a culture of student dependence that required levels of staff input and intervention that were not sustainable in the long term and were not suitable preparation for either further education or employment.

Re-engineering learning
In 2006 our response to this was to take advantage of the willingness of the DCSF to ease control over the curriculum in order to re-engineer learning, beginning with KS3/Year 7. A working party was set up to undertake this challenge. Fundamentally, we aimed to give students more responsibility for their own learning and to teach them to be confident of their abilities. The objective was to produce a competence-based curriculum for Year 7 across humanities, performing arts, art and DT. This had to be in place, ready for teaching at the start of the academic year September 2007. We also felt it was crucial to ensure that our curriculum would develop a shared language for learning between teacher and student and teacher and teacher, a language which is, as Ruth Deakin Crick has said, fundamental for personalised learning and which many argue is currently missing from schools.

Once the aims and outcomes of the project had been identified, it became necessary to outline a framework within which we would develop the new curriculum. The first stage was to research the various models available in an effort to identify exactly which would be most appropriate for us. We therefore spent time reading through the relevant literature, a major focus being the work of the RSA’s Open Minds project and the work of Guy Claxton on Building Learning Power. Staff also visited schools, such as the John Cabot Academy, which had already introduced a competence-based curriculum in order to learn from them. Once the research had been completed, a final decision was made about the model we wanted to follow. We focused on the Guy Claxton model, Building Learning Power, which focuses on developing the habits and dispositions for learning through the key concepts known as the 4Rs:

Resilience – locking on to learning:

  • Perseverance: sticking with difficulty.
  • Absorption: becoming engrossed in learning.
  • Managing distractions: strengthening concentration.

Resourcefulness – a flexible toolkit for learning:

  • Questioning: digging down into things.
  • Connecting imaging: making links.
  • Reasoning: disciplined thinking.
  • Capitalising: creating your own support.

Reflection – being strategic and self-aware:

  • Planning: anticipating obstacles
  • Revising: redrafting and self-evaluation
  • Distilling: applying what has been learned
  • Meta-learning: understanding own learning.

Reciprocity – the social/emotional side of learning: 

  • Interdependence: giving and taking feedback
  • Collaboration: being a good team player.
  • Empathy: listening, understanding others.
  • Imitation: learning new ways to think by watching others.

We were keen to use the opportunities within this radical approach to the curriculum to widen students’ horizons by incorporating specific curriculum links with partner schools abroad. This matches our overall aim to build an international dimension into the heart of our school. By the end of the summer term 2007 we were confident not only that the curriculum was ready to be taught in the new academic year, but also that all those involved were at best fully supportive and at least open-minded about such an innovative approach.

The resultant curriculum, ‘Inspiring Minds’, is based around the habits and dispositions of learning rather than content. Traditional subject boundaries have been broken down as humanities work together as ‘Explore’, art and design as ‘Design’ and music and drama as ‘Perform’. We encourage students to think about their place within the world, how they influence it, who influences them and how they can make things happen. To reinforce the link with real-life thematic modules are based on realistic challenges. For example:

  • ‘Being Me’, in which students, working as part of a ‘Recruitment Agency’, explore their own identity and their role within the school and wider community.
  • ‘Saving the Planet’, in which students, working as part of an ‘Environmental Agency’, explore the issues of climate change and get the opportunity to work with our partner school in Bangladesh.
  • ‘Sustainability’, in which the students work with a partner school to design a sustainable city in Saudi-Arabia, as a commission for a construction company.
  • ‘The Travel Agency’, in which students build on the work of the other modules to explore further the rights and responsibilities of being part of the global community.
  • ‘CSI Park View’, in which students explore the issues of good governance and the threats to democratic government.

A final project, in the summer term, will be individual and extended, based on the new A-level model. It is designed to utilise the skills, habits and dispositions for learning the students will have acquired over the year. We are now in the second term of ‘Inspiring Minds’ and it continues to evolve. We are using it as a vehicle to develop both creativity and enterprise, supported by our status as a Creative Partnerships school. As an enquiry school we work collaboratively with outside agencies, ranging from innovative arts group Melting Pot Arts to successful architect Tim Bailey. Students are encouraged to take risks, challenge the status quo and dare to dream as they rise to challenges such as ‘Design a City in 24 Hours’ or contribute to a unique art installation on ‘Being Me’. On the strength of our approach to curriculum development, we have also become a SEAL pilot school. The very nature of the 4Rs encourages students and staff to collaborate, to build relationships and to understand themselves and others and we are developing these aspects to integrate, across the curriculum, the ideas and strategies that underpin SEAL and support the development of a school-wide ‘wellbeing’ policy. For example, where small groups of students have particular difficulties with relationships or are particularly shy and withdrawn, we are trialling discreet ‘friendship’ groups.

Taking stock

Initial evaluation of Inspiring Minds is very promising. The BLP approach is allowing us to coach, rather than teach, students in how to be, as Guy Claxton puts it: ‘usefully reflective about their own learning journeys. Because they are doing this together, in pairs, in small groups and as a whole class, they are also developing collaboration skills, and developing a richer language in which to talk, not just about the content of learning but its process.’

A learning review carried out by external consultant Graham Powell, clearly indicated that BLP was having considerable impact on the learning of our students.  Relevant extracts included:

  • ‘… There is an underlying sense that they are becoming meta-cognitive and therefore better equipped to exercise choice about how they learn in a variety of contexts…’
  • ‘Year 7 students at Park View are extremely cooperative and willing to work in conjunction with others. They operate as extremely skilled collaborative learners whose skills are more highly developed than any that have been seen in Year 7 classrooms elsewhere.’
  • ‘Particularly worthy of note were the ways in which 90 Year 7 students were functioning together in the explore and library area for an extended period of time with their teachers acting as facilitators and coaches.’

Teachers can see the development in the students and the fact that they are increasingly able and willing to take responsibility for their own learning, to reflect on the reasons for their successes and failures. They are also increasingly comfortable with the need to give students greater freedoms and to allow them to make their own decisions, take risks and sometimes fail. We take great delight in observing them as they develop the habits and dispositions of effective learners and are frequently gratified to see resilient young adults, working cooperatively and flexibly, reflecting on their learning and taking responsibility for outcomes. An unforeseen but exciting development is the willingness and ability of students to transfer their skills. In a Year 7 CORE lesson, recently observed by the head of faculty, students were using the language of BLP to explain the learning that had taken place; teacher and observer where duly amazed and thrilled.

What next?

Planning is currently under way to move ‘Inspiring Minds’ into Year 8. We are also investigating how to incorporate the approach into KS4 and the sixth form, where the focus has been on achieving excellent academic results, arguably, at the expense of nurturing independent, resilient learners. At KS4, this will be eased by our adoption of a two-year KS3 which will allow the CORE subject time to develop a radically different approach to examination courses. The current rewrite of A-levels also provides the opportunity to take an innovative approach to learning at post-16. Obviously it has not been all plain sailing. The BLP approach brings into question our perception of our role as ‘teacher’, moving us into the role of facilitator and coach of learning. That can be an uncomfortable place to be. It also throws doubts upon the primacy of the very subject-specific content and skills which most of us, rightly, remain most passionate about. It necessitates that we address the students as learners in the widest sense and that, as John Holt puts it, we ‘try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever is to be learned.’ The real challenge is not the rewriting of schemes of work; it is to win the hearts and minds of the staff and provide the support and time which will allow us to engage in the learning journey with students. As facilitators and coaches we can, in the words of Mark Anderson, ‘guide them to an understanding of the processes/methods of learning rather than simply teach them…’

Park View School This article was written by staff at Park View: Mark Anderson Paul Arrowsmith Kim Cowie Alison Moore Sophia Knight

Sally Rix

You can also find out more about Guy Claxton’s Building Learning Power