Does combining SEAL, Philosophy for Children (P4C) and thinking skills seem like a recipe for effective independent student learning? If so, read Kate Mawer’s description of William Parker School’s curriculum development for Year 7s

William Parker School is an 11 to 16 comprehensive school in Daventry, Northamptonshire. In its first year as a specialist humanities college, priorities were established to develop opportunities for both students and staff that would impact on learning across the whole school. The specialism would support a sustainable improvement in achievement for all students. As Daventry, and its local area, is changing rapidly we were particularly aware of the need to develop our students’ personal learning and thinking skills.

Year 7 William Parker School TTS staff team

Leadership group member: Director of humanities college
Teachers to lead Year 7 teaching: Two history, two geography, two RE and one English
TAs and student support manager to lead the target group work: Two teaching assistants, KS3 student support manager, SENCO and educational psychologist

Learning Resource Centre team to provide additional activities:

LRC manager and assistant

Additional staff to be included in the circulation: All leadership group, all Year 7 tutors, leader of student learning Year 7, Key Stage 3 coordinator, all history, geography and RE teachers and AST

By early 2007 we had audited our needs and were planning on introducing a thinking skills course — Thinking Through School — and some staff were interested in incorporating Philosophy for Children (P4C) into it. William Parker School was then invited to be one of five Northamptonshire pilot schools to lead the introduction of the government’s Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) strand of the Secondary Strategy. This presented an exciting opportunity to lead change and show that initiatives do not need to overload staff and students, but can be managed by recognising the overlap of objectives to achieve sustainable progression for both students and staff. Our plan was known as the TTS course.

It is always reassuring to know that others believe improvement takes time. For me this moment of reassurance came about four months into the curriculum changes described below when a SEAL conference speaker indicated that, at her school, the introduction and embedding of SEAL would be at least a five-year programme. The model described below is not a quick fix; it is planned to have the desired impact on learning and teaching for students and staff at William Parker School over a number of years.

We identified the following objectives for the curriculum plan:

  • to develop students as more independent learners
  • to develop students’ social and emotional skills
  • to enhance the skills of teachers to develop students as more independent learners
  • to understand that independent learning means knowing how to think through a solution, not to work in isolation.

These objectives support the Every Child Matters outcomes ‘be healthy’, ‘enjoy and achieve’ and ‘make a positive contribution’. They support the Healthy Schools theme of emotional health and wellbeing.

Thinking Through School was our starting point for planning. It addressed the needs identified by the school and was published in a creative and manageable format. The resources were of high quality, allowing our staff to concentrate on selection and adaptation rather than using their valuable planning time developing creative resources from scratch.

Throughout the development of the curriculum plan we have ensured that our staff feel they are trained, enthused and supported and that they are not bombarded with jargon. Initially the team met to discuss the principles behind the three strands of the plan, with different staff leading according to the expertise that they brought to the group.

We followed this with an Inset day led by Anne De A’Echevarria, the author of the student text that is the centre of Thinking Through School. By splitting the day into two sessions, we were able to train all teaching and associate staff together. The motivation as well as skills achieved through this day should not be underestimated. It is a key aspect of our programme, and will be repeated next year with the new team.

All staff then worked collaboratively to write the William Parker School Year 7 TTS curriculum materials, ensuring ownership was achieved. The course combines overlapping objectives from SEAL, P4C and Thinking Through School.

Overlap of initiatives and transfer to other lessons in a Year 7 William Parker School example lesson

SEAL objective

Social skills and empathy

  • To work out how people are feeling through their words, body language, gestures and tone.
P4C objective

  • To develop enquiry skills required for a community of enquiry.
Thinking Through School objectives

  • To develop conventions for a community of enquiry.
  • To be able to express a range of feelings.
  • Feelings and actions are linked.

A brief lesson outline

The lesson introduces two characters that will be the focus for the learning over the rest of the course. Students consider feelings for one of the characters that are known and feelings that can be inferred. A role on the wall activity is used (for more information see Thinking through School reference below). Later students may use a variety of strategies to look at this in more detail, eg a saying, thinking and feeling chart or using personal character cards. The plenary develops the community of enquiry approach further.

A geography lesson later in the term

When studying the conflicts for the Yanomami, an indigenous group living in Brazil, the geography teacher asks all his Year 7 classes to produce a role on the wall for a 14-year-old Yanomami and Daventry student. He uses the personal character cards with these diagrams, allowing the students to experience transfer of the skills. Those students who learned the TTS concepts with another teacher are likely to experience the greatest challenge of transfer.

To maintain the team’s link, they met through the year to review the curriculum materials and to plan a training opportunity for the whole staff in June. The latter was to raise awareness further among the whole staff as to the student learning as well as the future development of this programme, identifying how all departments will eventually be involved. Following the training we had a number of staff who approached the team wanting to be more involved in next year’s plans.

The Framework for Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (QCA) may suggest to some curriculum planners that we need to move away from subject content and create additional thinking skills lessons. At William Parker School we have written this Year 7 curriculum plan with the determination to maintain the unique subject content and characteristics identifiable for each subject while embedding skill acquisition and developing the students’ ability to transfer their learning. We believe that this will support our learners to make more progress.

At William Parker School the Year 7 TTS course enables each student to follow a 23-hour course as part of either their, history, geography or RE lessons. The subject team leaders recognised the importance of the course and each agreed to release the time from the Year 7 curriculum. Students are taught in tutor groups. One teacher, let’s say a geographer, may be teaching two or three Year 7 groups, but may only be teaching the TTS course to one of these. The TTS course would be taught to the other tutor groups in either history or RE. This allowed the students in the group to learn directly from the TTS objectives with one teacher, but revisit them at other points in the week. Either, in this case, in their geography focused lessons with the same teacher or in their history and/or RE lessons with different teachers. These teachers would be teaching TTS to other Year 7 groups and will have developed the skills required.

The outcome is that both students and staff are learning to develop more independent learning approaches.

However, this is year one and stage one of the five-year roll-out plan. In 2008-09 the history, geography and RE teachers will use the objectives of the Year 7 TTS curriculum plan when developing learning and teaching resources for the new National Curriculum programmes of study for Year 7, but also adding new strategies to the Year 8 course. The aim is to revisit the ideas from Year 7 for the students to allow greater understanding, development and transfer. The Year 7, 23-hour TTS course will now be taught by a different subject area in the school to the incoming Year 7 students. This will enable another eight teachers to implement the plan.

For 2008-09 this will be the English department. It has not yet been decided which department(s) will lead the 23-hour TTS course in 2010-11, but during that year the English department will be using the TTS objectives in both their Year 7 and 8 courses and from 2007-08 the three subjects will be looking to develop the skills appropriately for the Year 9 students.

While this plan has enabled a few staff to develop the expertise in the first year it has been important that the students are able to relate what they are experiencing to other areas of the school and with other staff. This has been addressed in two ways. Firstly through the involvement of the Learning Resources Centre and secondly through raising parent and staff awareness of the programme.

The LRC has run a mixture of displays, competitions and student forum activities to coincide with the learning objectives covered during lesson time. Staff have been kept informed through the staff newsletter and an updated notice board in the staff room, which provides examples of the resources that staff can take away and use. Assemblies have been a useful way to raise awareness with students and staff, especially when follow-up tutor materials are provided. Parents of Year 7 students receive termly updates and examples of the activities through the school magazine. In addition a practical session was provided for parents to take part with their son or daughter at the academic review meetings. In 2008-09 we have plans to develop the link with parents further through the role of the student support manager.

As we approach the end of our first cycle we are looking to use our second phase of student audit results to evaluate impact. However, we do not expect to change things overnight. Four terms represent the start point for this five- to seven-year programme. We are addressing our students’ needs using a range of initiatives from which to select what is appropriate for our students at each stage of their development.

References and further information