Staff at the Grammar School for Girls, Wilmington, decided it was time for a change. Six months later there is a real sense of staff and students working together for the future. Chris Love describes how learning to learn was introduced to his school
Towards the end of last academic year, faced with a multitude of curriculum changes, the senior management team (SMT) and staff at my school, the Grammar School for Girls, Wilmington, in Kent, decided that it was also time for change. A meeting was held to discuss the future of the curriculum with the staff. At the meeting staff were asked to brainstorm the skills and knowledge that they thought the students should be leaving the school with. Unsurprisingly, terms such as ‘independence’, ‘problem-solving’, ‘resilience’, and ‘initiative’ all came up. It immediately became clear that there were many common ideas that were valued among staff – but ultimately everyone wanted to give students the ability to be successful in life; to make our students lifelong learners. The next question was slightly more difficult – how do we achieve this?
Knowing the problems that we faced in achieving this goal, the SMT decided that we needed to think about how we could stretch these high-ability grammar school girls. The decision was made to start a two-year Key Stage 3 in order to free up time for a more flexible, personalised Key Stage 4 curriculum – starting in Year 9. However, the real danger of just changing the curriculum was that we were simply reducing time and not really changing anything. We realised that the timing of these changes, along with the imminent introduction of a new National Curriculum, was a real opportunity for us to think about exactly what and how we taught the students.
The idea of personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) was introduced to staff. The PLTS framework, part of the new National Curriculum, is described by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) as a framework for ‘describing the qualities and skills needed for success in learning and life. The framework includes six groups of skills: independent enquirers, creative thinkers, reflective learners, team workers, self-managers and effective participators. As a school we felt that this summed up what we wanted to achieve, and it was from this point that a curriculum working group was created, with representation from across school, to look at how to achieve our goals.
After much discussion, debate and research around curriculum models, it was decided that we needed to introduce some sort of metacognitive programme to help improve improving students’ thinking skills. A learning to learn programme seemed to fit this brief – allowing students to consider not just the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind learning. What followed was much discussion about how to introduce learning to learn – with a realisation that if it wasn’t integrated into the curriculum it could easily be a ‘bolt-on’ with little effect. Senior teachers from the school went to look at how other schools were teaching learning to learn and it was decided that discrete lessons were needed for the main concepts behind learning about learning to be taught, but these ideas then needed to be applied across the school. In order to free up time for this personal social and health education (PSHE) lessons were replaced with learning to learn lessons and focus days, where students are off timetable all day for PSHE activities. The next consideration was what to teach in the learning to learn lessons. The school decided to use an ‘off-the-shelf’ learning to learn programme produced by the company Alite. Senior members of staff saw the programme in action in another school and could see not only how much students enjoyed it, but the possible benefits of the skills being taught. The programme that we purchased also came with software that allows students to build their own learning profiles containing learning goals and their preferred ways of learning. This was equally appealing because, as a maths and computing college, ICT is very much an everyday part of students’ learning lives.
Having an impact
So what has happened since then? So far the learning to learn lessons that were introduced to Year 7 students in September have been successful. Students really enjoy the lessons and are learning valuable skills that they can apply elsewhere. In order to allow staff to absorb aspects of the learning to learn programme into their lessons a monthly newsletter is being published with the key content of the discrete lessons and ideas for staff. These ideas can be used in lessons for all students across the school. As well as this sessions are being held for staff to introduce them to the content and ideas behind learning to learn, and staff are being invited to watch learning to learn lessons. So in less than six months big changes have taken place. As a school we have by no means achieved our goals yet but, in my opinion, the changes are having an impact. Ideas and innovation seem to be more widespread. There is a real sense of staff and students learning and working together to build a better community of learners and a better future. Surely this can only be a good thing?!
Chris Love, The Grammar School for Girls, Wilmington