Since 2001, when in the words of our Head Teacher, Patrick Hazlewood, we were to ‘…throw out the National Curriculum…’, our school has focussed on discovering how we might best serve our students in order to make them independent, adaptable and confident learners able to meet the demands of the 21st century.

By Lyn Quantick

Taking That Leap of Faith

Learning to learn is a vital skill that students need to acquire if they are to be responsible for their independent learning. In order to develop each student’s sense of personal responsibility and take the next step, we were prepared to put our money where our mouth was, so to speak. We could not have chosen a more controversial vehicle for this within the eyes of our students than to claw back study time from what they considered to be their ‘holiday’ – an INSET day. They were to work on a task during what was to be known as an Independent Study Day.

Luckily at St John’s School there is a healthy climate for collegiate responsibility and the first group of teachers called upon for help to implement this decision, were the KS3 Co-ordinators who meet regularly to share ideas. The teachers involved all understood immediately, that this was a chance to allow the students to exercise all the skills they had acquired across all of the subjects they studied. It is a measure of the co-ordinators’ mettle that all were prepared to step back and leave the choices to the children, whether it fell within the remit of their subject or not.

It didn’t take long to discover the only sensible way forward was to create an all-encompassing project that could be directed towards any individual subject or grouping of subjects, that could then be produced in any medium favoured by the individual child. An interesting concept; students used to working together to produce open-ended outcomes were now to be directed towards completely independent study, with the focus on a final outcome that would be assessed. For once they were to rely on no one but themselves.

Years 7 and 8 were to be part of this study day; Year 9 were to stand outside the project and concentrate specifically on their revision in the core subjects as preparation for their SATs.

Year 7, who at the time were working on their third module called ‘Making the News’ were relatively easy to move towards a task called; ‘How Will the News Today, Affect Tomorrow?’ Year 8’s task was to be ‘Eating and Recycling.’ During the week before the project was to be produced, teachers offered ideas that the children might wish to incorporate, however, the bottom line was literally that ‘anything goes’. If we were to put our faith in their ability to use their initiative, this was the time to let them know it was up to them.

Organising materials for over five hundred students brought with it its own logistical nightmare, therefore it was decided that each student would only be given one sheet of paper with ideas that they might like to incorporate in their project and then they were on their own!

That was the easy part! Convincing/encouraging/forcing students to comply with the demands of the school for yet more work in a time that had always been treated as a holiday, was the real problem to solve. I introduced the idea in assemblies and yet again, was only too well aware that we had underestimated the calibre of our youngsters; it appeared that they welcomed the challenge!

I have to admit that the pupils were lured to produce their projects with the offer of gift tokens for the winners, plus a variety of certificates that were to be presented to others worthy of note in various categories. The stick I waved was to spend ‘quality time’ with me to catch up with their peers if they did not deliver their project in on time. I must admit the thought of perhaps scores of students working to ‘catch up’, was one that I did not relish. With a certain sense of trepidation, the Staff Development Day arrived the day before the February holiday began… now it was up to them!

Many Happy Returns

The first day back after the holiday was a shock. Parents arrived in cars to unload amazing constructions and students were buzzing with the ideas they had worked on over the break. Amazingly, they were talking about their extended project alongside the ‘fun’ things that had occupied them during the break. In many cases they had chosen to work throughout the holiday rather than on the one designated day. What we had thought of as work for a day, had developed into a project that had held the interest of many students for many days.

We had originally planned to assess the work in a tutorial lesson, but the first week back was to be allocated to House sports matches and no time was available to peer and teacher assess. There was no way that we could postpone the evaluation of their projects, as daily the students became more and more excited by what they had achieved. They had completed their end of the bargain; the least we could do was to bow to the groundswell of excitement that the individual study tasks had created and make way for their chance to air their final products!

It was decided to collapse the timetable for a single lesson that first week back in order to tap into the enthusiasm of the students. The fact that teachers did not object was a direct result of the buzz that everyone felt was happening on the Lower School site. Furthermore, the logistics of a split-site school and the teaching commitments of all staff, meant that it was impossible to halt all lessons to include Key Stages 4 and 5. Therefore the teachers of the classes involved in Years 7 and 8 would be the ones who would evaluate the work, not the tutors. It was clear that should we again repeat this exercise, more time would need to be set aside for students to do full justice to each other’s contribution. Both students and teachers negotiated the criteria for marking and the best projects from each class were to arrive in my office for final judging… oh dear!

I was driven out of my office by the veritable truckload of excellent work that landed up there and I had an urgent need to dash out and buy even more gift tokens! The success of the Independent Study Day was there for all to see; it was outstanding. Out of over five hundred students I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of students who had not completed the task. Nor did I need to take them aside for ‘catch up’ time; so impressed were they by their peers that they all, without any pressure, delivered their own projects within the week!

The standard of work, the creativity of our students and the wide variety of projects, humbled and thrilled all the teachers involved. How could we have foreseen what had been achieved?

As for variety, well, it was as varied as the students themselves! Many enjoyed creating 3D models to make their point, papier mache came into its own, journals, articles, presentations on video and clay figures on DVD’s as ‘Grommit-based’ broadcasts, set the standard for all to aspire to. There were news broadcasts containing several interviews in different languages and huge pieces of work that could only be transported by helpful parents who delivered dustbins, huge models and complicated pieces of equipment. Students who found work in school difficult enlisted the help of grandparents, parents and brothers and sisters, so that they could all feel proud of their contribution towards the end result. In one case, a student with the lowest reading age in Year 7, created an incredible project because she had enlisted the help of her entire family and all had been excited by it! Others who enjoyed working alone let us know in no uncertain terms when they sent back their evaluation forms, that they delighted in running with an idea ‘without the interference of teachers’. Many parents informed us that their children worked far harder and put themselves under greater pressure than they would if working on tasks that were part of their everyday studies.

The Bottle Had Cracked Open

As our ‘experiment’ had been such a resounding success, the call now came to develop and extend the Independent Study Day even further. This would again happen with Years 7 and 8 during the collapse of the timetable in the final term of the year. During a three-day period we would try to employ any improvements that our evaluations had brought to light, to further enhance the creation of our Independent Study Days. Again, students were faced with a project, this time rooted in the curriculum area of citizenship.

Day One

On the first day the students arrived in school knowing that on the first and final day they would work in their tutor groups, and that for the second / middle day they would again be at home working alone. As they were expected back in school the following day to evaluate and display their work, there would be no extra days of a holiday to spend on complicated ideas and an element of added pressure. Only students who did not have access to a computer or the internet at home were allowed to use the technology available in school. This was a far more severe test of their resourcefulness as they could not rely on technology, except for one day for all students; whether it was the first day in school or the second day at home.

Day Two

The building was silent… however the fever to do something that could be judged against their peers was fermenting in hundreds of households..

Day Three

Once again the great reveal started from very early on in the morning, parents arrived, unloading projects, students clambered off coaches laden with odd shaped bags and boxes and all were anxious to see what each other had done. Having created these pieces of work students appreciated that this time they would all have space to display them. Again, this was an interesting lesson in utilising as many areas as we could around the building for over five hundred pieces of work, many of which were considerably larger than A4 or A3 and many that were 3D creations!

In the afternoon the citizenship theme continued as Year 7 raised money for LEPRA by line dancing and Year 8 raised funds in using various sponsored schemes of their own choosing, in order to buy a goat per tutor group for the less economically developed countries. The hectic day ended with an Open Evening for the parents to come in and see what the students had achieved.

Once again we were shown the incredible versatility of our students. We were able to admire their success and share in their enthusiasm. Of course there were students who could have done better, but what was of particular interest was the way so many of them stretched themselves so much further than they needed to have done. They pushed themselves and they had succeeded. This time they had worked without the promise of prizes and certificates. Perhaps that is the most telling success; they worked as hard as they could because they wanted to.

We had indeed ‘let the genie out of the bottle’. Once again we were reminded of just how much potential, creativity and will to succeed our students have. It is now up to us to keep that flame alight! TEX

First published in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 10 Winter 2005