In the third of our series of articles about the Opening Minds Curriculum, Imogen Willgress explains how a new team was brought together to plan the new approach to Key Stage 3.

Around Easter in 2001 all staff in our school received a copy of a paper written by our head teacher, outlining his vision for future developments for KS3. We were invited to respond to it if we were interested; those of us who did then found ourselves in a series of meetings which propelled us into a new way of teaching.

We soon discovered that we all had several things in common; we all cared about students as whole people, not just receivers of our subject area and we all cared about the delivery of our chosen subject. That’s where the first challenges came in – to deliver a topic-based module, which would provide opportunities for the development of the following RSA Opening Minds competences:

  • Managing Information
  • Managing Situations
  • Relating to People
  • Citizenship
  • Learning to Learn

Mild hysteria subsequently ensued and our Headteacher, Dr Patrick Hazlewood, tactfully provided us with superior refreshments to spur us on our way! Those who felt initially committed to the idea were treated to two days off site in a local hotel, where we were provided with our challenge to plan for the new Year 7 for September (and catered for amply as we worked!). Those who know me (and some know me a lot better than they did before Alternative Curriculum) will know that food is the answer to gaining my full co-operation so this was an excellent tack to take. It also made us feel valued because the management was prepared to give us the opportunity to meet without constant interruption, which would be inevitable on school premises.

Our individual skills soon emerged. I came to secondary teaching having trained initially to teach in the primary sector so had expertise in looking at a topic from different angles and matching the links so that a story could evolve, rather than a random approach. Others had the logical brains needed to record our evolving ideas and match them to the competences. ICT specialists were able to start work on producing spread-sheets showing the range of subjects to be encountered, the competences and the provision for multiple intelligences.

It was ‘mind-blowing’, exciting and exhilarating, although some of our colleagues gave the impression that we had caught some kind of ‘bug’ from the head. Too true, we had!

Although educational dialogue was forefront in the whole situation it soon emerged that we had made new friendships and were interacting with folk from other curriculum areas in a new way. We could focus on teaching and learning with the student at the heart of what we were doing, in a way that we would not have done when we were tied to being subject based. So, instead of being taught in fractured units during the day by a large number of staff / students were now experiencing fewer teachers. The team involved in the new curriculum were meeting and talking frequently so that our expectations of students were also becoming more uniform.

Some of the team needed more reassurance than others as we strayed from our curriculum boundaries and hours were spent on the phone in the evenings discussing progress and boosting colleagues. We had taken on such a lot in unfamiliar territory that it was not surprising that this ‘offloading process’ was necessary.We were teaching in a different way, following a complicated spreadsheet, keeping a log book for students to take with them from class to class and trying to keep spreadsheet records of what we actually encountered and any assessments that we had managed to do on the way. On top of this we were all teaching both KS3 and KS4 and some of us still had sixth form lessons to teach or management responsibilities to undertake. Looking back I can see that the sheer ‘buzz’ of being involved in an exciting, vibrant project was what kept us going and as it evolved our enthusiasm gave way to confidence in the new approach.

At the end of the first six week modules we met in our teams for a twilight session and spent a couple of hours reviewing the learning experiences for our students and the recording we were attempting to do. It was really fascinating to see how much we now had in common and how hard everyone was working despite their other commitments.

Teambuilding is a vital part of Alternative Curriculum for me and is not always easy to achieve. I had a long period off school last year due to an accident and when I returned the modules had been planned and I slotted in, almost where I left off, but because I have not been involved with the initial team planning I feel it has not got the ‘magic’ that I expected. As new staff have been recruited some of the ‘alternativeness’ of this approach has been lost for me.

One of the key features of the original programme had been that we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted with pupils (within reason!) in terms of delivery. We had some very successful visits to the local forest where we worked in groups providing activities from our own disciplines. Sharing a practical learning experience that encompassed most of the competences enriched the topic. Several years ago it was relatively easy to walk a class in their wellies up to the forest with extra staff (plus a car for emergencies).

Now Health & Safety regulations for trips are much more stringent and staffing budgets are tighter, so the spontaneity is largely lost from the situation and a potentially memorable opportunity is lost. I feel that these practical opportunities cannot be underestimated in value and anticipate campaigning for their return when we get to plan for this September.

Getting the subtleties of Alternative Curriculum recognised is not an easy task. At a recent Parents’ Evening we sat alphabetically rather than in subject groupings, but that was not perceived by the parents as meaningful. Every parent sought my advice as an English teacher for their child, not as a teacher interested in the personal development of competences as well as the academic growth of the whole child. Our parents need a lot more educating, as they are understandably quizzical when greeted with a teacher’s initials rather than a subject label and cannot understand the appropriateness of it.

Some teachers are more open to this way of teaching than others; you need to feel secure enough with what you are doing to allow the students to lead you into areas of interest.When I first started teaching in 1975 my infants were on a learning journey and in those days we had the freedom to discover whatever took our fancy so I guided them through all sorts of topics and they picked up the necessary literacy, numeracy and social skills on the way. Alternative Curriculum has been similar for me; while I have expectations about which way the topic will develop in my area I am open to suggestions from the students or other staff.

Teachers who are curious about ‘Alternative Curriculum’ often don’t appreciate the subtle differences in approach until they have visited a class and seen it in operation for themselves. A simple example of showing how students split into groups for working together can suffice to get the message across. We do a lot of group work and usually I will state my expectations of the group size and structure, e.g. mixed, no smaller than four, no larger than six. When several minutes have elapsed, if the groups are not completely sorted I will call for quiet, then give the problem back to the students to solve by inviting their suggestions as to who should move and why. With continual encouragement to respect each other I am constantly pleased by the sensitivity they will employ in moving people around. It may take fractionally longer than my interfering and dictating an answer to the problem but the solution belongs to the students and is respected by them. It gives them experience in several of the competences and prepares them for situations in later life.

Empowering our students in subtle ways like this pays dividends from a practical perspective and boosts their self-esteem, as they can take control of situations in their learning environment. I believe it is more helpful for another teacher to see this in action, or a plenary at the end of a lesson, than to spend time in an INSET Day looking at statistics and being told about the wonders of this approach. By tradition, a teacher’s classroom has been very much their individual domain, but now that peer observations are more fashionable it is easier to visit each other’s classes and share the learning journeys that are being experienced. It is important for our students to witness this openness between staff who are prepared to take risks and share expertise with other adults; thus showing that learning is as natural as breathing and is integral to all our lives.

Imogen started teaching infants in the mid 1970’s and then emigrated to Western Australia where she taught a variety of age groups in various rural locations. She now works at St John’s School and Community College teaching English and being kept busy pastorally as Head of Year 8.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, September 2004.