Leslie Spencer takes us on her learning journey, inspiring learners to love learning. Are you prepared to have your preconceptions, philosophies and pedagogy challenged? A teacher’s tale of the ‘Opening Minds’ curriculum.

Before it began, in November 2000, Guy Claxton challenged the teaching staff at St John’s School to an innovative and inspiring talk, to justify their role in the National Curriculum. Senior management then began to consider the curriculum structure at Key Stage Three, particularly at Year 8 where there was a perception that students were not challenged enough.

Many meetings later, in March 2001, after looking at exemplars of good practice and conducting student interviews, an inset session was held. The  focus was to consider changes to the curriculum, in terms of what students actually needed to become active citizens, capable of meeting the changing demands of the 21st century. ‘Towards a Curriculum for the 21st Century’, a paper written by Dr Hazlewood, was distributed. Teams of teachers met and brainstormed ways to overcome the barriers to ‘real education’.

The outcome of these well-supported sessions was a second paper, ‘The Challenge for St John’s’. Teaching staff were invited to become part of a pilot project which would ‘mesh’ the core Royal Society for Arts (RSA)  competences of learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information, with aspects of the curriculum.

The notion of a ‘learning journey’ was developed. The focal point became the students’ educational journey through the day (and year) with teachers acting as guides,developing and nurturing skills and competences in a modular approach. Discrete teams of six to eight teachers would teach each group of students for a six-week cycle. The students would then move onto the next team of teachers, getting a new timetable and a new theme. Teachers would teach the initial themes three times, to three groups. A second theme would then be introduced and similarly patterned so that each teacher would see each group again. This approach, in the first year, would allow teachers to develop and refine the focus of the module, ensuring opportunities for assessment according to the competences.

The First Year

September 2001 began with a module titled ‘Tools of the Trade’, which gave a common baseline experience for all students in the pilot group. This wide-ranging module included a lead lesson about the ‘Big Bang’, creative art and creative writing, a health and safety risk assessment of an actual building site and a visit to explore@Bristol. The foci for the teaching teams was to explain core skills and competences, gather baseline data and generally integrate the students.

In the classroom too, the investment made by teachers was initially far greater in terms of planning and assessing (both their own performance and that of the students). Logbooks carried by students were used as a way to communicate amongst the teaching team on a lesson-by-lesson basis. The teachers would note what experiences the students had had that day. The focus was on developing the storyline – the journey of the student. Teaching methods (using mind maps, graphs, etc) were noted, as were individual comments about how far the group had progressed, what work needed ‘just five minutes’ to be finished off, or what skills had been the focus of a lesson. One of the unintended results of the pilot programme was the attitude to homework, dubbed work@home.fun. Teachers of the traditional curriculum referred to a homework timetable. Alternative Curriculum teachers used homework as an opportunity for extended learning. Setting open-ended tasks would result in students producing projects far beyond that envisioned by ‘homework’.

In essence, teachers of the Pilot Group felt empowered by the pilot and felt that on the whole, they were opening students’ minds to possibilities, rather than pushing them through curriculum content. The first year was deemed to be both successful and exhausting! New teams involving over 75 members of staff then needed to be introduced to the new manner of teaching and learning, as the project rolled from pilot to whole year.

The Second Year

Teachers agreed that the approach for the Pilot Group in Year 8 would differ from the ‘theme’ approach used in Year 7. ‘Schools’ would be used to unravel the integration of subjects and allow for the close co-operation of subjects with more com-mon objectives. They are:

  • Languages (English and MFL)
  • Arts (Music, Art, Drama)
  • Humanities (History, Geography)
  • Technology (Science, Maths, DT).

Inset was provided to integrate new staff to the methods and goals of what was now called the ‘Alternative Curriculum’.

The second year was more challenging than the first in many ways; the programme was rolled out to the entire year, teams were bigger and the pace increased. Some teachers taught more than one band and were learning 60 new names every six to eight weeks; others taught both Year 7 and the Pilot Group. Those who were thoroughly immersed in the teaching found that they were transferring the skills and approaches to their ‘traditional’ classes.

So, what is it like to teach the Alternative Curriculum?

As a teacher who was entrusted with the Pilot Group in the second year and who also taught one of the bands in Year 7 and served as a Year 7 tutor, it was overwhelming. Student induction had begun the previous year. Staff visited the primary feeder schools and engaged in a variety of activities covering several curriculum areas.

During the two-day September induction period, tutors and students explored their ability to work in teams and to solve problems in a wide variety of activities. These focused on the tutor group and the need to settle into the school routines. The students also completed exercises designed to identify their multiple intelligences and their self-esteem levels.

The second day was a whirlwind of activities based on a medieval storyline and following a group of friends through a series of “hands on” challenges. We were given string, tape, paper cups, a magnet, straws and various bits of paper which were used to cross flooded rivers, defend a castle, pay taxes with goods and chattels and rescue an apothecary!

Generally, we had a great deal of fun. It became readily apparent to me that students did indeed learn in many ways; some were best left on their own to puzzle through a series of potential solutions, others needed to physically manipulate their ‘tools’ and test different methods, whilst others needed to talk through options with new-found friends. Interestingly, no one was switched off and there was very little apprehension that is so common with new groups of students from many different feeder schools.

As a tutor, I spent most of September’s tutorial time teaching students to develop effective learning habits and to develop an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses.The students became more familiar with their learning styles as I tried to help them to translate what they did in class into the ‘competences’. We all discovered the difference between intrapersonal, kinaesthetic, interpersonal, logical, musical, and naturalistic learners. I discovered that I recalled more information that was vocalised and thus had a tendency to teach in that manner. I found that I varied my teaching style to suit the learning styles of those students in front of me – not always a comfortable experience. Students learned what their learning styles meant and how they could best be used and, more importantly, improved.

One of the many surprises was the variety of ‘packages’ homework came in. Students negotiated outcomes that suited their learning profile. They produced mind-maps rather than traditional reports or a storyboard instead of a rough draft. Students brought in home-made videos of news reports and emailed PowerPoint presentations with video clips. Assessment was interesting! As a group we self-assessed and peer-assessed. The students gave surprisingly accurate marks! This information was used to help shape their next assessment.

We often found ourselves the subject of visits, nerve-wracking for any teacher, but particularly for me, as I had not been a part of the pilot. The day before yet another observation, found me in the position of having just finished and assessed a scheme of work. Launching the new scheme of work wasn’t viable – too much teacher input, not enough of the students doing ‘their thing’. I asked the students to prepare a lesson for the next day’s conference. Using small groups to brainstorm, we developed an action plan with students taking on all the roles and tasks.

Everything was completed by the next morning with copies of outlines issued, (including expected learning outcomes) competences to be used, a hierarchy of learning styles to be relied upon and a plenary – assigned to the visitors. A video recording of the previous night’s sporting event was made with planned stops and activities. Different groups of students were assigned the task of leading and then summarising each section. The students ran the lesson, invited the visitors to participate and evaluated the success of not only their learning but also whether the lesson itself illustrated the aims of the Alternative Curriculum.

‘ Whilst giving up whatever free time I have may sound crazy, I find that lunchtime and after school activities leave me re-invigorated and my faith in students restored’ – Spencer

Invigorated by the students’ success, I began to experiment with lessons. When reading ‘Pig-Heart Boy’, I co-ordinated with a Biology teacher and prepared a series of lessons that focused on developing an understanding of the heart’s structures and functions, with diagrams and discussion. This culminated with an ‘English’ lesson, focusing on dissecting a heart and comparing the process to that described in the text.

When exploring the effect of poverty on children in developing nations, compared with that experienced in pre-industrial England, lessons occurred where the focus was on skill development and re-creating a ‘real’ world experience of poverty with the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots’. Mixed groups with uneven resources had to negotiate with the ‘bank’ (me) or with each other, with some students needing to barter and trade their ‘goods’ for scissors or other tools of the trade. This tested students abilities to ‘think outside the box’ and form alliances and trading blocks to accomplish the goals. Reading about similar experiences in developing nations and Victorian England suddenly had new meaning.

‘As a teacher, I think that it is important not to become stagnant or wedded to one approach of delivering curriculum content’ – Spencer

These approaches to the curriculum are not limited to Key Stage 3. I found myself taking the same skills – and the same expectations – into Key Stage 5 classes. I recall walking into a Year 12 Law class, armed with the usual paraphernalia of sugar paper, scissors, glue sticks, tape recorders, a laptop, flash drive, index cards, paper and pens. I asked the students to work as a pair with another student with the same learning style, (not necessarily a friend) in order to revise concepts covered earlier. The students were stymied by the instruction.Few had ever thought through how they personally learned best and were reluctant to work with peers outside their friendship circle. Two years later, their revision notes are as varied as they are – mind maps, index cards, audiotapes, PowerPoint presentations and the ever present sheets of sticky notes, which are posted on different walls of the room and, when the students get home, on the back of their toilet doors!

It is still too soon to determine if this programme of study has any ‘real’ effect on the students in terms of exam results (the Pilot Group are just now finishing Year 10 and are taking some GCSEs early) but in terms of extra-curricular activities, I have seen a much bigger uptake of those events requiring higher-order thinking skills. Having offered to run after school and lunchtime activities such as ‘The Citizenship Foundation’s Magistrates’ Court Mock Trial Competition’, I have been impressed with the increase in the number and dedication of students who wish to participate. Additionally, those who have participated returned again the next year, eager to have another chance to be involved. Those who are no longer eligible, due to age restrictions, have found other competitions to enter and have organised their own internal debates. Whilst giving up whatever free time I have may sound crazy, I find that these lunchtime (and after school) activities leave me re-invigorated and my faith in students restored.

As a teacher, I think that it is important not to become stagnant or wedded to one approach of delivering curriculum content. The changes in approach offered by the Alternative Curriculum are demanding. I worry about spelling and punctuation skills; trying to fit in grammar, word, sentence and text level exercises is challenging.

Would I be prepared to undertake such a journey again? Am I prepared to have my preconceptions, my philosophies and pedagogy challenged? Am I prepared to search further and longer in order to support such a belief?

Yes – resoundingly, yes. TEX

First published in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 9 Autumn 2005