My colleague, Kate Atkins has written eloquently about the philosophy underpinning our rationale for Negotiated Learning at Rosendale and Christ Church schools. Kate grounds her approach in observation, specifically the observable behaviours of learning. She notes that, “If you spend any time working with babies and toddlers, it becomes clear that they do not need to be taught nor persuaded to learn. They have an innate curiosity and desire to explore and make sense of their environment and the people who inhabit it. Young children learn an enormous amount in their early years, they learn how to talk, to build and develop relationships, how to get their own way, how to walk, run, climb stairs and manipulate objects to create a desired effect, how to go to the toilet, how to feed themselves. The list is endless. And all this learning is driven by their own motivation and supported by the environment in which they exist and the interactions they have with other people in their environment.
Educational institutions that provide for young children, capitalise on this and provide a range of learning resources; sand and water trays, bricks to build with, natural objects to explore, opportunities to paint and sculpt. They also provide role models in the form of the adults who work with children and also the other children who are present. These institutions recognise that children learn from each other, from observing and working alongside adults and children who teach them the skills that they need in order to complete the tasks they are interested in.
This type of learning is extremely personalised. It takes as its starting point the events and objects that children are fascinated by and capitalises on their interest in order to extend their thinking. Some of this happens through necessity. It is almost impossible to persuade a 2 year old to do something that they do not want to do but, given the right environment, they will be purposefully occupied at all times (even if that occupation is taking toys away from other children and seeing what happens!).
This type of learning also understands that there is a need to teach the skills and understanding necessary to read, write and be numerate. However, it does this by exposing children to literacy and numeracy through reading stories, writing cards and shopping lists, counting how many children there are, going to the shops and then teaching skills as and when the children are interested to learn.
It is unclear why this approach to learning stops when children go to school. The children themselves do not change but the education system around them certainly does. Unlike most of the rest of Europe, in England we have a belief in a much more ‘institutional’ approach. We set a very strict timetable and teach children skills in very large groups (usually 30). We then set them tasks in order to practise these new skills. Sometimes these tasks can be very relevant to the children but often they are without any obvious purpose. At this point many children stop being motivated to learn, they struggle to understand concepts that are without context or meaning for them or that they are simply not ready to learn.
This education system treats children like industrial components on a factory production line. It has a philosophy of ‘one size fits all’ and takes no account of the personal interests of each child. We seem to forget all that the children have already learnt and there seems to be an unspoken understanding that if we give children any independence they will choose to misbehave and ‘waste their time’ with meaningless activities.
Some educational establishments have made the commitment to extend the model of early years’ education. They recognise that a system that works does not need to be abandoned but that it does need to be adapted and progressed as the children themselves develop.
At Rosendale Primary School we have decided to take this approach. We believe that there are 3 teachers in our classrooms, the adults, the children and the classroom environment. As a result of this we train teachers and teaching assistants to have a deep understanding of child development, how children learn and the progression of skills in each subject area. We use a variety of strategies (including Kagan cooperative learning groups) to develop relationships between our children and allow the sharing of knowledge and expertise. And our classrooms are organised to encourage independent learning and allow free access to resources.
In our Key Stage 1 classrooms we allow children free access to various areas of learning, including creative learning and problem solving. Children are able to follow their own interests and adults interact to extend and develop their thinking, help them solve problems and model ways of and approaches to learning. Within this, there are several ‘Provocation Points’, which are strategies that have been planned to develop the children’s interests or expose them to new experiences or ways of thinking. These provocations could be teacher initiated, environment initiated or child initiated. Each adult holds 1 literacy and 1 numeracy workshop each day, working with a small group of children (usually 6). This group may be made up of children of the same ability, children with the same interests, friendship groups or Kagan groups. The content of the workshop will depend on the needs of the children and will be planned as a result of careful observation and assessment so that children are being extended appropriately. At the end of the workshop, the children and the teacher will negotiate a ‘follow up’ task. The aim of this task is to give the children the opportunity to practise their newly learnt skill whilst demonstrating to the teacher their understanding and emerging competence.
For many teachers this change in pedagogy represents a major shift in thinking and approach. Where previously, we would know exactly what each child would be doing throughout the week, i.e. the task that he or she is working on, teachers will now have to discover and address what each child is learning as the week progresses and respond to that learning journey either through intervention or planning. This process will be challenging. It will demand hard work and patience. It will cause us to reflect, but it will allow us to cater better for the needs of all our children. It will help support the most to the least able and challenge all children in a manner appropriate to their abilities. It will preserve the desire to learn that children have and it will recognise and celebrate their individual achievements and successes.”