Re-thinking Pedagogy: part 2

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.”

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3 thoughts on “Re-thinking Pedagogy: part 2

  1. Lovely post Neil – but I hope you’re wrong in your assessment of how ‘new’ this kind of thinking is. In the last years of the Labour government the system did suffer from having a prime minister who wanted to be chancellor and a schools secretary who wanted to be chancellor – but even then a number of people were talking about their successes rebelling against the production line technique that such leadership might have encouraged.

    However it is easy to get terribly pretentious about the role of state education. Obviously all those involved in delivering education wish the best for their charges, but how far can we afford to go? The bottom line, and that is what this country is about at the moment, is that we need young people to emerge with an ability to contribute productively to economic growth more than anything else.

    There is, of course, plenty of evidence that suggests that creating an appetite for learning, for the arts, for personal growth and self-expression makes individuals more productive and effective workers – but until there is absolutely no shortage of resources to gift this to everyone (which in terms of state funding is not likely to happen in our lifetimes) – sometimes we have to temper our ambitions to deliver a lower baseline for all. Therefore young people will still rely on their families, friends and other parts of the Big Society (TM) to contribute to their development and drive a personal appetite for education in many forms.

    Employers, such as Norman Pickavance from Wm Morrison Supermarkets in the Education Guardian this week, argue that employers know best what skills they need to drive business growth, but hopefully the provision will remain a little wider than that…

  2. I’m intrigued though in my experience, what is learnt can not be separated from how it’s learnt. So I have a couple of questions:
    – Do children learn to read and spell through exploration as well?
    – Do children learn to play an instrument through exploration and when do they do the hard graft of learning scales and the repetition of movements to make these automatic?

    • Your are right Chris, the two cannot be separated: that is the whole point. A learning environment that stifles interest will ensure that learning is very hard to secure. As for reading, spelling and music, their delivery is part of the broad and balanced curriculum that we must deliver as a state school. So there is a significant element of the negotiated curriculum that is non-negotiable. This does not mean that it is unconnected with the children’s interests, but that there is a clear two stage delivery. In the first instance the teacher leads a workshop delivering the specific skill (this is the non-negotiable bit). In the second instance the children seek, with their teacher, to find appropriate means to demonstrate their new understanding in context (this is a return to the negotiable default). Negotiated Learning is not a return to the child-centred learning of the 60s in the UK, far from it. Its blend of negotiated and non-negotiable outcomes, all informed by the most rigorous of assessment for learning procedures ensures that the children make optimum progress towards the standards expected, whilst maintaining their personal sense of motivation.

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