Australian Autonomy: Primary Students Taking Control


Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Recently I read about the work at Wilmslow High School as described on Lookout for Learning. Their Innovation Day and creative approaches to setting homework made me think back to work I did at my previous primary school. My year five class were studying the topic ‘Australia’. We had completed lots of the usual activities/lessons covering a wide range of curriculum areas. I had linked maths and literacy and they had written some fabulous Dreamtime Stories that showed great imagination. But…I felt that there was an exciting learning opportunity being missed. Had I made a really interesting topic less exciting by teaching ‘stuff’ that I thought they ought to learn? I definitely had that sense of something missing but couldn’t quite pin-point what.

Then I met a fellow teacher on an SEN course and she showed me how she had used Bloom’s Taxonomy and theories on learning styles to plan a curriculum led by child interest and one that made use of their skills and aptitudes. Effective differentiation had been her main goal and she wanted so much more than just all, most and some. Her enthusiasm for what she had seen in her classroom inspired me to be more creative in my thinking. Taking her original template I identified tasks that the children could choose to do that would be linked to our Australia topic.

I decided to have an ‘Australia’ week to round off the topic. The children were sent home with the ‘plan’ two weeks in advance. I wanted to involve parents in what their children were learning and I wanted there to be lots of talk about what they were going to choose to do. This was useful because it allowed me to anticipate what resources I needed to supply and to structure the week so that it wasn’t a total free for all. To be fair to the children they didn’t need a lot of organising and there was very little time wasting because they were doing what they wanted to do.

As the week got closer I could tell a there was a genuine spark of interest. Parents were asking about it – some volunteered to come and help. We decided that we would need a celebratory event at the end of the week where children could showcase their learning to the rest of the school and to their families and friends.

So, the week began. I was very fortunate to have a headteacher who was very supportive of cross curricular approaches and he was very enthusiastic and interested in the choices that the children made. Soon there was a real ‘buzz’ in the classroom. Other children in the school were asking me what my class were doing. Colleagues were visiting and asking questions and the children were busy and intent on what they were doing.

So, it was great fun, but what was being learned? The list is endless but here are some examples:

Facts – I lost track of the number of children who said “Miss, did you know that…”

Problem solving skills – many of the tasks required the children to think hard about how they would use the available materials to their best advantage.

Maths – creating scale models and having to work out currencies

Communication – many of the tasks involved paired or group work at the children’s request. I overheard some of the most skilled negotiations as roles were allocated and responsibilities assumed. Ideas were shared and discussed with only a little teacher questioning required to ensure that the original task was not forgotten.

Research skills – use was made of many sources; the internet, library books, travel brochures, diaries and interviews with people who had been to Australia. The research undetaken seemed very purposeful to them and they were driven to find out.

Resilience – often things did not go according to plan. Materials were sometimes limited and children had to acquire new skills in order to complete tasks – especially those design and technology skills of joining!

Now that was the children – but what did I learn?

• That I can plan in a very cross-curricular way
• That differentiation does not have to mean higher/middle/lower
• That I don’t need to always be in control of every aspect of learning
• The importance of ‘purposeful’ work in terms of motivation
• That some children in my class had hidden talents

There were several highlights for me that week. Many centred on those children who didn’t always find learning easy but who found that they could use their talents to great effect and go on to teach other children and share their expertise.

I have great memories of the model of the Great Barrier Reef done in only three colours of modelling dough because that’s what I had been able to borrow from our year 1 class. The boy (who had been diagnosed with Autism at an early age and who found many forms of communication challenging) who made that was able to describe and explain all about the sea creatures he had made and what their characteristics were.

Then there was the girl who always hung back and never volunteered her own ideas but who turned her Aboriginal style painted fabric into a dress for a mini mannequin. It was a blessing to see her telling the other girls how she had done it and helping them to do something similar.

Two children worked together to make Sydney Opera House. They used templates drawn on newspaper by one of the fathers. Some people said that was cheating – I didn’t think so – parents became involved in what their children were doing and useful lines of communication were established that continued throughout the year to the benefit of the child. It was never a competition anyway.

On the last day of the week we held our ‘gallery’ opening. Parents, friends and others were able to come and view what the children had done. Shy children were seen explaining why they chose certain tasks and what they had learned whilst doing them.

So that was WWW, what about EBI?

Would I change it if I was doing Australia week again? Yes there are definitely some changes I would make – I would change some of the tasks as I now think there are some that were not very inspiring. I would make greater use of peer review and identify opportunities for greater and more creative use of ICT. But, I would not wish to change the ultimate outcome of children taking control of their own learning and being able to communicate this to a wider audience.

And in true teacher form – Next Steps…

Since this I have moved school and now teach year 3 and for a number of reasons I have not tried something along these lines. In the coming summer term our whole school theme is going to be Identity. My personal challenge is to devise something similar that my class can access and where they can show their interests and talents to their peers and to the wider community.

Any suggestions are gratefully received!

Carole Harding tweets from @Carole_XLIX

Carole’s bio:

My first career was in the Nuclear Engineering Industry but I took the opportunity for a career break/rethink when my youngest son was born. I worked as a Teaching Assistant for ten years and during the last five of those I completed my teaching qualification part-time whilst working full time and bringing up my two sons. I qualified to teach in 2006 and have worked in two primary schools. I have been a SENCO for five and a half years and I am passionate about making outstanding provision for children with special needs. I am on the senior management team and enjoy the resposibility and challenge of this alongside my class teaching. I love being a teacher and retraining was the best career decision I have made. I am always looking to learn and improve what I do in school.

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