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Children learn best when…

Posted on October 14 2016

As a child I loved games:  playground games, skipping games, card games, board games like Risk and Monopoly, obscure data games like Logacta and, most of all, role-play games, where I could imagine being someone else involved in dangerous and exciting adventures.  My love of games continued into adulthood and, when I became a teacher, I wanted to use them in my lessons to engage and excite my students.  In this purpose, I was incredibly lucky.  As a young Year 2 teache, I was fortunate enough to be invited by the British Council to visit Ontario, Canada, to look at how imaginative and creative learning was used to improve standards.  I was part of a group of teachers who went into specialist schools to observe a variety of lessons and learning styles.  We also got to teach classes of children and forged some strong links with educational establishments.

Within a few minutes of one particular lesson, I observed that the children and their teacher (Miss Cartright) were involved in a full on mission to rescue the inhabitants of a village, which had been swallowed up by a giant hole.  Children who I knew well (some of them reluctant learners) were working in active collaboration with each other, sharing ideas, talking, drawing, writing and making plans.  My classroom no longer looked like a traditional classroom, heads bowed, teacher at the front, but more like a functioning workplace with people operating together as a team.  Learning was happening everywhere, all at once, not in a tidy linear way; objective, success criteria, activity, plenary, but in a complex, multi-levelled, environmental way.  It was emerging in all directions, both from the children and the adults, driven by the needs of the context.

For me, it was a revelation and I've spent the rest of my career learning how to teach like Miss Cartright and others who use this approach.  What I recognised that day was Miss Cartright and the children were involved in a game.  The rules were obscured by the way they worked, subliminal, not discussed or agreed, but there nonetheless.  This allowed Miss Cartright to create with the children an imaginary place inside my classroom, a place where people were trapped underground, and needed rescuing, and a place where a rescue team made plans, collected equipment and went into the darkness.  As part of my observation, I made a list of the curriculum learning that was happening during the lesson: making maps, writing notes and signs, planning, questioning, working in collaboration, discussions on rocks, soils and materials, light and darkness, respiration, lengths of rope, angles, distances, counting, adding, subtracting, and multiplying.  Early Years teachers will recognise huge swaths of the Key Stage 1 curriculum.

In follow up sessions, the children wrote reports of the rescue, newspaper headlines, letters of thanks, poems of remembrance, safety leaflets and instruction manuals.  Over the coming weeks, following on from Miss Cartright, I was able to teach almost the whole Year 2 curriculum through a single context and the kids loved it.

Fast forward twelve years and I'm working with a whole school of learners at Forest Park.  The context we have developed over this half term across a range of year groups has been one of a creative curriculum where students are able to imagine themselves somewhere else.  Examples include children being; an Ancient Egyptian, a Stone Age historian, a Maths Wizard, a Fairground Engineer or even a Prehistoric Monster.  Classrooms are filled with wonderful displays, dressing up corners and role play areas which enable the children to embrace in the topics they are learning about.

A lot has happened in education since I started teaching: the literacy and numeracy strategies, inspections, league tables, international comparisons, three changes of government and countless education ministers.  But what still holds true (in my mind) is that children learn best when they are engaged in their learning, when it matters to them, when its contextualised in meaningful ways and when they have a sense of ownership and agency.  The best learning I've been involved in has not been 'delivered' to a class, but built, over time, in collaboration with students. It should be explored, examined and argued over.

The curriculum at Forest Park embraces this ethos and the children are progressing as a result.  We renew our efforts to research and develop modern, engaging and effective teaching methods.  Ones that incorporate recent understanding of how the brain learns, help children develop the skills and aptitudes they need for a rapidly changing world and build on the work of our profession from the past.

Nick Tucker

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