Something’s up in Wales. The curriculum is being radically changed. Subjects are being grouped into areas of learning – all of which are equally important. Yes, the Arts are as important as Maths!
The curriculum is designed to place ethics and health up there with academic achievement and economic success as educational goals. Welsh language and culture are brought to the fore, but along with global mindedness and cultural awareness. It’s in and out, this and that. Some people love it. Some people are freaking out. Whatever your views, there’s no doubt that it’s a radical change.
Underpinning the curriculum are 12 pedagogical principles that focus on a child’s right to inquire, to solve problems, to collaborate and to take ownership of their learning. But they also trust teachers to develop a ‘blended’ approach, choosing the methods that best suit their goals. There’s a high level of teacher trust, scope for developing innovative practice and a belief that teachers and children together can become agents of change. There’s a lot of freedom and a commitment to challenging the barriers between subjects and developing some interdisciplinary practice. Music to my ears. But the thing about music is it can go out of tune very quickly. Interdisciplinary or cross curricular learning can very quickly become shallow and tenuous. Inquiry is only ever as good as the question being asked. If this is to work, the planning needs to be fine tuned and thoughtful.
So I find myself with Hywel Roberts in a Humanities classroom in Pembroke, working with the heads of Geography, History, RE, Business and IT, and Skills, explaining how planning works for this kind of work. I use two metaphors – Umbrella Planning and Plaited Planning.
Umbrella Planning is the model we see most commonly in primary schools for ‘Topic” or “Theme”. It’s where there’s an over-arching theme – Romans/Rainforests/Victorians etc – the centre and top of the umbrella. And different subjects use the theme to link as spokes to that centre. So for example, under the umbrella of The Romans, in Art they may look at creating mosaics; in Geography, they look at the extent of the Roman empire, population movements etc. It allows for more breadth, but the danger of umbrella planning is that it can quickly become shallow and tenuous. Hmmm. Music. Let’s make up a song about The Romans!
Plaited planning is more intricate. It starts with a context and the subjects are woven in as they are needed. It takes more skill and thought to plan in a plaited way – you need a lot of knowledge and an understanding that you can’t cover it all – better to go deep than wide and shallow. So you may begin with a context – a Celtic King deciding whether or not to capitulate to Roman demands. Or a Syrian auxiliary soldier, sitting alone on Hadrian’s Wall, feeling homesick. The story drives the knowledge. We have to know in order to help a character and to better understand them. Plaited planning can be brilliant. But it can unravel if you don’t have clear stepping stones and non negotiable outcomes along the way.
So back to our classroom in Wales.
The teachers have decided they want to use Katherine Rundell’s ‘The Explorer” as a starting point or stimulus for a unit of work. It’s a brilliant text, encompassing a number of possible areas for learning. There’s the obvious opportunity of the setting – the Amazon rainforest. There is an ancient city, hidden in the forest, protected by a mysterious explorer who intends to protect it from ‘discovery’. There are themes around our responsibility to protect coming into conflict with our desire for glory and recognition. There are themes of pushing past your limitations, trying new things and paying attention to what’s around you.
“You don’t have to be in a jungle to be an explorer. Every human being on this earth is an explorer. Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention, writ large. Attention. That’s what the world asks of you.”
It’s a beautiful, rich, well written text. So far, so good.
But usually the students learn the subjects separately. They would be ‘doing’ the Black Death in History, Antarctica in Geography, Creation and Ritual in RE, Stakeholders in Business. How on earth can they fit together under this book?
We start with an overarching question, lent to me once by a Year 6 pupil:-
“Would the world be better off without us?”
And the individual subject leaders generate inquiry questions linked to this that they think connects their usual curriculum content to the book.
Business/IT – Can eco-tourism ever be truly ethical?
Geography – Can we protect an environment forever?
History – Has exploration always been a good thing?
RE – How do human beings make sense of their creation?
And this allows us to connect to the book beautifully. We leave the Black Death behind a little and think more about how diseases were spread by Europeans to indigenous people, and how we might learn from this in order to ensure the safety of the tribal people in the forest. We think about how we might study the Antarctic Treaty and apply it to the development of a new one for the Amazon. We think about how ancient civilisations made sense of the world through their creation stories and how these stories might be left as images in the ancient city. We think of what, if the site was to be accessed, the implications might be for ethical business practice, whether local people would benefit and whether any kind of disturbance could be justified.
What if, we ask, once the book is read (there’s hope that this will be done in English, with key passages picked up on by the Humanities team) – what if, in spite of all their promises, the outside world finds out about the hidden city? What would happen? What if we were a team commissioned to conduct a feasibility study into allowing people to access the site? What would be the opportunities and costs? What would the children recommend?
What if they were asked to consider the two competing views in the book – “the world has the right to know!” and the view that man will ruin this special place – if they had to consider those views and make a decision about what to do? Who are the stakeholders? What is at stake from all those different points of view? What should the rules be? What can we learn from History in this respect? What can we learn from other sites around the world and how they have been developed and/or protected? What if they presented their findings to a panel of government ministers from Brazil (in disguise as their SLT team)? What if they called in witnesses to advise them – botanists and environmentalists for example (in disguise as their Science teachers).
What if, instead of separate subject assessments, the children are asked instead to use the book and all they have learned, to respond to that question “Would the world be better off without us?” organising their responses under the inquiry questions for each subject?
This is the direction we’re travelling in. It’s exciting. I’ll let you know how we get on…