Teaching is the best job in the world – no day is ever the same and children are far more interesting to work with than adults. I started my educational career many moons ago, volunteering as a Teaching Assistant in a primary school in South London – and I loved it.
I loved the way you could shape young minds and the eagerness at which they learned. Soon after I was offered a paid job as a TA, and I worked across two schools in South London with very different challenges. One, situated in a very affluent area, followed by one in an extremely deprived area, and it was then I made my decision that this was the type of school I could really make a difference at.
After five years of working as a TA, I moved to work in the school office at a secondary school, which was a baptism of fire! The school office is its own ecosystem of efficiency and I found it very tricky. One chilly Christmas party, after several wines I might add, a teacher asked me why I wasn’t a teacher.
I couldn’t answer. I guess I never thought I could do it. That night, at 3am, I went home and applied for my PGCE and have never looked back. Fast forward seven years and I start my new Deputy Head position in September.
Teaching is a privilege. It is our job as educators to provide learning experiences for children which are both relevant and memorable. And fun! What is learning without fun?
When we reflect upon the things that stuck with us most throughout our lives, nobody remembers the run-of-the-mill lessons, we remember the experiences that had an emotional impact on us; happy, sad, excited or scared.
CREATIVITY COSTS NOTHING
To make learning fun can often be misconstrued as making learning expensive. I’ve heard teachers citing a “lack of resources” as reasons why learning can’t be enjoyable, but they’re wrong. An injection of creativity costs nothing but can prove priceless.
For example, if you’re reading >Kensuke’s Kingdom<, why not turn all the tables upside down to make a boat and spray the children to get them to gather ideas about what it might be like for Kensuke. If you’re studying inheritance, why not give the children jelly babies to cut up and demonstrate how characteristics are inherited through generations?
If you’re learning to measure, grab some ingredients and bake a cake. Furthermore, sell those cakes at school and get children to calculate money then write your baking instructions and there you have a writing opportunity.
Direct experience is essential in creating memorable learning experiences. There are so many free (or very cheap) places you can take classes to, to give them an immersion into a topic.
Museums, historical sites, areas of natural beauty, taking part in workshops are all invaluable. In addition, experiences such as going to a restaurant and then running the school kitchen for the day, having a child bring a pet in or having parents/carers/professionals come in to talk about their jobs, faith or life experiences provide children with fantastic learning opportunities and work to broaden their horizons.
Direct experiences also provide the following:
- Energises students with the excitement of leaving the school environment.
- Allows children to develop life skills through the transportation to and from a destination.
- Gives students the opportunity to see new things and learn about them in a more unstructured way. This is particularly important for those children who struggle in a school setting (SEN students).
- Switches focus to interest-driven subjects, not teacher and curriculum driven.
- The chance to experience a more holistic, integrated picture of the information that, in the classroom, may have only been presented in a textual and abstract way.
- Enriches and reinforces learning with superimposing sensory and intellectual inputs.
Something I would like to work on as I move further into leadership is developing independence of thought and, for want of a better phrase, ‘common sense’ in young people, through residential trips. I don’t believe a residential has to be just for Year 6.
All children could develop valuable life skills – which can be transferred to in-class learning – through activities like camping. Even if it is only on the school grounds. The most wonderful progress in children I have seen over my years of teaching, have been on school trips.
Outward Bound in particular provide fantastic experiences for children. The Outward Bound Trust (@OutwardBoundUK) is an educational charity that uses the outdoors to equip young people with valuable skills for education, work and life. They help them become more confident, more effective and more capable at school, through exploration into some of the most beautiful places in the UK (and the world!).
To watch a child, who perhaps finds classroom learning tricky, flourish in a real-life situation is one of the biggest joys I’ve had the privilege of seeing. And year upon year I see more and more of it, which truest makes my heart smile.
PROJECT BASED LEARNING
These amazing learning experiences can be harboured to enhance classroom learning. In particular, I love Project Based Learning (PBL). Too many students – especially those furthest from opportunity – are unprepared for the challenges of the 21st century and the modern economy.
PBL tackles this head on by preparing pupils for academic, personal, and career success, readying young people to rise to the challenges of their lives and the world they will inherit. Projects are cross-curricular and are worked on for an extended period of time, starting with a driving question and direct experience to apart children’s interest.
The driving question is a meaningful real-world problem to solve or answer. Students make decisions on how to go about answering it and what their final product will be. My personal favourite question (suggested by a 10-year-old) was, ‘How could robots change the world?’, and I was astounded at what my class came up with.
One, created a walking stick for the blind, which had built in GPS while another created a ‘happy watch’ for people with stress which sensed your stress levels and gave you practical distress tips on its screen (I mean, what teacher doesn’t need a happy watch?).
Why was this project so successful? Because children used their own interests and experiences to drive it. PBL also encourages collaboration between children and enhances children’s ability to work together effectively.
TEAM BUILDING WORKS
This brings me nicely on cooperative learning. I am also a firm advocate for Kagan Cooperative Learning (@KaganOnline), which is a pedagogy based on extensive research by the educationist Dr Spencer Kagan. This is a whole-school approach for simultaneously boosting student learning and creating a kinder, more caring generation of learners.
The basic principles of cooperative learning are that children are sat in mixed ability tables, where every child has a number. These tables are developed as teams, which change every half term.
These teams have opportunities for team building, which then allow children to feel more confident and comfortable when working together on a task. There are no hands up (to answer questions) as all children are accountable for their team and could be asked a question at any time.
The success of each team for each task is based on positive interdependence and simultaneous interaction. Teaching is done through the use of different cooperative learning structures, which allow thought showering, talk for learning and the deepening of understanding.
The structures are fun, encourage structured talk and also allow children to develop their social skills (how to maintain eye contact, how to thank and paraphrase another person etc). I’ve seen cooperative learning transform schools, particularly in areas of deprivation, but not exclusively.
I’ve been blessed to work with teachers who embrace this pedagogy and there is a tangible buzz of learning as you walk into their classrooms – that’s the kind of learning experience we want to offer children.
So, as I sit and ponder the school year ahead, imagining what the next step in my career will bring me. I smile with excitement, looking forward to seeing new things and continuing to provide memorable learning experiences for a new set of young minds.