I began work today with my focus group for Learning Agreement time, and after my reflections yesterday I decided to use the session to test the water a bit in terms of their thinking. We discussed some previous Learning Agreement Projects they had undertaken, and what they thought they had got out of them. This lead to a discussion of the choice of people they might work with on a project and I introduced to them the idea of working in groups based on subject interest. They could see the merits of this, but were largely concerned with behaviour issues rather than any particular skills or motivations the group members may have.
What quickly became apparent is that the members of this group found it very difficult to think in an abstract way about projects and the process they were going through when undertaking them. We began mind mapping some ideas for possible projects, and considering what we might need to be able to achieve them as part of the ideas generation process. This was a challenge to their thinking, as once they had begun to have any detailed thoughts about resources they had conceptually accepted an idea as being what they were going to undertake.
This discussion demonstrated to me the challenge they face in taking something as complex as a project and thinking about it in the abstract; further supporting my idea for a framework to help guide their thinking. I have decided for now to split it into three main stages; ‘Planning’, ‘Doing’ and ‘Sharing & Reflecting’. The difficulty with a project based approach to what what we are trying to achieve is that the term projects implies an importance to a finished product rather than a process, and this focus on finished products has undoubtedly held back the learning in some of the projects we have undertaken to date. This places the majority of the emphasis on the ‘Doing’ stage, something which was expressed by the children I worked with this morning.
As we are aiming for ‘negotiated learning’, and dedicating a significant chunk of the timetable to this end, the ‘Planning’ stage is crucial. With this investment the stakes are too high to simply settle for children learning ‘soft skills’ such as group work strategies and time management (not that these do not have an importance). Ultimately we need to be able to provide achievement of National Curriculum outcomes through these projects, and thus the ‘Planning’ stage is a crucial dialogue between the learners and the teachers about what the possibilities for learning are within the project, and what needs to be learned to make it worthwhile. It is this stage which in many ways should make our ‘negotiated learning’ stand out from the traditional curriculum. By negotiating rigorous learning outcomes with the teacher the children should be reflecting on their own learning from the very start, and therefore be explicitly aware of the process of learning throughout, rather than simply reflecting on whether they have learned what the teacher intended them to in a traditional ‘Assessment for Learning‘ style. To me, this is where the crux of negotiated learning lies and getting this aspect right will make the difference between ’21st Century child initiated learning’ and ‘woolly 1970s project work’.
The ‘Doing’ stage is the one I have so far given the least thought to. If we initiate reflective thinking in the first stage and negotiate a high quality plan and learning outcomes then this stage should to my mind seem quite straightforward. We will of course need some mechanisms built into the framework to encourage revisiting, reflection on, and revising of the planning. No doubt achieving this will require a lot of teacher input at first, but hopefully this can be reduced in this area and focused on the first and last stage to allow children to develop their independent skills.
The final stage, ‘Sharing and Reflecting’ should certainly be more than a brief plenary activity. A big part of my thinking around child centered learning is authentic outcomes, and thus sharing the work they have produced, but more importantly the learning that has taken place, is paramount to this. Perhaps as part of the planning we need to consider a target audience for the project, for in order to make the learning truly authentic it needs to be shared with appropriate people. The Reflecting phase should obviously include revisiting the ‘Planning’ and the ‘Doing’ stages and see how they contributed to learning outcomes. It should also consider any unanticipated learning that has gone one, and include some kind of recording of the reflections. To my mind the hallmark of negotiated learning in this stage is identifying not just how the project could be improved in a traditional evaluation, but looking at the learning and seeing what the next steps in these areas are. These steps may not be seen in terms of how the project outcomes could be improved if it was repeated, but instead a more fluid reflection on where the participants are as learners and how the learning they have experienced in this project could feed into future learning in other future experiences. This could be another stage where the rigour of learning could be significantly addressed, and married to the traditional outcomes of structures like the National Curriculum.
I recognise this is ambitious and will no doubt take some time, and the facing of many challenged to implement. However, I truly believe that if the aims of a negotiated learning curriculum can be achieved we will be preparing young people for a lifetime of learning, something which will be crucial to their success in the world they are growing into. Currently my framework is a skeleton, but I intend to develop it as I work with the children in my year group, hopefully collaborating with them as much as possible to develop it as a tool to help them take control of their learning.
Neil Hopkin and Lisa Matthews describe negotiated learning at our school.
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