Problems with timetabled learning

Tweet from @ianaddison: Tweet from ian addison(@ianaddison) Fave QCA example: We must do 6 weeks of email in year 3. 6 weeks!!! @charliedeane’s sch does it as part of her egypt topic! #ukedchat

I noticed this tweet this evening and it really got me thinking. The idea of doing email in a discrete unit of 6 weeks is obviously crackers. It is a communication tool which is best taught in an integrated way in the long term, and for meaningful uses. To teach it once in a big block out of context and then not return to it until the following year is antithetical to the nature of such a tool.

However, how much do we do this with non tech tools? Those following the current Primary Framework for Mathematics in the UK will be familiar of the idea of returning often to different areas of the curriculum to embed and extend knowledge in a natural way, but in most other subjects this doesn’t seem to happen. I think this problem is especially prevalent in Literacy in Primary schools, where certain types of writing (eg persuasion) are taught in one block and then left until the next year. To my mind this just doesn’t fit with how learning works, and the notion that certain styles of writing are needed for certain times. I would much rather my pupils learnt to write persuasively when the need arises for them to do so for a real purpose, not just because I have created a purpose to fit with the timetable of our school year (lets not even go into teaching them to do it without giving a truly authentic purpose, as I suspect many do).

Learning is useless without the ability to apply it, and a big part of applying this type of learning is recognising just when to do so. It is so much harder to decide to apply a certain writing style because you want to achieve a certain effect than applying it because your assessment question uses the magic word ‘persuade’.

The more I work with negotiated and project based learning the more I see that the really hard part for children is not learning what we traditionally see as ‘the curriculum’. The hard part is making those links that will let them actually make use of that learning in their lives. Teaching everything in neat little blocks does little to address this most important of aims.

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19 thoughts on “Problems with timetabled learning”

  1. This doesn't happen in my class! I teach the literacy subject and then I return to it later when appropriate to support topic work. We just finished persuasion – culminating in writing a letter to David Cameron (I just posted a batch of 33 of the best letters I have ever seen children write – hope we get a reply) – we will be returning to it in 2 weeks to write a persuasive leaflet on the benefits of healthy eating. This is a big part of “Big Writing” and is also necessary if you want to do APP properly.
    I'd say I have this problem in science more than anything else. Those topics rarely seem to present themselves outside of the science lessons (eg where could dissolving come up again? whereas you might refer back to the Ancient Greeks if you start discussing democracy or differences between cultures or whatever) Maybe this is because I don't have much of a science background so don't see where it fits as readily as I do my stronger subjects.
    Interesting thoughts and I definitely think making links and knowing how to apply skills is crucial to learning.

    1. oliverquinlan

      This sounds like very good practice, but i think where I am coming from is that to be truly relevant I believe it needs to be less structured than that. You are still presenting them with the scenario, for them to really make links they need to identify the scenario themselves when it comes up, rather than whenyou want hem to learn it. Now to achieve this requires one to give them he chance to explore learning and scenarios in a very free way, which i am lucky to have the remit of doing for the first hour of ever day.

      The point you make about only seeing the links readily in our stronger subjects is a veer interesting one. It also links to my point that for really valuable learning to have taken place you have to have been able to see the links. It is also perhaps testament to the irrelevance of some content in the primary science curriculum!

      I think we really need to fundamentally rethink how we organize (or don't organize) the learning in our schools to really allow child directed construction of these vital links. My crucial point is it should be when they need it, not when we tell them they need to learn it. Allowing children to explore what learning it is they need is the challenge for schools.

      1. I see. So I would say something along the lines of explaining about how people don't know how to stay healthy or don't want to, what could we do, then they suggest writing a persuasive leaflet? That is harder to arrange! In ICT they do often ask if they can make a powerpoint or an information page when we are doing research and spontaneously make their own Wallwishers etc.
        The trouble is a lot of what they need to learn now they don't actually *need* to learn. Why would they need to learn about older literature? It's fun…it is useful in later life…but *right now* why do they need it? We can make it fun and engaging so they *want* to learn it but a lot of the time I don't think they would identify the need in the way that we as educators know is there.
        Does that make sense? I'll be interested if you have ideas of how we can introduce topics like newspapers, diaries, narrative especially. Instructions and explanations etc I can readily see how they would identify a need if we craft a suitable scenario. Interesting!

        1. I just thought of a time when this did happen – we were learning about sweatshops and discussing how we could find out whether a company paid its workers fairly. This led on very naturally to children wanting to write letters to the clothing companies that they use to ask whether they treat workers well and to write reports about it, so I set that as their homework for the week.

          1. oliverquinlan

            That's exactly what I'm talking about, a provocation to learning that they can take in their own way. That's how you make links, that's how you learn in the real world outside of the artificial construction of 'schools'. Personally I'd have loved to give them lesson time for that, and equally allow those that weren't bothered about letter writing to respond to it in another way.

          2. Yes I gave a choice – write a letter or email, or research a company and write a report about it. We didn't do it in class as we already had lots on and I thought it would be good to give an interesting homework topic that children could discuss with parents and enjoy doing. I got several letters, some typed reports, some printouts from websites and some information leaflets they'd designed.
            I will definitely be thinking about all this heading into next year!

          3. oliverquinlan

            Sounds good! I've been thinking about this a lot as our first hour of every day this year has been 'Learning Agreement Time', where children can initiate their own projects. You've helped my crystallize some of my thinking tonight through discussing it so thanks!

          4. The best lesson I ever taught was about school opening for compulsory education on a Saturday, during my final PGCE placement. It's a common context (and very contrived) but I did it so effectively that children across the whole school (and particularly reluctant writers) wrote persuasive letters to the headteacher, urging her not to open school at the weekend.

            The end result? A satisfactory lesson apparently (according to the headteacher)… but in my mind, the fact that children felt an urge to write was far more satisfying than any amount of: display clear learning objective, tell children what to do, make them do it, compare them to APP criteria, tick the box, and move on!

            The head had to admit this later in the day when, although she let the lesson grading stand, she agreed that noone had made those children write quite as enthusiastically as that for a long time.

          5. oliverquinlan

            Ah, the joys of PGCE gradings from people who think their way of doing things is the only way…

            Contrived can certainly be very effective, but what I'm arguing is that to move to the next level of effectiveness and relevance I think we need to do a big rethink.

        2. oliverquinlan

          I just edited my above comment to add an example as you were replying, hopefully might make what I am suggesting a bit clearer.

          If they don't need to learn it then they shouldn't be learning it (unless they want to- that is a need too!). We need to look at our curriculum. I really think Primary Education should be about learning to be a lifelong learner rather than learning content. If children miss out on 'The Planets' topic, but gain skills in lifelong learning it will take them a very short time to learn it for themselves when they develop an interest for it, or need it in later life.

          I recognise the challenge is that as educators we might be able to identify the usefulness of things much more readily than children will, due to our experience of what they will need in the long term. Facilitating their learning in areas like this is one of the many challenges of co constructing a curriculum I think.

          At the moment I think Early Years practice is the way forward with this. Provide a stimulating environment with provocations for learning, allow freedom and ownership, and make sure pupils are meaningfully engaged in what they are doing and powerful learning will happen. Much more powerful than some of them sitting not listening to me directing them to learn about a certain Tudor King.

          In terms of the specific examples you mention I think the way forward is to present them with exciting, engaging examples of the real things such as newspapers, and see if it grabs them and how they decide to run with it. Maybe it won't and they won't run with it, and they will not cover newspapers at that exact time. That means they are missing out on the 'curriculum' in a sense. But lets be honest, if decent newspapers that are appropriate for them don't grab certain children, are they really going to be engaged and learn much if you just plough on and teach it to them anyway? I think not, and they will end up 'knowing' a few things about writing newspapers, but having no concept of their relevance and little 'understanding', which to me is the most important thing.

    2. This is great but:

      You are already stating that doing APP properly is your focus making the learning assesment driven;

      and, how many children across the land write letters to David Cameron a week? Millions. Very contrived!

      1. I didn't say doing APP was my focus! It has to be done and if you don't revisit genres later independently you would not be able to do it. That is my point. I would do it anyway even if we didn't have APP as I like to use skills where they are useful and appropriate.

        AND I don't see how you can say millions of children write a letter to David Cameron each week! Millions of children pretend to write letters to people that then only get seen by their teacher or their parent. That is different.

  2. I really think the whole ICT section of the NC needs re-writing. Unfortnately many schools scrapped the QCA ICT units to favour an 'integrated approach' and then didn't do any ICT for a few years, causing a huge step backwards.

    More importantly than that I think the 'who' of the curriculum is more important than anything else and, inspired by your thoughts, I've blogged about it at http://frogphilp.blogspot.com/2010/07/network-c

  3. I'm all for embedded email in primary schools, been fighting for it for a long time now. We run http://schoolemail.co.uk which hopefully makes life a little easier. Great blog post. Interesting though because I have to work 50% of my time to a timetable and 50% is free to work on long term projects.

    1. oliverquinlan

      That is interesting, as most Primary children get 0% time to work on their own projects! When I was at school I used to do all kinds of projects and learned so much from them. Making computer games, websites, writing stories. However, all of this happened at home because my parents gave me the time and encouragement needed. The vast majority of the children don't have the resources, or have their time taken up outside of school. I feel it is important we give them that time to direct their own learning and develop interests.

  4. PS I will say that I work in a few schools where they introduced email early on (y3) and use it embedded and it isn't even an issue, it is just natural for for pupils and teachers. Good to see so many comments on this blog post =)

  5. I'm all for embedded email in primary schools, been fighting for it for a long time now. We run http://schoolemail.co.uk which hopefully makes life a little easier. Great blog post. Interesting though because I have to work 50% of my time to a timetable and 50% is free to work on long term projects.

  6. PS I will say that I work in a few schools where they introduced email early on (y3) and use it embedded and it isn't even an issue, it is just natural for for pupils and teachers. Good to see so many comments on this blog post =)

  7. oliverquinlan

    That is interesting, as most Primary children get 0% time to work on their own projects! When I was at school I used to do all kinds of projects and learned so much from them. Making computer games, websites, writing stories. However, all of this happened at home because my parents gave me the time and encouragement needed. The vast majority of the children don't have the resources, or have their time taken up outside of school. I feel it is important we give them that time to direct their own learning and develop interests.

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