should a school management team do if it wants to create a better environment
for learning? This is the dilemma
at Beeslack Community High School in Penicuik.
The head, Jim Cassidy, and the senior management team are keen to develop a strong learner-centred approach to the curriculum, and to build an ethos of partnership across the school.
Back in March 2011, a group of S3 students led an enquiry, working with teachers to explore the question: How can we create a learning experience that better respects the needs of the individual?
This is a big question, with no easy answers. For all involved, the very idea of students and teachers taking time out with each other to think and talk about learning is hugely novel. But it is an important first step on the path of culture change.
It certainly took a bit of getting used to on all sides. And it didn’t start smoothly; there were some tense moments, but from the uncertainty comes new insights. One of the teachers says: “They have to learn from making mistakes and perhaps misjudging things. We don’t give them enough space to do that and when we do they’re not quite sure what to do with it!”
The students say they weren’t expecting to be listened to. They said that a lot of stuff they learn in school didn’t feel relevant. So it seems the question, at least, is a good one.
By the end of the initial enquiry a few weeks later, the students presented clear recommendations for practical action to the school management team. The students wished to see more group work and creativity in classes; they wanted different school trips. Changes to the Homework Club were proposed, along with ideas for ‘dress down days’ and a suggestion that the money from charitable activities go back into the school. They asked for new and different kinds of work experience.
The Head was impressed that the process had created a “secure place where pupils and staff were able to honestly and openly share their expectations, frustrations and aspirations”. He went on: “The experience has begun to change school culture for the better and has inspired pupils to take more responsibility for their personal learning and development.”
We went back for a visit some six months later to see how it was going. The students told us that relationships with teachers are beginning to change and that teachers are less distant. One pupil says “it feels like we’re slowly realising that it can be different”.
They suggest that a big part of this change is that they feel listened to and as a result, they are able to be more open with the staff. They say there is now more group and collaborative work in some classes, though they note there is scope for more. The format of the homework club has changed. It now runs every night and can be used by all years. Small changes to fund-raising activities have given them a buzz: “That feels good – like you respect our views.” One said: “It’s like you (the teachers) realise that you can’t do it without us.”
Since the first enquiry, teachers have been ‘back to school’ themselves; all teachers have since had two training sessions learning about practical tools to support co-operative and active learning and further training is planned. Teachers say they’re already using some new techniques.
There are other spins-offs: more S6s are involved in a coaching capacity; the staff say ‘there’s a buzz about these older pupils being involved’. They are also pleased that the “Study Buddy” system for discussing problems with peers is also coming along well. And they have plans to develop more peer support for learning, for example, through paired reading.
The head says: “Changing the school is like turning an oil tanker – it’s big and complex and it takes time, but it feels like we are starting to move”. Even so, it seems as if the school has caught the bug. The teachers want to focus on the first years to build positive relationships between teachers and students from the outset and are keen to use senior students to assist them.
We are supporting them and others in the community to move towards that vision in a way that ensures that young people retain genuine leadership of the overall project and the process to get there. And so the ripples continue.