Education: Passing Power to the Pupils It Improves Morale, Motivation and Results

By Hartley-Brewer, Elizabeth | The Independent (London, England), March 25, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Education: Passing Power to the Pupils It Improves Morale, Motivation and Results


Hartley-Brewer, Elizabeth, The Independent (London, England)


The letter is to a head-teacher and is announcing the opening of a new natural history museum. It is hand-written and pinned to a classroom wall. The letter is, in fact, a piece of English schoolwork written by a child. It is being used along with other samples by children as young as 11 to help them decide at what level it is right for them to work, both in school and for their homework.

This is not the traditional way of "setting" children by ability, in which the teacher decides and the child has no say. This is letting the children think and decide for themselves: whether they have been coasting but are ready for a challenge, or whether they prefer to progress more gently. Seeing real pieces of work that exemplify what they have to do to meet the standards expected at different levels of the national curriculum helps them to make their choices.

A child's self-esteem, which is so easily damaged by being placed by someone else into a lower set, is boosted by the power and control invested in making an assessment of his or her own learning skills. Morale, motivation and results among pupils of all abilities at Ninestiles Secondary in a none-too-affluent suburb of south Birmingham have all improved since the trial scheme was introduced two terms ago. How to prepare today's learners for the future would seem to be the hot topic in education, if two conferences on the issue last week are any sign. The issue is exercising the minds of academics and teachers, fuelled by a fear that the current agenda of targets and tables could be creating an environment in schools that may squash the talents and techniques that we need to encourage. The passport to the future is, we are being told, via self-directed learning, rather than teacher-directed teaching. Producing children who want to learn, and know how to learn, should be the goal of all schools. Research continues to demonstrate that more self- direction contributes to raising achievement, and gives children relevant personal and learning skills for the future. The brain is known to become more efficient at learning and thinking when people feel they have choice and are in control of what they do, and less so when they are not. Andrew Pollard, professor of education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol, whose interest is the child's view of learning, is critical of the Government's "measure everything" culture. "By setting up so many hurdles for children, it can undermine the faith they need to have in themselves when they confront a new task," he says. This, he believes, can affect their attitude to learning in the longer term. Just as damaging, he feels, is the way structured and target-focused schools are creating an instrumentalist attitude in children as they try to make the grade, making it less likely that they will become the flexible, innovative, creative type of adult that the future demands. Mike Hughes, author of several books on learning, and headteacher of Lakers School - an 11-16 comprehensive in Gloucester - agrees, but he has found ways to work within the constraints imposed by recent governments. As department head in his previous school he compared results of his geography class, run on self-directed, flexible lines, with those of a class taught by a more traditional colleague. He found, he says, "a massive impact both on results and motivation" of the flexible approach. Some children who showed interest did GCSE in two terms, getting grade As. His method was to negotiate an individual work plan with each child in his class, and then encourage each one to reflect, as the year progressed, on how he or she best learnt, in terms of time management, research style and type of resources, paying attention at each stage to the results achieved. Now, at Lakers School, Hughes is making a conscious attempt to build the school of the future today. At the same time as delivering on exam results, he has introduced motivation workshops for his year-11 GCSE students, promoted individual learning programmes at key stage 4 - the GCSE years - which incorporate a range of choices, and established a system in which every child is regularly taken off timetable to reflect on his or her learning in terms of both progress and process.

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