St Lukes School 1.4.16

St Luke’s is a Foundation School in Hertfordshire. It has around 100 pupils aged 9-16 with learning difficulties, including pupils with complex moderate learning difficulties, autism spectrum disorders and speech, language and communication needs. The school is separated into KS2, KS3 and KS4 classes of between 10 and 13. There are also smaller nurture groups with 4 to 6 children. It is the school that Hayley is doing her NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) year as a teacher for a mixed ability KS3 class. The specialist provision, enabling environment and general ethos of the school inspired Victoria to visit and begin reflecting from the perspective of an NQT.

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Victoria visited on a day when there was a collapsed timetable. The KS3 classes invited a drama group in to introduce the new topic: Scavengers and Settlers. St Luke’s have a creative curriculum that teaches the foundation subjects through a topic-based approach. With the IPC (International Primary Curriculum) as a basis for planning, teachers are then able to tailor lessons to suit the needs and interests of the children in order to create a personalised and inclusive approach to education.  The freedom also allows for collapsed timetable days which explore topics.

 

Environment: Animals

 

When you enter the school building you are immediately faced with a glimpse of the courtyard that holds an array of different animals, that are also housed in a bungalow onsite. These animals include chickens, guinea fowl, sheep, two impressive bird aviaries, tortoises, fish, lizards, degus, rabbits, a snake and insects to assist learning and improve the school environment. Students are given responsibilities to feed and look after the animals at St Luke’s which creates a sense of ownership. KS4 students are even offered animal care as an option.  The animals are also invited into classrooms whether it is a sheep to introduce the ‘sh’ sound, or as a provocation for story writing. What impressed us both was that the courtyard is the central zone which acts as the heart of the school, funnelling students from building to building and creating opportunities for endless social interactions. Keeping animals at St Luke’s is manageable as they have a specialist animal coordinator who manages the animal welfare daily and general upkeep of enclosures.

 

Cafe Brunch

 

St Luke’s school mission statement is ‘Learning and Growing Towards Independence’. One of the ways that this is achieved is through their daily ‘Skills for Learning’ session whereby each morning the students have registration and brunch together. Monday to Thursday, Lizards class take it in turns to record food and drink orders, prepare the food and serve their fellow peers. This is followed by a daily discussion around current affairs, time to partner read or a chosen activity such as word searches, sudoku and puzzles. This enables students to have a nurturing start to the day and helps to settle pupils for learning.  They have a space to relax and develop social skills as well as satisfying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, whereby they are able to achieve ‘self-actualization’.

maslows-hierarchy-of-needs

 

The students choose a country that they would like to visit and on Fridays the classroom is transformed into a cafe from around the world – an idea inspired by the previous classroom teacher. During Victoria’s visit, the students were experiencing cafe Mumbai with gentle Indian music playing in the background. Tablecloths are laid and menus are carefully planned in advance, so that students are able to try new cuisines. Hayley takes the orders and provides a receipt so that each individual is aware of how much their order costs. Jacqui (the Learning Support Assistant) works as the chef with one student on the autistic spectrum that has particularly challenging needs. This gives him a sense of responsibility and enables him to take part and have social interaction with the class. Once everyone has finished eating and drinking, Hayley comes back around to discuss if they enjoyed their meal and collect payment. The students have a pot of money in the centre of the table to select the correct coins and pay for their food. This is a wonderful demonstration of real life learning, whilst developing functional numeracy skills.

 

Where We Are Now

 

It has been a really useful experience to visit a special school and to gain a deeper understanding of how to effectively work alongside children with additional needs. This has been particularly important for Victoria as she has a number of young children diagnosed with autism (ASD) in her nursery class. At the beginning of her NQT placement she felt she lacked the knowledge, experience and understanding of how to teach children with SEND. This left her feeling lost and under-qualified. However after visiting St Luke’s and having the opportunity to reflect with other practitioners, Victoria has been able to develop confidence in her practice and feel encouraged about the strategies that her team provide. The visit has challenged our preconceptions of children with SEND and the expectations over what we believe they can achieve. The students at St Luke’s are valued as unique individuals and by developing strong relationships based on mutual respect, staff are able to effectively pinpoint exact needs and support the holistic development of each student.

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Even though St Luke’s is different to our PGCE placement at St Werburgh’s Park Nursery School, the Early Years strategies and approaches that we learnt throughout the year have been relevant and effective in our communications with students. Due to the support and nurturing environment St Luke’s provide for both staff and students it has led Hayley to feel confident to take risks and grow into an effective teacher.

 

Being able to work and reflect together again as a team has reminded us of how powerful and essential reflection is. Since this visit we have been inspired to create an online forum where practitioners are able to reflect with others and share their curiosities, worries and ideas for the future of education.

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We would like to thank all at St Luke’s for welcoming us into your school. If you would like more information on the setting please click here.

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New Zealand Reflection

Our experiences in New Zealand schools have been priceless and heavily influential in our educational philosophy. We were lucky to visit some exceptional settings where learning seemed like fun. Most of the schools focus on an inquiry and project-based approach to learning. They were led by inspirational and confident headteachers who were passionate about making a change in education

It is impossible to reflect on everything we observed in New Zealand schools, however here are the areas that have had the most impact on us:

Student Voice and Participation 

As teachers, our mindset was to ‘prepare students for future life’. However our meeting with Professor Saville Kushner (please see our Balmoral entry) challenged this notion and made us realise how wrong we were. Children are already active members of society: subject to power and social structure. Our role as educators is to give students a voice and help them develop the skills to access their world. Balmoral modelled this perfectly in their Balmoral Learning Model and we witnessed this in one of their philosophy lessons (Balmoral entry). Students were engaging in a debate with real life issues. 

We were also impressed that in the majority of New Zealand schools students lead assemblies, meetings, workshops and give insightful tours of their schools. Our preconceptions of the role of a student within the school has been completely transformed. The schools have shown students as equal and as part of a collaborative body. This is best illustrated in Discovery’s community room which is a shared space for students and staff to use at any time of the day.

Defining Creativity

When we introduced ourselves to schools we opened with ‘we are researching creativity and enabling environments’. Interestingly, it wasn’t until our visit to New Zealand that we had to reflect on the definition of the word we use so frequently. Since our visit to Beach Haven we now view creativity differently. Prior to the research project we believed that being a creative teacher meant incorporating ‘arty things’ into the curriculum such as painting and drawing. However as time has gone on we have discovered that creativity is more about innovative approaches to teaching and learning. 

Child-centred not Child-led

Another buzzword in education we have explored is child-led learning. We have strived to teach this way however, Ian Hayes at Discovery explained that ‘children don’t know what they don’t know’, emphasising the importance of adult involvement as the facilitator in learning. At Balmoral we learnt that sometimes when the learning is wholly child-led it does not allow for enough depth. This is why we have moved away from using the term ‘child-led‘ and are now focusing on being ‘child-centred‘ practitioners: planning around the child’s interests in a collaborative learning approach. When we discuss adult involvement we are not referring to the teacher alone. Discovery have shown us how important parents/carers and people in the wider community are to personalising learning. With the extra support and ‘creation of ideas‘ schools are able to offer an individual learning experience for all. 

Over the past few months our observations have shown that the creative and innovative schools are the ones with the grounded and secure philosophies. We were lucky to observe a setting that provides an exceptional learning experience without their previous campus and amazing location. This confirms the theory that philosophy and vision are the most important element to a school. 

We would like to conclude that it is important to have a clear understanding of the terms used in education. This project has been so exciting and humbling as we continue to challenge, question and redefine our own knowledge and understanding. As teachers we continually evolve and learn something new each day. The schools and settings we have visited so far have exposed the possibility for an educational revolution and in our opinion, display the characteristics of an ‘enabling‘ and ‘creative‘ environment. 

Our Revised Key Areas of a School that Enable Creativity:

1. Grounded and secure philosophies and vision (with open-mindedness to develop and change)

2. Enabled Teachers

3. Project-based explorations of learning

4. Child-centred learning

5. Enabling Environment (Resources, accessible learning spaces etc.)


Thank you to the schools that have opened their doors to us in Australia and New Zealand. 

Discovery (14.5.15)

Shortly after arriving in Christchurch we were told about a must see setting for innovative teaching and learning. Our visit to Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery was short, however, there were a few aspects we couldn’t leave without sharing. 

Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery is a special character state school where students are central in directing their own learning. Designated Special Character schools were created under the New Zealand Education Act of 1989 and are given this title when they deliver a unique learning experience. Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery are currently located on two campuses in Christchurch: we visited the Discovery campus (ages 5-11). 

Christchurch suffered an earthquake in 2011, leaving the city with major destruction. Discovery needed to vacate from their city campus, and consequently rebuilt their school in temporary paddocks out in the suburbs. We were informed by the Deputy Director (Ian Hayes) that this had a devastating effect on the school community, leaving over 70% of the families unable to commute. Furthermore, the school could no longer access a rich source of cultural experiences gained from being in the CBD (Central Business District). 

  

After hearing the Deputy Director describe the numerous challenges and struggles they have had to face, we couldn’t help empathising with their situation, and wondered how they were still maintaining their unique character. However, as we were shown around the school, we had an awe-inspiring revelation. Over the past few months we have been describing the characteristics of an outstanding school. We have started to question whether this comes from the use of resources, the school’s space and environment or the underlying philosophy and vision

We believe a school that is centred on a grounded philosophy allows space for creative and innovative teaching and learning. What was so amazing about Discovery was that they proved this theory. The school no longer had their open-planned classrooms, central location and large community base. However, this wasn’t going to stop them from delivering a unique learning experience. 

  

During our discussion with the Deputy Director he explained the importance of having open-planned rooms as central to building communities. He then explained that the school had suffered due to the fact that the new location had conventional classrooms, arguing that this kills community. However, when we were given a tour of the school we were shocked to see how open-planned the classrooms were – the walls were knocked down to provide space for two classes to combine. The rooms felt relaxed, students moved freely and were grouped in different spaces around the room. 

We felt that the most significant room in the setting was the community room: a large open-planned space with sofas, tables and a kitchen area. Upon entering the room we instantly assumed it was their staff room until we noticed students were also sharing the space. For example, two students were carefully making toasties, while another student was enjoying a cuppa soup. Confused, we immediately asked the Deputy Director if the students were ‘allowed’ in the staff room. He laughed and reminded us of the Discovery philosophy that they want to promote an open door policy. 


Structure in an Unstructured Way



Before our Discovery visit we had the misconception that innovative settings were completely unstructured and children were free to do what they want. However, we have discovered that it is the opposite. The Deputy Director informed us that weekly learning is structured on ‘must dos‘ and ‘can dos‘. Must dos are a collection of learning goals that children are required to complete by the end of the week. Can dos are offered to the students as a further learning challenge. The interesting fact about the learning goals is that they are personal to each student and can be completed in their own time. For example, we were told that some students choose to complete all their learning goals at the beginning of the week to have free time at the end. The ‘Must dos’ and ‘Can dos’ run alongside other personal goals that are co-constructed with the parents, child and Learning Advisor and are then self managed and directed by the children – predominantly inquiry based goals.
   

Students co-construct goals that support learning new knowledge and skills, stretch their thinking, encourage creativity and innovation and pursue personal passions, interests and needs.

In our opinion the approach requires structured and detailed planning. It is incredible to see another government-funded school aiming to provide personalised learning. Discussing personalised learning with the Deputy Director he told us that it would not be possible without parent involvement. Parents/Carers are encouraged to play an integral role in the Discovery learning experience. They lead workshops, work with students in the classrooms, provide provocations for learning and even run a playgroup within Discovery. Having parents deeply engaged in the school community allows for a breadth of teaching ideas in the classroom, and as the Deputy Director explained, ‘parents know their children better than anyone’. 

After our visit to Alberton Primary School and Balmoral Primary School we learnt that a school philosophy is the core to a creative setting. We have visited a combination of settings that offer incredible resources and enabling environments – Discovery proved that even without these important elements the school’s philosophy is what drives innovative learning. Much like an atom, the nucleus is the school community practicing their educational philosophies. In the outer part of the atom lies the enabling environment, resources and other factors that play vital roles in education. Discovery were moved from their amazing central location and environment, however we were still immersed in the wonderment of a special character school. 
  

Our visit to Discovery has also inspired us to reflect on how much of an impact parent involvement has on teaching and learning. Discovery have shown the importance of adult involvement to provide personalised learning, so that students may have the best learning experience. For a revolution to be possible for education there needs to be a change in our mindsets. This requires collaboration and a personalised approach to learning, involving teachers, parents and students. Discovery view everyone as equal, which we believe is essential in the construction of learning. 

We would like to thank Ian Hayes and all the staff at Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery. If you would like more information on the setting please click here.

Light Bulb Ideas



– Wednesday Celebration Assemblies – led by the students

– Calling Teachers ‘Learning Advisors’

– Workshops led by the students and parents: the creation of ideas
  

Beach Haven Primary (26th March 2015)

Beach Haven is a primary school with approximately 350 students based in North Shore, New Zealand. The school has a high percentage of Maori families and prides itself on having strong links with the community.  Beach Haven is classified as a decile 4 school (deciles range from 1-10 indicating the extent to which it draws its students from low socio-economic communities).
 We approached Beach Haven via the back entrance, through a wooded walkway. The grounds were spacious and green. Entering the office, our eyes were instantly drawn to a photo of a suitcase in their field. As we looked closer, we noticed members of staff dressed as forensic scientists and an area taped off to the students.  

  

The whole school approach to learning was intriguing and before we had time to process it, we were invited into The Principal’s (Stephanie Thompson) office.  

During our meeting with the Principal, alongside their Deputy Principal (Judy Mathias), we were told about all the exciting provision and support that Beach Haven offer. What intrigued us most was our conversation around the word ‘creativity‘, which we will explore towards the end of this blog post. Following on from this meeting were were offered a tour of the school, not by the Principal, but by two students. 

Student Voice and Participation 

We were very impressed that the school encouraged the students to lead our tour. We were introduced to two very competent and confident house captains, who were able to effortlessly answer our questions and gave a detailed overview of Beach Haven. It is clear that student voice and participation is at the centre of the school’s philosophy. For example, the assemblies are not conducted in the usual way. Students plan and deliver all assemblies without teacher instruction. This is particularly interesting for us, as we had not heard this before, and it was refreshing to see students valued in leadership roles. We were also told by our tour guides that there are many opportunities for students to be actively involved in the running of their school, including leading community meetings, student inquiry groups and becoming cultural ambassadors. For more information please view Stephanie’s blog posts, ‘Inquiry Team‘ and ‘Cultural Ambassadors‘.

As we entered the classrooms we noticed that the atmosphere felt relaxed and students were completing their work in different spaces around the room. Some were completing their work at desks and some were laid on the floor. The students had a brief free-flow time and then were asked by the teacher to write a reflection on their morning. It appeared that the students enjoyed writing about their experiences, making us reflect on the importance of using students interests to engage writing. Before lunch the students were asked to read their work aloud into a microphone. At first we were a little apprehensive and felt that this could be intimidating for some students. However, we observed students confidently reading aloud their work, and they appeared to take great pride in their achievement. This continues our theory: when children are in an enabling environment they can express their thoughts and opinions openly. 

 
Project-based Learning

Project-based learning is woven into Beach Haven’s philosophy and is central to how they learn. As well as a project-based approach to learning the classes share a whole school inquiry topic, which aims to ignite a sense of curiosity and wonder for the students. As we walked through the school we were particularly interested to see the range of different avenues each class explored.

One inquiry at the time of our visit was based around the history of Beach Haven. They provoked their students with a mystery ‘alien landing’ in the playground. The students were shown a video, created by a member of staff, of what appeared to be footage of an object crash landing. The school then went outside to explore the landing site. Members of staff were dressed as forensic detectives and the students were presented with a briefcase full of poppies and scrolls.   

  

A project like this is risky: it requires hard work and collaboration from the children and staff. Some of these risks include lack of parent support, not covering the curriculum and disengagement from students. However, schools that take this risk and think outside of the box create opportunities for learning that students will not forget. We have both sat here and tried to think of an example from our schooling of lifelong learning – and have been unsuccessful. We are convinced that the children of Beach Haven will remember an ‘alien landing’ for the rest of their lives, and they are probably still talking about it now.

The school do not carry out their inquiries on a fixed timetable. Another important and innovative element to Beach Haven is the freedom the school experience. The teachers and students are in control of their individual timetables – meeting the personal needs of each class. We were told that the class would arrive at the beginning of the day and work out what they needed to finish and when to fit it in. This creates opportunities for individual students and classrooms to determine the end point in their discoveries. When students are able to take ownership over their learning (previously mentioned in our Melbourne Montessori post), they develop a sense of self-satisfaction and can determine the endpoint of their investigation. 

Defining ‘Creativity’: Conclusion

After our visit to Beach Haven, we noticed that the Principal had written a blog post about our visit. It discusses the term ‘creativity’ and the Principal’s concerns on whether the school would be of use to our research project. The Principal explored the definition of creativity, as she had preconceived notions of it meaning ‘arty’ things. She reflects in her blog, after researching definitions of creativity, ‘I think of creative in terms of methodology but not ‘artsy’ creative.’ She came to the conclusion that Beach Haven are creative by providing innovative opportunities for their students. The Principal’s reflective blog was extremely important for us in confirming our philosophy on creativity in education. At this stage of our project, creativity means innovative and imaginative approaches to teaching and learning. 

Beach Haven is a melting pot full of different ingredients, creating an innovative space for learning. Their willingness to take risks and think outside of the box is infectious and has inspired us greatly. The school value their students as able, competent and active members of their society – something we are very passionate about. We believe that Beach Haven’s approach to learning and the attitudes they share are essential for change in education.
   

We would like to thank Stephanie Thompson and all the staff at Beach Haven Primary School. If you would like more information on the setting please click here

Light – Bulb Ideas:

– Microphone for children to read their writing aloud. We feel that this helps children to depict whether their work makes sense. 

– Students leading assemblies

– Students giving tours of the school

– Displaying the whole school topic in the reception area
  

Balmoral Primary School (1st April 2015)

  Balmoral is a decile 9 (Deciles range from 1-10 indicating the extent to which it draws its students from low socio-economic communities) primary school in Mount Eden, New Zealand. It is an unusually large primary and intermediate school with 850 children, ranging from ages 5-13. The size was not the only unique attribute to Balmoral. The school has devised its own model for learning which comprises of the following components: Balmoral Habits, Numeracy and Literacy, Rich Tasks, Philosophy For Children, and Learning about Learning. Balmoral provide students with a ‘rich, motivational and challenging learning environment’, preparing students for future learning. From our brief visit we could see that the Balmoral learning model was at the heart of the school and the reason it looked and felt like an exceptional setting. 

We were uncommonly late arriving to Balmoral – getting to grips with Auckland’s highways proved difficult. However, we were immediately greeted by The Principal, Malcolm Milner, who had kindly organised for us to meet a year 5/6 teacher in the ‘Shire’ (the year 5/6 classroom blocks). We entered the room to see an excitable group of students huddled around a table full of food. The teacher informed us that we had arrived just in time for shared morning tea, and decided on the spot to do a Karakia (a Maori prayer or blessing). The shared morning tea was inspired from their collective project: their Story/My Story. We felt like honoured guests being offered the first pick of cake, and we chose a traditional New Zealand chocolate delight. 

  
CIB

  Within minutes we discovered that Balmoral had a project and inquiry-based approach to learning. The teacher explained that the current project (Their Story/My Story), focused on identity and background. For example, we were introduced to a student who had created a video based on her Grandmother’s jewellery. We wanted to know if the inquiry projects were child-led, as this is a particular focus for our research. She told us that the teachers provide the inquiry question as in the past the student questions had not been provoking enough. This was especially intriguing for us as our preconceptions of child-led learning has changed throughout the course of the project. 

During our research we have been contemplating the advantages and disadvantages of a child-led approach to learning. We had always favoured a child-led approach, making sure that student ideas and curiosities were at the centre of learning. However, after a conversation with Professor Saville Kushner (Professor of Critical Studies in Education At Auckland University) we have started to realise the practicalities of teaching this way, i.e. not allowing for enough depth in the inquiry projects. Saville provoked us to view education as a collaborative process, not just child-led or adult-led exclusively. Practically, we think this would look like the Balmoral model where teachers invent the question and let the students explore other possible questions and answers. In this way the learning still retains an element of being child-led. 

We observed a perfect example of this is in a year 3 class. The teacher had presented her class with the question ‘whose home is this?’ as the start of an inquiry into habitats.  

It appeared that she then took a step back and allowed her students to investigate. A student confidently explained that their exploration started with researching facts about animals, then zoos and then elephants in particular. The class then learnt that elephants in Sumatra were being poorly treated and shot because they were eating the farmers crops. The students were moved by this and felt that they wanted to help in some way. More research was undertaken and the students wrote to the school council and the principal – asking for permission to hold a market – in hope to raise money to adopt an elephant. There were several maths activities to find out how much money needed to be raised; conversion rates from AUD to NZD; and the cost of making the food. They exceeded the amount needed, so they decided to send the rest to Vanuatu to send aid after a recent cyclone. The teacher had no idea that this was where the project was going to go – yet another example of real life learning.

Philosophy Lesson

The most astonishing element to Balmoral was the year 3 philosophy lesson. We were particularly encouraged to see that the school is passionate about Philosophy, and is described in their learning model as ‘challenging students to inquire about their world and make personal decisions about their attitudes and values.’ The particular philosophy lesson that we observed was inspired from one student’s question, ‘Do all humans know when they are being bad?’, a question that followed from the classes inquiry into elephants and the farmers who were shooting them.

The lesson began with the students walking around the room thinking about possible answers to that question. The teacher then asked the class to arrange themselves into an ‘inquiry circle’. The teacher stepped back and invited the students to begin a discussion; they used a ball to determine whose turn it was to speak. The debate was based on questions on the board asking students to ‘build on someone else’s ideas’, ‘find a counter argument’, ‘ask for clarification’, ‘give examples’ and ‘make valid assumptions’. As the students knew the model for this the teacher only ever interrupted sparingly to ask for clarification. The students discussion ranged from questioning what age humans should know they are doing bad things, to giving examples of their home life. The teacher noted down all of the points raised shown in the picture below.  

 We were then told that the next philosophy session is always decided by what the students want to discuss. This lesson was particularly outstanding because students were not afraid to put across their opinions and receive constructive criticism from their peers. In terms of our definition of enabling environments this was a pristine example of students feeling safe to make mistakes. The content of the lesson was focused on real political issues showing that Balmoral value their students as members of society. 

On many school prospectuses we have seen schools claiming to ‘prepare children for their future life’. However, after discussing this with The Principal and Professor Kushner, we now believe children are already active members of their society. As teachers we need to provide children with the tools to contribute to their world, and this philosophy lesson could be a model for schools to achieve this. The terms ‘autonomous’ and ‘competent’ learners has been completely redefined for us, and we are very grateful to have witnessed this so early on in our teaching career.

Technology

Our visit finished with a school tour from two Year 8 house captains. They kindly took time out of their lesson to show us the entire school, and answer all of our questions. We were impressed with school resources, especially the technology suite. They explained that they are given the choice to document their learning by writing, by using a school PC,or by bringing their own device. They also discussed that Balmoral is a decile 9 school and they know how lucky and privileged they are. It was wonderful to see how humble and able to articulate their understanding of society they were. The two boys are a complete asset to the school, and perfectly show how well the Balmoral Learning Model works. 

Conclusion

Balmoral Primary School blew us away from start to finish. It is so refreshing to see another setting with strong philosophies and visions being carried out effortlessly. Balmoral Primary School – much like Alberton Primary School in Australia – has encouraged us that an educational revolution is possible. The two settings looked different, but this only furthers the argument that learning must be personalised. What the two shared was a strong core philosophy and vision carried out by inspirational Principals and dedicated staff and students. 

We would like to thank Malcolm Milner and all of the staff and students at Balmoral Primary School. If you would like further information on this setting please click here

  

2 Monthly Reflection: Australia

Whilst being in Australia we have learnt and developed so much over the short space of two months. We have been constantly challenged, and have needed to reflect on our philosophies at almost a daily rate. As we are so new to education – and have such limited experiences – we can only write our ideas and findings on education through a restricted lens. 

Here is an outline of the key areas that impacted upon our philosophies:


The Early Years Approach

The schools that we visited had a strong emphasis on Early Years practice, which was not only applied to nursery aged children, but throughout the duration of primary school. Many of the classes combined different age groups whereby children were free to follow their curiosities with a sense of discovery and investigation. The Early Years Approach is truly valued in these schools as a way of accessing learning and not just a ‘pre-school’ stage. Planning is centred around the child’s interests, and any opportunity for child-led learning was embraced. 

Enabled teachers

Reflecting on our observations at Everton Nursery School and Family Centre we began to discover the importance of nurturing teachers. Most of the schools that we visited in Australia have confident, relaxed and engaged teachers. We can confidently say that when a school empowers teachers, this enables them to enact the school’s philosophy, ensuring that these values are secure and visible within the setting.

Project-based learning

We have been inspired by project-based learning that comprises of real-life scenarios. It was incredible to witness ‘The Alberton Approach’ whereby children explore lifelong learning skills that display a sense of self-satisfaction and ownership of their work. The children are valued as competent and creative individuals that learn through chosen lines of inquiry. We are starting to see the benefits of children exploring their interests through a personalised approach. The teacher acts as co-collaborator without the traditional ‘leading from the front’ method.  

Open-ended resources

Our understanding of the phrase ‘open-ended resources’ was redefined from our observations of the schools that we visited. We discovered that any resource can be open-ended. We watched as children displayed their ‘divergent thinking’ through using resources in a creative way. We learnt that the underlying factor of this is how they are used. We believe this comes from a strong understanding of Montessori teaching methods and child development.

Benefit vs Risk

In recent years there has been a strong media emphasis on health and safety in schools. We have read numerous articles about bans on running in playgrounds, restrictions on outdoor apparatus, and removing games such as conkers. Our observations show how Australian settings value children’s ability to naturally assess risks, as opposed to wrapping our children up in cotton wool. 

Naturally, as our research project has progressed, we have become more detailed in our observations. From this point our research will focus on five key areas that we believe enables creativity:

1. Grounded and secure philosophies and vision (with open-mindedness to develop and change)

2. Enabled Teachers

3. Project-based explorations of learning

4. Child-led learning

5. Enabling Environment (Resources, accessible learning spaces etc.)

We believe that a successful school is one which encourages children’s creativity. When all of the above are combined it frees children to be autonomous, reflective, critical, innovative authors in their learning journeys. 

A huge thankyou to all of the schools that we observed in Australia. If your school or you know of a school that has an innovative approach to learning please email us at: kindlingcreativity@gmail.com.

Melbourne Montessori School 25th/26th February 2015

This was our first experience in a Montessori setting away from mainstream schooling. It was a very new and overwhelming visit leaving us with many questions. Prior to visiting Melbourne Montessori we had heard very little about the approach, and felt that it would be beneficial to learn more about Montessori education. Maria Montessori scientifically created her theory of teaching in Italy during the early 1900’s, through a deep understanding of child development. Montessori identified four key skills that prepare children for their future life: practical life, self-directed learning, wider horizons and independence. To get an insight into the Montessori Method and what a classroom environment feels like click here

Melbourne Montessori School is spread over two campuses: Brighton and Caulfield. They have approximately 420 children enrolled with an impressive 1:12 adult to child ratio. We were even told that it is more accurately 1:1 for the under 6s, as the teacher is actively moving from child to child in the classroom. This is a very different approach to UK classrooms. The teacher does not stand at the front of the class in Montessori settings – they are constant facilitators of learning. 

Children at Melbourne Montessori schools are grouped in three cycles: Cycle 1 (ages 3-6), Cycle 2 (ages 6-9) and Cycle 3 (ages 9-12). Gay Wales, The Principal, explained that they are introducing a secondary school and have year 7s as the beginning to Cycle 4 (ages 12-18). The cycles reflect the four planes of development (featured in Table 1 below). These stages show the natural ability of what the child can achieve during each distinct phase. The cycles represent each stage as a preparation for future life.

Table 1

These are the three main aspects that we wanted to discuss:

Children learning at their own pace (Child-led learning)

One of the key themes that is surfacing in our research is the freedom of the child. It felt revitalising to observe another setting whereby children were free to explore their curiosities – through individual and personalised projects. We are beginning to see that a child-led inquiry-based approach works. It is not only a brilliant theory but it practically enables children to develop into ‘the best version of themselves’. For example, we were told that a girl became interested in leaves; this then sparked a desire to investigate the different parts of a leaf through a week long project. Sarah-Jane Watson, The Deputy Principal, introduced us to the Montessori theory that children are allowed to reach a natural end to their project; this led to achieving ‘self-satisfaction’. In our limited experience of Primary school we have seen the complete opposite to this. Teachers control not only when the children move from one activity to the next, but also what they should be learning. Self-satisfaction is achieved when children take ownership of their interests, follow their curiosities, and recognise their process and end point. 

We did notice that the learning in Cycle 1 was very independent and we were challenged as we had always felt that children learn best socially – alongside their peers, adults and environment. However, we were told when children move on to Cycle 2 there is more opportunity to collaborate. It is clear that everything in a Montessori setting is done for a definitive purpose. 

 With regards to imaginative role play, we were told that they want to ground their children in the real world. This belief enables children to be responsible ‘Caretakers of their Earth’ – which provoked us to remember how important it is to teach children about their environment. We were surprised not to see imaginative role play within the classrooms, but we were informed that imaginative role play does occur in the playground area. 

 

 Children at Melbourne Montessori are valued as competent young adults who are free to begin and start a project; eat and drink when they wish; and move about the classroom at will. Due to the mixed groupings, children are not restricted in the development of their knowledge and understanding. For example, the 6 year olds were able to do long multiplication with two three-digit numbers. Our experience in the UK is that activities were designed specifically for the age group. If a child is ready to progress on to the next curriculum year, it is unlikely that the teacher is able to accommodate that. Sir Ken Robinson discusses the need for education to be personalised. We feel that aspects of the Montessori approach achieve this by allowing children to learn at their own pace and choosing their projects based on their interests. 

‘The Expert Differentiators’ (Enabled Teachers)

Montessori teachers are very skilled educators. In contrast to the UK, Montessori teachers have an extra year of training specifically in the Montessori approach. Teachers are shown how to use each resource and the scientific theory behind it. This enables continuity throughout the setting and sound understanding of child development. Because of this, the teachers know where each of their children sit academically and how to move the individual forward.  

 When the children of Cycle 1 enter their classroom they are greeted by their Montessori teacher with a handshake and eye contact. The teacher asks the child whether they want to continue their work from the previous day, or complete a new ‘job’. A choice of ‘jobs’ are specifically crafted by the teacher to further their development. 

We were told that a common misconception of the Montessori approach is that children are free to do what they like. This is incorrect as children are made to feel that they have control over their learning by choosing a ‘job’. However the teacher scaffolds their learning by offering activities that they know will allow the child to progress.  

The classrooms we observed were calm, quiet and respectful. We noticed that there was a mutual respect modelled by the teacher. All of the teachers used quiet voices – there was no need to raise their voice. If a child needed the teacher, they simply tapped their shoulders, and waited for the adult to finish what they were doing. This created an enabling learning environment whereby children could engross themselves in their ‘jobs’ without interruption. 

The teachers at Melbourne Montessori are really valued by the Senior Leadership Team. They acknowledge the different learning styles of both children and teachers. We were particularly impressed that practitioners were allowed to document the children’s learning in whichever way suited them (documentation is how educators collect information on children’s learning). The flexibility of this was so refreshing as we, too, document our research in different ways. For example Victoria processes information through creating visual mind maps, whereas Hayley chooses a more linear bullet pointing method. Adults and children are all unique, and access learning in different ways. It is clear that Melbourne Montessori value the individuality of both adult and child.

Visualising the Maths

 

 The Montessori approach has left us with many questions. Their method of teaching mathematics is unique: it is nothing like we have observed in the UK. Firstly, Montessori classrooms have the same set of maths resources in  each room. These materials were carefully designed by Maria Montessori to achieve individual learning outcomes. The materials are presented in a minimal, ordered and structured way around the classroom. When a child completes an activity and understands the concept, they know to choose the next resource on the shelf, which is developmentally appropriate to each individual child. Again, this is very different to our UK experiences as the activities are usually age appropriate and differentiated on average three times.

In a Montessori classroom an activity is differentiated for each child to achieve optimum progress. However, the resources are not open-ended and therefore only allow the child to explore one purpose. We feel that this approach may not allow for divergent thinking – something we have begun to value as crucial for education. We believe that divergent thinking allows children to think outside of the box and have imaginative ideas. On the other hand the children at Montessori are developing into logical thinkers, who are able to visualise abstract mathematical concepts with ease. We could not stop commenting on how we would have loved to learn abstract concepts using physical materials. We feel this would have allowed for a more concrete understanding. The materials at Melbourne Montessori have provoked us to research into the science behind how they work, and how we could introduce similar activities in our classrooms. 

We want to conclude by saying that the Montessori approach is completely different to mainstream schools in the UK. We love that children are not ‘sold short’ and are given the credit they deserve as competent members of their society. What stood out to us most was how inspired and passionate the staff were at Melbourne Montessori, and how grounded they are in their philosophy of child development. We have been challenged and provoked to address areas of our educational philosophy – and have taken some really valuable practice on board. To get a full understanding of the theory we urge practitioners to book a visit to a Montessori setting. 

We would like to thank Gay Wales and Sarah-Jane Watson for inviting us to visit Melbourne Montessori School. For more information on the setting please click here.

Light Bulb Ideas

– Children can wash up and do jobs. Are ‘responsible caretakers’  

– Resources aren’t cluttered – they are ordered and clear 

– Offer lots of practical life resources

– Children have an individual/group carpet area for independent activities. Value the learning space.

– Visual maths resources

– Wooden letters and lined mat to spell words

– Sensory sandpaper letters