Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Posted in: Education consultancy

Learning without limits

Grouping by ability holds children back argues headteacher Alison Peacock, whose school went from failing to outstanding when the whole staff worked to ban limiting beliefs about fixed abilities and fixed futures and became a listening school

KS2 SATs week has just ended. As headteacher I have spent each morning this week sitting in the hall with 30 children. This assessment week is an opportunity for children in our school to celebrate their learning in an environment where it is “cool” to challenge yourself.

As I write this blog I cannot help contrasting the approach our children have taken to their SATs this week with the attitude to learning that I encountered when I first joined the school nine years ago. At that time, children were grouped by ability, labelled with National Curriculum levels, and ranked one against each other. But the sense of competitiveness within the hall this week comes from a desire to compete against oneself in order to achieve, not from a desire to out-perform others in the class. When children are asked about our school, they do not define their experience in terms of SATs targets, levels or so-called “ability”.

Why does this matter? What is wrong with children judging their performance against others? The deep-rooted problem is a belief that intelligence is fixed and that education should focus on accelerating the progress of the “gifted” and supporting the “less able”. As a school we work very hard to counter the view that each child’s future attainment can be reliably predicted; as part of this approach, we do not group children by ability.

This month sees the publication of “Creating Learning without Limits“, a book which is the result of many years work on a partnership research project with colleagues from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.

We set out to explore what might become possible if a whole school staff, acting together, committed themselves to creating an environment free from limiting beliefs about fixed abilities and fixed futures. As a school once categorised by Ofsted as requiring special measures, we have triumphantly challenged the assumption that there is only one way to improve “standards”. A relentless focus on high stakes testing can so easily limit notions of what education is for. Our study illustrates how, over the years, we have worked to enable all children to have the chance to surprise us – and themselves – about what they can achieve when they experience a richly creative broad and balanced curriculum.

The study of our primary school has shown what is possible when teachers trust in every child’s learning capacity, and focus their energy on planning high quality learning experiences. Colleagues have increasingly felt free to inspire children and to engage them actively in discovering “what works” for each teacher and class instead of trying to perform to a standard model of classroom practice.

We offer choices of tasks within lessons and children make decisions about how much challenge they can attempt. Feedback about learning rather than grades is central to our approach. This sense of control builds intrinsic motivation to approach new learning in a very powerful way.

In the book, we write about the role of leadership in creating a culture of professional learning right across the school: but it is a particular kind of learning that has flourished at Wroxham – a far cry from the prevalent training model. We have come to understand the importance of providing an environment where colleagues and children experience emotional stability.

We have found ways to encourage the growth of inventiveness and openness to new ideas. The imperative to “find a way through” for every child is illustrated through examples of actions and approaches characterised by persistent questioning and empathy with children in all their complexity.

Politicians would have us believe that parents value scores and levels above everything else. Our experience has been the opposite. We find that what our parents really want to know is whether their children are understood, valued and inspired. They want to know that their children are happy and resilient, that they love learning and are making progress.

Through a “listening school” approach we have established a culture where children and adults know that they are valued and where innovation and team work are prized more highly than compliance and ranking. As a teaching school we now seek to adopt this approach at a system level. “Creating Learning without Limits” is published by Open University Press, more details here. More information can be found at http://learningwithoutlimits.educ.cam.ac.uk

• Alison Peacock is Headteacher at the Wroxham School in Hertfordshire, and co-author of Creating Learning Without Limits. Her co-authors are Mandy Swann, lecturer at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, and Susan Hart and Mary Jane Drummond, both former lecturers there.

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