Learning Teams – worth thinking about?

I’d been planning to write this post a little later in this series about disciplinary and inter-disciplinary learning but needs must.

In yesterday’s post I reflected upon the constricting and enabling features of how we deliver disciplinary learning in secondary schools.  Even the strongest proponents of disciplinary learning would agree that the current system does not actively engage learners in their own learning, does not promote ‘deep’ learning, nor encourage learners to consider the connections between one discipline and another.

In this post I’d like to fly a kite for Learning Teams in schools. Ann McLanachan, Head Teacher of Longnidry Primary School, established and led our Learning Team Initiative in East Lothian. I wrote about this project in November 2005 and since then it has an incredible impact upon teachers’ practice. The project has ignited a firestorm of activity across our schools where teachers have been empowered to work in collaborative groups experimenting and developing their practice.  There is hardly a primary school in East Lothian which remains untouched by this ‘bottom -up’ approach.

Back in 2005 I pondered whether the Learning Team approach might be something we might build upon in the future and now with a mass of evidence to indicate it’s positive impact perhaps we are duty bound to practically explore how it might be taken forwards on a more formal basis.

Learning Teams 10-15

An example: (apologies to those of you who find this too detailed or those of you who find this not detailed enough)

  1. Let us imagine a secondary school with 100 pupil in S1 (12 year olds)
  2. We establish a learning team made up of the learners and 10 teachers – support for learning staff would also be linked with the team.
  3. The teachers in the team would deliver all of the disciplinary and inter-disciplinary learning.
  4. For example the same maths teacher would teach every class (20 pupils) for the 75% of their maths classes – horizontal consistency
  5. That maths teacher would also teach some classes outwith S1 (25%) – vertical continuity and enabling the teacher to contextualise the S1 curriculum.
  6. Other disciplines would be taught by teachers dedicated to that year group, e.g languages, social stuidies, expressive arts, RME, health and well being, sciences, technologies – these teachers woiuld also have some vertical continuity but would predominatly teach this year group.
  7. Each teacher would have a tutor group of pupils who they would meet with on a daily basis to reflect upon indiviudual and class progress, and future learning.
  8. The Learning Team of teachers would meet as a group to plan learning, discuss methodologies, reflect upon progress, discuss individual pupils and explore inter-disciplinary learning, etc.
  9. The year would be split up into 8 BIG QUESTIONS – one question for each month which would from the basis for inter-disciplinary work , for example, Why does poverty affect Africa but not America?;  Why does Scotland need it’s own parliament? Why do boys do less well than girls in schools?
  10. Some of the disciplines could be taught by non-specialists – for example – there might be a health and well-being afternoon where the staff members of the team lead activities in which they are interested and have expertise – perhaps led by the subject specialist in the team. Such a model could extend to all subject disciplines where the normal timetable might be superceded to do some in-depth work collective work.
  11. There would be a weekly meeting of the entire learning team- teachers and learners to reflect upon the week complete learning logs and plan the coming week or month.
  12. Teachers would belong to their learning team in the first instance and their subject discipline second.
  13. There might be a principal teacher responsible for leading the learning team or leadership could be rotated around the team.
  14. Each class would have a Learning base (classroom)  – where up to 50% of the curriculum would be delivered.
  15. Such a model of delivery would mean that classes could not be set.
  16. Units of learning time would range from 30 minutes (tutor group) to 2 hours
  17. The learning team (teachers and learners) would devise their own programme and curriculum for the week/year making use of the teachers in their team and the available rooms – teachers would know beforehand when teachers would be unavailable and which rooms would be unavailable
  18. Learning Teams from P6, P7, S1, S2, and S3 would collaborate to ensure progression, continuity and challenge.
  19. Learning Teams from different schools would link together to share ideas and practice.
  20. Teachers would spend no more than two year’s in any Learning Team but some continuity would be preferable to support pupils in their progress.
  21. The S1 – S3 curriculum would be delivered through the Learning Team approach.
  22. The S4 and S5 curriculum would focus on the certificated curriculum and be delivered in much the same way as at present.

So would this kite fly??????  – my thanks again to the Deputes who came up with many of these ideas last week at their conference.

Disciplinary learning – straightjacket or cornerstone?

 In my last post  I was reflecting upon what Professor Lindsay Paterson had to say about the importance of disciplinary learning.

A Curriculum for Excellence sets out the place of Disciplinary (subject learning) within the curriculum:

It defines the scope of the curriculum as extending beyond subjects to include:

  • the ethos and life of the school as a community
  • curriculum areas and subjects
  • interdisciplinary projects and studies
  • opportunities for wider achievement.

 It goes onto state:

Because the curriculum is much more than the sum of individual curriculum areas, this material is the first of a series. To support planning for the curriculum as a whole we will be producing further Building the Curriculum papers which will include cross-cutting themes including literacy and numeracy, and interdisciplinary studies and projects.

The dominant structure in Scottish secondary education is the notion of the curriculum as curriculum areas and subjects. Within ACfE these are:  

Each curricular area or subject will then reflect identify the experiences and outcomes in relation to particular content e.g. in science, within the unit relating to Planet Earth where experiences and outcomes have been identified for Biodiversity as illustrative exemplars.

The challenge for schools is going to be whether or not they step beyond the accepted way of delivering the curriculum in units of study dedicated to each of the curricular areas (subjects) e.g. 3 periods of Social Studies; 5 periods of Maths, 2 periods of Expressive Arts, etc.

There are those who fear that we water down these areas into experiences which are taught by non-specialists in an inter-disciplinary manner which do not require the services of a specialist teacher in that subject area.

The difference between secondary schools and primary schools is that the Scottish secondary system has specialist subject teachers – usually only qualified to teach in one curricular area – who have typically undergone a degree in that discipline and also undergone a one post graduate certificate/diploma in teaching. That unique resource becomes both a strength and weakness of any system which seeks to explore the notion of inter-disciplinary work – who will do it?; does it make the most of our specialist teachers?; will inter-disciplinary work undermine the outcomes in disciplinary work?; how will we fit inter-disciplinary work into the curriculum without it taking time away from disciplinary work?

The more I think about this, the more I am attracted to the idea of the early years in secondary school being taught by teams of teachers – as was suggested by most of the Depute Head Teacher Groups at their recent conference. Such a team of teachers could still deliver their own specialisms but work together to create a learning environment which enabled the learners to see and create the links between the subjects.

In my next post I’ll consider some of the recent neuro-scientific research into the brain and the learning process, with a view to trying to understand how the brain sees all disciplines in an inter-disciplinary manner.

Disciplinary Learning?

I’d invited Professor Lindsay Paterson to East Lothian to discuss his recent article in TESS and explore the notion of disciplinary learning and how it relates to A Curriculum for Excellence.

“For all the talk of inter-disciplinarity, there is confusion about what a discipline is. There is no sense that the sedimentation of human knowledge into disciplines might be more than arbitrary, that our forebears have given us a structure for organising knowledge that might embody their collective wisdom as well as their prejudices.”

There is a danger that the pendulum swings too far in our attempt to engage children more with the learning process – at all costs.

In his article Lindsay considers the relationship teachers have with the subjects they teach:

“Teachers ought to have autonomy from politicians, from bureaucracies, from management, but no teachers ought to ask for more than very limited autonomy in relation to the subjects they teach: none of us should imagine that the task of teachers is to re-invent maths, literature, or the study of society. We might modify these things at the edges and find new ways of teaching old things. But, largely, to enter teaching is voluntarily to subject ourselves to a body of knowledge and skills that already exists.”

I know there are some out there who will rise to the notion of “teachers teaching subects” – I’ve heard teachers throughout my career adopting the higher moral ground by proclaiming that “I don’t teach subjects I teach children” – the reality is that without a context (which is in most cases is content – which in turn relates to a subject) learning is devoid of any purpose or value.

I agree we do have to teach children how to learn but I’ve always preferred that such skills are embedded in the learning process, i.e. learning something which is worthwhile (I’ll return to this notion of worthwhile knowledge in a later post in this series).

It was fascinating for me on Tuesday to see how Depute Head Teachers – primary and secondary – all set out the importance of core knowledge – one of the ideas emerging at Tuesday’s conference had been the idea of core skills (disciplinary learning) in the morning and project work (inter-disciplinary learning) in the afternoon.

I don’t think there are many teachers out there who really baulk at the the idea of disciplinary learning – it’s more to do with the way in which such a singular disciplinary focus has turned so many learners off the learning process.

In my next few posts I’ll be exploring the relationship between disciplinary learning and inter-disciplinary learning and challenging some of the assumptions which tend to see the two as being at opposite ends of a spectrum.

Curriculum for Excellence – beware of Groupthink

Professor Lindsay Paterson recently contributed an article to the Times Education Supplement Scotland (TESS) entitled “Potholes on the Road to Excellence”

“After decades of controversial reform, the warmth with which A Curriculum for Excellence has been received is remarkable. The reasons are readily apparent – romantic child-centredness, glances towards recent research on the brain, respect for teacher autonomy. But in much more serious ways this reform, as its documents proliferate and its development work mounts, is vague to the point of confusion on too many matters to be a proper basis for new educational practice.”

Lindsay’s perspective should never be ignored – and his piece stimulated a response from Brian Boyd entitled “New Paradigm or Emperor’s New Clothes” – a title which in itself suggests some the potential tension which exists around the “The Curriculum for Excellence”

What struck me about this issue is the lack of debate which is taking place over The Curriculum for Excellence – so much so I invited Lindsay out to East Lothian to meet with myself and some colleagues. 

As I listened to Lindsay I was taken back to The Moral Maze a programme on Radio 4  I’d listened to the night before on Radio 4  on the Impartiality of the BBC in the 21st Century.

The report is entitled “From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel”

Impartiality in broadcasting has long been assumed to apply mainly to party politics and industrial disputes. It involved keeping a balance to ensure the seesaw did not tip too far to one side or the other.

Those days are over. In today’s multi-polar Britain, with its range of cultures, beliefs and identities, impartiality involves many more than two sides to an argument. Party politics is in decline, and industrial disputes are only rarely central to national debate. The seesaw has been replaced by the wagon wheel – the modern version used in the television coverage of cricket, where the wheel is not circular and has a shifting centre with spokes that go in all directions.

The report describes a “comfort zone” or “shared space” which employees of the BBC inhabit which establishes a “groupthink” about issues which characterise the predominant view of the world and where certain views go unchallenged – I’ll leave you to read the report if you want find out more.

I think the point that Lindsay is driving  at in relation to A Curriculum for Excellence is that we just might be being faced with a similar type of predominant thinking about which there can be no debate.

I’d like to think we could engage in a rational dialogue about the development without anyone who puts their head above the parapet being castigated as a reactionary or trditionalist who is afraid of progress.

In my next few posts I’ll explore some of the issues we discussed with Lindsay – my only concern with Lindsay’s  appeal for the importance of “disciplinary” learning is that there are some in the profession who will take great solace from such an argument and take it as a licence to continue teaching and organising learning in the same way as they have always done.


Creative Arts and Education Advisory Group


We held our second meeting of our Arts and Education Advisory Group.

This large group will attempt to develop and drive our strategy for integrating the arts and education into a seamless whole which promotes engagement, quality of performance and links with the community from the age of 3-18.

Our intention is to allow our strategy to evolve – so we spent today brainstorming all of the various artistic and creative activities which take place in our communities for young people aged 3-18. What became apparent is that there are an enormous range of diverse activities in which young people can participate.

The however is that this range of activities is often – though not always – ad hoc and often lacking routes for progression either within the school system or into the community.

For our next meeting we intend to map these activities both in a matrix format and a more literal geographic format.

As we concluded – we are not starting from scratch but all too often new strategies ignore existing practice and opportunities. Using the grounded strategy approach we intend to build from where we are and begin to gradually fill in the gaps and develop links between the activities and opportunities which currently exist.

“Smashed them all to bits – ha, ha, ha”

An image from the famous Smash Martians advertising campaign.

Maureen Jobson – our Quality Improvement Manager, Learning and Teaching, had the task of closing today’s Depute Head Teachers’ Conference.

Maureen considered some of the things which we used to do in the past which we now take for granted or violently object to. e.g.  – she explored how slavery was accepted practice 200 years ago; how people throught that the minimum weight for a computer by the year 2000 would be one a half tons; etc.

The point she made – forcefully – was that we – human beings – are often trapped by what we know and can’t lift our heads to see any alternative.

I couldn’t help the old Smash advert jumping into my head as Maureen was speaking.

Cadbury ran a 1974 TV advertising campaign featuring the now famous Smash Martians, a family of Martian robots who would watch humans laboriously preparing mashed potato the traditional way on television. The robots would laugh as they heard how the

 “Earth people peeled their own potatoes, boiled them for 20 of their Earth minutes, then smashed them all to bits”, instead of using Smash.

Watch it here

Perhaps fifty years from now people will be laughing at how we organise and deliver education in 2007 and will wonder at all the angst and resistance we put up to any significant shift from what we know.

Shaping our future?

At the conclusion of today’s Depute Head Teachers’ Conference each of the six groups made a presentation in response to the task.


East Lothian is about to embark on a radical building programme where we will be building new school for 10-15 year olds.

Each school will have 700 pupils, 45 teaching staff and 20 support staff (there are no other limits on the school design or facilities)

Your solution should address the following – but not necessarily as separate points. This list is not exhaustive.

  1. Describe the aims of your school
  2. Design your school building.
  3. etc, etc

The following are just some of the themes which emerged from the various presentations:

The need for core knowledge/skills – perhaps the morning given over to such a focus

Opportunities personalisation of the curriculum

Flexible days – longer in the winter shorter in the summer.

Flexible spaces – as opposed to dedicated classrooms

Less movement round the school – use of pods, zones

Teams of teachers – cross curricular

Much more negotiation

Create a hub in every school

No year groups

Sharing responsibility and power – rotation of responsibilities

Challenges or key questions permeating the school year for all pupils

Using technology – openess, transparency, responsive, aware’ “see what I did today”

Learning logs, personal laptops – parental access to information

“It will feel like home”

Making use of the community and being of use to the community

The importance of seating in social areas

Development of learning groups of staff – critical freinds who plan, observe and evaluate together

Environment, environment, environment – making use of the outside

Develop cross-curricular expertise

Develop assemblies (staff and pupils) which have real power

5 year contracts

Sharing power – not just distributed leadership

The campus approach – linking schools together within a community

The Head Teacher becomes the “Lead Learner”, “Head of Pod” or is done away with in favour of a rotation system

Timetable courses rather than classes

It’s impossible here to capture the vibrancy, collaboration and innovative ideas which came out through this exercise.  We are photographing all of the presentations and will post them here soon.

I can recommend this task for any group of teachers.

Entrepreneurial Leadership in action!!!!!

Entrepreneurial Leadership in schools

I gave the welcome to our Depute Head Teachers this morning at their first annual conference.  The theme for the day was “Entrepreneurial Leadership”

I began by reinforcing the difference between entrepreneurial leadership in a “for-profit” environment” e.g. Alan Sugar, and entrepreneurship in an educational (not-for-profit) environment – i.e. social entrepreneurship.

I shared three definitions of Social Entrepreneurship:

“innovative solutions to immediate social problems and mobilises the ideas, capacities, resources and social arrangements required for sustainable social transformations” Alvord and Brown 2004 

“social entrepreneurs are not for profit executives who pay increasing attention to market forces without losing sight of their underlying missions” Bronstein 2004

“social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector by :

  • adapting a mission to create and sustain social value;
  • recognising and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities that serve that mission;
  • engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaption and learning;
  • acting boldly without being limited by resources currntly at hand.”   Dees 1998

Having set out this definition I reinforced the key role Depute Head Teachers have in improving education within East Lothian and that they have the capacity to operate as social entrepreneurs within their own schools and as a network.

I concluded by referring to Stephane Deneve and the notion of invitational leadership.

The challenge for us all is to create a context where people feel comfortable and able to accept that invitation.

Sixth Year – some alternatives

Following on from my recent post on Sixth Year here are some possibilities:

Highers (two-year programme) or direct route Advanced Highers are taken in Sixth Year and not fifth.

Offer an International Baccalaureate (16-19) for students who wish to undertake such study – one term of which is completed abroad – or perhaps something more akin to the Welsh Bac

Work experience – or internship (thanks Steven Heppell) – is built into the year – up to 30% of available time.

One month in the year can be taken as a travel time where the student is encouraged to travel in the UK or Europe.

Subjects are blocked into intense periods of study – you could complete a Higher course in six weeks.

All classes have at least 25% of adults present in class

Our schools specialise in particular subjects – we create an East Lothian Campus – pupils can move between schools.

All students are required to complete a personal on-line project which they will submit as part of their portfolio for future employment or education.

It is not compulsory for students to attend lectures/classes – they design the learning programme for themselves – on-line/lecture/ seminar/one-to-one/group study and fit it round their own personal learning programnme for the year.

We link the year to the four capacities identified within A Curriculum for Excellence: successful learners; responsible citizens; effective contributors; and confident individuals. Students have to plan, “collect” and record experiences which relate to the four capacities.

All students must spend the equivalent of 30 hours working for local voluntary services.

Schools link with a university to enable students to complete some of their studies in the university environment.

Students are grouped into “learning cells” who design their own curriculum and negotiate with teachers about the learning programme and monitor and support each others progress.

All students must undertake a “personal challenge” over the course of the year – something which requires planning, commitment and extends them beyond their existing comfort zone.

Language immersion programme – all subjects are taught in selected language.

Virtual learning groups are established within East Lothian where students with a common interest work together on-line in a particular area of study.

All students have a community mentor/buddy who works with them to support them in their studies and transition from school.

A proportion of  jobs in the school are kept open for students to be paid to formally support the learning process of other pupils – 3 jobs (one day per week) could make up 15 Days employment.

Local employers sponsor some students through their studies and devise joint programmes of study.

“Scholarships” are awarded to some students who have exceptional ability in certain areas of the curriculum to specialise on their own development, e.g sport, art, dance, science, business etc.

The year includes a series of “challenges” akin to Dragon’s Den/Apprentice etc which the students must undertake individidually and in groups.  “Challenges” can be linked to formal elements of the curriculum.

Parental week – for one week in the year a parent joins their child and shares and supports their learning experiences.

I’m sure there will be more but that will do for now!

Depute Head Teacher Conference – a challenge

We’re holding our first Depute Head Teacher’s Conference on Tuesday at the Marine Hotel, North Berwick.

The theme of the conference is Entrepreneurial Leadership. 27 Deputes will be in attendance.

I’m opening the conference, followed by Paul Raffaelli giving his perspective on Leadership in East Lothian.

Ewan MacIntosh will then present an on-line video presentation on an alternative curricular/school model he came across from Norway.  Alison Wishart then concludes the introduction by summarising some of the curricular approaches which are being developed in Australia.

The Deputes will then spend the next four hours in groups of four/five (a mix of secondary and primary) trying to take an entrepreneurial approach to solve the following hypothetical problem.

East Lothian is about to embark on a radical building programme where we will be building new school for 10-15 year olds.

Each school will have 700 pupils, 45 teaching staff and 20 support staff (there are no other limits on the school design or facilities)

Your solution should address the following – but not necessarily as separate points. This list is not exhaustive.

  1. Describe the aims of your school
  2. Design your school building.
  3. Design the staffing profile – subject specialists etc.
  4. Design the leadership structure
  5. Design the curriculum structure
  6. Design the timetable structure/units of study
  7. Design the organisation of classes/learners
  8. Design the assessment structure
  9. Describe how best you will make best use of the community
  10. Describe how all pupils will be included and supported
  11. Describe how you will make best use of technology
  12. Describe the place of  home learning
  13. Describe how teachers will develop their practice
  14. Describe how the school will link with other schools, employers, further and higher education
  15. Describe the self-evaluation process you would set up in our school.
  16. Describe some of the unique featuire sof your school and children’s experience
  17. ??  – any other suggestions for this scenario?

Groups will have access to a laptop, flipcharts and pens.

Each group will be invited to make 10 minute presentation at the end of the preparation period.

A prize might be on offer for the best proposal.

Discussion will take place about how limited we might be in relation to our current practice by “what we know” and our fear to take chances.

We will try to identify ways in which we can remove some of the barriers which might prevent tus fulfilling some of the more desirable elements of our proposed solutions.

Maureen Jobson will wind up the event by placing it in the context of what we are attempting to create in East Lothian.

We’ll be using these suggestions as a platform for our Curriculum Architecture Conference we are holding in the autumn.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how people work together and the ideas which this task generates.