Friday, 15 July 2016

Bzzzz: Curriculum making, creativity and teacher agency

Last week I was invited to Newcastle University’s event on Community Curriculum Making. It was a fantastic day and I met lots of interesting people, such as teachers, HLTAs (Higher Level Teaching Assistants), academics, business owners, consultants and in general, those interested in making a change.

Professor David Leat
The set-up was varied throughout the day to keep things interesting, and it most definitely did! After a lovely arrival with tea and coffee, then an introduction from the Professor of Curriculum Innovation, David Leat, it was time for ‘table seminars’. The event was set in the university’s new space, The Herschel Learning Lab, which has been fitted with large tables that encourage collaboration in small-medium groups. Each has a computer and screen attached, that can the group can read from/use together.

There was an excellent and varied line up of 11 ‘table seminar’ hosts, including headteachers, researchers, organisation representatives and education consultants. It was hard to choose, but I went for:

  • Julie McGrane’s (education consultant) seminar on an ambitious and large project based learning venture with eight year olds, bees, parents, teachers and lots of members of the community!

    This was fantastic to hear about - what an achievement for everyone involved. Julie talked about how she was the ‘broker’ between the headteacher, year four teacher Mr Moore, and the Broomley Bee team led by Jilly Halliday. She talked about how she had worked with both parties to find the common ground to stem from, and how being a ‘broker’ is about being an agent for change and the bridge of communication between two parties. This brilliant project led to a class of eight year olds being united with over 56 different volunteers, over a period of eight months. As Julie presented the project, a real sense of camaraderie emanated from the pictures. It really showed what a relationship between a school and a community project can do for everyone involved.

    It was interesting to hear Julie’s perspective on the things that can make such a project happen. The broker is central. Whilst Julie is an education consultant, she is also an Ofsted inspector, which gave her a perceived kind of STATUS to the headteacher. She also was seen as having EXPERTISE as had done inset work with staff there before, and the school had TRUST in her, from her experience, around the pedagogy side too. These things combined meant that she was trusted to lead the way and get the main aims of the project underway.

    To find out more about the project from the main team members' perspectives, click here or follow @LLEducation.

  • Emma Pace’s (Manager of House of Objects) seminar on the importance of creativity and distinguishing creativity from art.

    “Creativity isn’t a subject - it is a capacity that we are all born with as humans that we bring to all situations.”

    Emma runs an organisation/scrap store called House of Objects. Since it opened, 14,000 children have visited. They essentially take ‘away the meaning of items so they are open to interpretation’. Early visitors were asked to use the resources there to create something in relation to what they had been studying at school, something strongly linked to the point of the curriculum they were currently on. However, in recent times, children have been given complete freedom as to what they create! This apparently works very well, and not once have students been stuck for ideas.

    From Emma’s table seminar I took that creativity can help children develop:

    • RESILIENCE: If the children do get frustrated or stuck on part of their creation, children can be given examples of BIG companies that have usually had a lot of prototypes and failures before their successful product comes to fruition. It’s all about what they do next.
    • PROBLEM SOLVING: If something goes wrong, or a particular element of a creation/model didn’t work as planned, children think on the spot as to how they can move forward from there. They focus on their options and what they can do next.
    • BETTER MENTAL HEALTH: Creativity can be key to helping children cope with change. Being able to think creatively for solutions can mean children deal well with transitions and learning new things, therefore helping them in general life.

      A sketchnote by Sylvia Duckworth on creativity.

  • Ahmed Kharrufa’s (Senior research associate of Newcastle University and of course, director of Reflective Thinking) seminar on his plans for exploring how technology can be used for school-community engagement.

    This is something that we'll do another blog post on to talk about in further detail, but in summary, Ahmed explored the idea of a digital platform that could unite schools with the community. Using this platform, a member of the community or an organisation in the community, will “commission” students to do something. This will be a project of some kind. As an example, a local shop owner might “commission” students in their local school to run a campaign to encourage more people to shop at local, small shops rather than big supermarket chains. This idea is something that was very popular at the event and lots of people put down their details to be kept up to date on it. Please do email if you’d like to be added to the news list to keep up with this research (there will be no spam!)

    There was also a performance by 16 students of Belmont School, who in the space of one week, had learned to play a brass or percussion instrument. They then worked together to put a performance on for us - incredible that from all of their hard work and determination in a week, they did so well.

After open discussions and a lovely lunch, it was time for the keynote speaker, Mark Priestley (@markrpriestley), an education professor of Stirling University. Mark’s talk was on teacher agency, and how teachers are set to be ‘controlled’ more than ever. This is why it is very important to break through restrictive conditions and help create new ones for meaningful curriculum development.

It was very interesting to hear about the research that has been done in this specific field and how the tweaking of certain rules or regulations can open up new opportunities and ways of thinking/learning. Mark is strongly against phrases such as ‘delivery of content’ or ‘delivery of outcomes’. The discussion here was all around what action can be taken to enhance teacher agency. We will share Mark’s presentation slides when we receive them, but in the meantime, please do read this blog post if you’d like to know more, or explore Mark’s blog.

After this very thought-provoking keynote, David Leat then ignited an open discussion between all of us who attended. This helped to develop more understanding of community curriculum making and also take home some points of research to explore.

If you have any thoughts on any of these topics, leave a comment below or tweet us @refthinking.

For more details on the Herschel Learning Space, email Ulrike Thomas, Research Associate, The Research Centre for learning and Teaching at

Thanks, Natalie

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