Subject choice at St. John's
In this case study, P7 teacher Lesley Pacitti, from St. John’s RC Primary School, spoke to Jo at Children’s Parliament about how she engaged children in decision making about their learning.
Jo: Can you tell us a little bit about how subject choice traditionally works in school and what you felt needed to change?
Lesley: At St. John’s, along with a lot of schools, we have a curriculum folder which acts as a guide for teachers across all areas of the curriculum. It is there to avoid repetition of subjects and to make sure that all the Experiences and Outcomes and associated Benchmarks are met in each subject. So, the P1 folder might have a focus on ‘houses and homes’ for example and further up the school you might have a focus on a specific period of history.
The difficulty with that is that these topics can become quite ingrained. So, teachers might look at the folder and see ‘houses and homes’ and think that is what they have to teach, even though that might not be of any interest to the P1s.
St. John’s have been working a lot on children having more ownership of their learning, it is a big deal to us. We have been looking for ways to embed children’s voice and choice in their learning. It is about teachers feeling confident, relinquishing control while still making sure that we reflect the Experiences and Outcomes for each subject area.
Jo: How did you build children’s voices into subject area choice?
Lesley: It is important for children to understand the context in which they are learning. The way I do it is to tell them about the Scottish curriculum and the Experiences and Outcomes that are our guide, in a child-friendly way. I might say ‘P7s across Scotland have to be able to show that they’ve learned a or that they understand b. How are we going to do this?’ As a class we can then brainstorm ideas for a subject area, narrow the choice down, and hold a class vote on the final topic.
In this example we needed to cover an important historical event. We normally wouldn’t push them towards war and conflict; however, they were very keen to cover this area. As part of their brainstorming, they suggested they would be interested in learning more about 9/11.
It is not something we’ve covered before and when it came up it took me a second to think ‘oh yeah, that is still war and conflict, while being modern it is still a historical event for them.’
Jo: Doing that topic with children, it is a really bold thing that could be tricky to do. How did it come up as a class?
Lesley: They actually wanted to know about everything. We started on 9/11 but they kept asking questions about what happened back in the First World War and how did that lead to the second, and about why people hadn’t learned any lessons from the first one. They wanted to learn how 9/11 fitted in with that as well. It ended up growing arms and legs as everything linked together! They were so interested, it ended up being this mammoth topic that we ran for about four months!
Jo: Is this something you talked to parents and carers about?
Lesley: 9/11 is an interesting topic but there is an element of risk there, so we wanted to involve the parents from the beginning. We reached out to them saying ‘this is what the P7s said they want to learn, obviously we’re going to be sensitive, but if anyone has any concerns, please contact the school.’ We never had any concerns; the parents were more than happy and trusted that we would cover the topic in an age-appropriate way.
Jo: Were there any challenges encountered with the topic? One of your class was telling me that there’s loads of conspiracy theories online about 9/11. Is part of that topic to talk about reliable sources? Are there any other challenges?
Lesley: That kind of thing always comes up when you’re doing historical topics or modern studies topics. We talk about media bias and how information is filtered to you. The 9/11 topic wasn’t just about looking about a particular period of conflict in the past, it was also about the influence of the media and having to critical analyse what we’re being told. It was about developing a critical mind. So that was a challenge.
The other big challenge was that we discovered that 9/11 is not a topic that we believe has been done with Primary children. It was a struggle to find age-appropriate resources. There were some resources at National 5 level, but a lot less than you might think, finding them was tricky, then we had to adapt them to Second Level, the Level at which our P7s are learning in terms of Curriculum for Excellence.
I think that can be a barrier to giving children choice. It is great if they’re interested in something, and their motivation is high to learn. However, it can be tricky to resource it, it is doable, it is just a challenge for that teacher. That was also one of the unexpected outcomes of the topic. I had to think creatively about what I used and how I adapted it.
Jo: What difference does it make if you, as a teacher, do take that challenge on though? What impact does it have on pupils?
Lesley: I think the difference is the motivation. If they are getting a choice in their learning and there is a natural curiosity driving that, you find that the engagement is much higher. I think they 100% like having the opportunity to drive their own learning. It also creates a level of mutual respect between teachers and children. You are saying ‘I trust you to make that decision and pick something that interests you, in turn you respect me that that I have given you that choice.’
I think it is easy for me in some ways because I’m in P7, but I do think this is such a valuable thing to do further down the school as well, you just need to help facilitate that choice when they are younger. They may not know all the options that are available to them, so you have to provide more guidance. Even then, you can still provide options, see what catches their eye, then vote together.
In nursery it is all about what children want to do, and this can be lost as they get older. The same way the importance of play gets lost as they get older. I don’t understand that. Why should they not drive their learning? As a teacher you just need to be flexible enough to build it in.
Jo: What did you learn from going through these changes and what will you do as a result of your learning?
Lesley: What I learned is that where you can give them a choice and voice you get a much better level of engagement.
What next? I suppose we need to work as a school on the curriculum folder so there is more pupil voice in there while still meeting all our experiences and outcomes. That’s not an easy thing to answer but it is doable.
It is about us all working together, it is about sharing practice as a team, from big things like curriculum choices, to tiny little things. It is about us having the opportunity to come together as staff, which can be difficult to find time for.
We need to think more broadly as well, not just about curriculum areas, but about how can we enable pupil voice and active participation across the school?