Stage not Age

It was a privilege a little while ago to spend some time with Adam Williams, Principal of the John Cabot Academy in Bristol.  The Academy is well known because of it’s innovative practice and achievements for students.  Look on the OFSTED site or TeacherTube, for example.

In particular, I was interested in the practicalities of implementing vertical tutor groups and classes, or teaching by ‘stage not age’.

The Academy is organised into four Communities (houses), named of course by the students.  On four afternoons of the week, key departments will host all of Year groups 9,10 and 11 from one Community.  How the department organises students during the afternoon is then up to them.  But the idea is clear – to allow for students to move through the GCSE programme at a pace that suits them, rather than on a fixed schedule by age.

The result is that classes may comprise students of mixed age (obviously).  But also the Academy has changed it’s use of space to give flexibility over the size of classes and how they work together or in groups.  So some classrooms have been knocked through (tastefully) to generate a larger area.  Within this area, traditional classes may take place, or one teacher may lead for a while a much larger group, supported by other teachers and support staff.  In some parts of the Academy, break out areas and ‘project’ rooms are provided for group work.  The technology and art areas even have informal seating areas, low tables and sofas.

There are many ramifications from even this one aspect of the innovative practice at John Cabot.  Timetabling, lesson planning, team teaching, class management and class ‘control’.  But for me, the impressive feat is that here is a situation in which it is really happening.  And what underpins all of this is a very clear set of shared values and culture.  Much effort is placed on developing those shared values, and of course that critically involves the students.  Students have many formal and informal ways of influencing decision making in the Academy.  This creates the social contract which is necessary to implement some of these innovations.  So students can use mobile phones without classes being constantly interrupted. Different activities and even lessons can take place in the same space and students remain sufficiently focused. 

My interpretation of this is that John Cabot has moved somewhat along a path from organisation for control, towards organisation for co-operation.  But this has been hard-won through a genuine buy-in to ‘learner voice’ and establishing those all important shared values.

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Flexibility through curriculum remodelling

A significant barrier to transforming learning in secondary schools is the lack of manoeuvering space.  The timetable is packed, so the knock-on effects of change are hard to accommodate.  Staff non-contact time is minimal and so re-organising delivery is constrained and time for re-training limited.  Indeed, so many aspects of school organisation, culture and even the physical space are a result of continued honing over many decades to prioritise a traditional agenda. 

It was therefore refreshing to discuss with Jim Wynn of Cisco some ideas he is working on for curriculum remodelling and how they can potentially create some space for manoeuvre.  In essence, we consider afresh all the varied ways we can now meet a curriculum need. Of course we include ‘traditional’ techniques, but we can also draw on so many new possibilities, including different media, different levels of interactivity, the use of independent study or peer group learning or investigative learning.  The list goes on.  What I really liked about Jim’s approach was his lucidity and the simplicity of how to actually go about this.  Make a table, put the objectives along the top and the possible activities down the side.  There will be many activities possible for each objective.  Now stand back, and consider new pathways and new ways of organising people, time and space to follow these pathways.

It’s not rocket science, says Jim.  So what is new?  It is that many of these new activities now be mediated in the virtual world.  Even activities involving collaboration may take place using tools such as email, chat, bulletin boards, blogs and the like.  Indeed, isn’t this often the way collaboration takes place in industry?  I am also reminded of Alan November’s notion of Authentic Audience, and the power technology has to include ‘real’ people in the educational process as well as us teachers!  This can be particularly motivating for learners.

And what of the benefits?  If just some of these activities can take place in the virtual, we create some flexibility for ourselves.  This allows use to look at those issues of timetabling, space and use of staff – and perhaps do something differently.

I am reminded of those picture puzzles with the sliding tiles (I’m sure they have a name).  One space is essential, but I’m not even sure we have this at present.  Maybe Jim’s ideas can create one or even more of the spaces needed to permit the more flexible approach required if we really are serious about transforming learning in and out of our schools.