Education research Part 2: Bringing Harmony into the curriculum

The second section of our research into the development of a Harmony curriculum at Ashley School charts the first steps the school took on its journey to develop its distinctive curriculum, including developing an understanding among the teaching staff of Harmony principles and their application to learning.

When we look at how principles of Harmony have been introduced to the Ashley School curriculum, it is important to recognise that this is not a change that has been made overnight. Rather, this has been a process of gradual change, trial and refinement. As is suggested in the title of the first section of this research, the school has undergone – and continues to undergo – a journey towards Harmony.

At the outset, this process of change focused on the Geometry of the natural world and has gradually branched out also to encompass wider principles of Harmony. It is a process that can be characterised by three distinct phases.

Developing understanding

In order to teach, the teacher must learn. In the first phase of the evolution of a Harmony Curriculum at Ashley Primary School, teachers were supported in the development of their own skills and understanding, immersing themselves in the Geometry of the natural world through a programme of training.

The first wave of training for staff was delivered by the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts (PSTA). This began with a workshop for Ashley Primary School teachers held at the PSTA in July 2012, exploring the Geometry of flowers and Islamic tiles.

The Harmony principle of Geometry was introduced as an element through which to explore learning at Ashley Primary School in September 2013. At this point, Geometry was not formalised as part of the curriculum, but teachers were encouraged to start experimenting with how Geometry activities might enhance learning and stimulate engagement. Starting in the academic year 2013-2014, and continuing throughout the next two school years, the PSTA ran a series of four workshops hosted by Ashley Primary School around the concept of ‘Exploring the nature of Harmony’. Each workshop was themed around a season and ran over two days.

The workshops were promoted to schools and teachers through the Diocese of Guildford, Surrey Schools and through the cluster of schools of which Ashley Primary School is part. The workshops were offered free of charge with a small contribution requested towards the lunch provided.

In the first year, uptake of the workshops was very good, with teachers from Ashley Primary School and a large number of other schools in the area attending. The second year saw slightly fewer attendees, even though the workshops had been promoted in exactly the same way. This, however, provided a welcome opportunity to open up the sessions to support staff.

The impact of the revised National Curriculum

This decline in the number of attendees after the first year could be due to the fact that many of the teachers who were particularly interested in Harmony and the Geometry of the natural world had already attended the workshops the previous year. Perhaps the promotion of the workshops needed to be extended to schools in other areas or the methods of promoting the workshops needed to be changed to reach a different audience. However, the 2014-2015 academic year also saw the introduction of the revised National Curriculum, and it may be that schools were preoccupied with its implementation.

In the third year, there was considerably less uptake of places on the workshops from teachers and teaching staff, and it proved hard to attract attendees, presumably for the same reasons that uptake started to slow in the second year. The decision was taken to open up the workshops to Ashley Primary School parents, a decision that proved valuable in communicating the benefits of Harmony in education to the wider school community. By immersing parents in Geometry and Harmony activities, they were able to experience the process of learning for themselves and the power of producing beautiful learning outcomes. Many of the parents who took part in the workshops became keen advocates of learning rooted in the principles of Harmony.

Alongside training from the PSTA, a short Geometry starter activity was included at the beginning of staff meetings for teachers and support staff each week. These were led either by Richard Dunne, the Headteacher, or Jackie Stevens, the Deputy Headteacher. These activities helped increase the staff’s knowledge and understanding of the principle of Geometry and its application, expand teachers’ repertoire of activities that could be used or adapted for use in class, and helped to demonstrate the way in which Geometry tasks might be structured for children. The staff kept a record of these activities in their staff sketchbooks, which were already an established part of staff professional development in Art at the school. The staff collaborated on several large-scale artworks to showcase to the children what could be achieved through the exploration of the Geometry of the natural world.

As we will see in the next section, the nature of these staff meeting starters changed over time as staff became increasingly confident and experienced in leading Geometry activities in class with the children.

Encouraging experimentation

During the course of the 2013-14 academic year, the development of the school’s Harmony curriculum moved into its second phase. This was characterised by experimentation by members of the teaching staff, who began to take on a more central role in defining and driving best practice in the teaching and learning of Geometry.

The introduction of Geometry to learning at Ashley Primary School was an exceptional undertaking; it is uncommon for a primary school to introduce what is effectively an entirely new subject to the curriculum. This proved as advantageous as it was challenging. With no programmes of study to follow and no statutory content to be taught, there was almost infinite freedom to innovate. At the same time, this put the onus for devising activities, lessons and units of learning very squarely on the shoulders of the teachers. We will revisit this last point in more detail in the next section.

Where the principle of Geometry was embedded effectively in meaningful learning, this was the result of teachers (and, in some cases, teaching assistants) undertaking their own research into different concepts of Geometry in Nature and trialling activities in class. The children’s successful learning outcomes were then shared at staff meetings, with teachers leading the rest of the staff in completing the same activity themselves. This contributed to the collective learning of the staff, helping to develop knowledge and understanding and stimulate ideas for further learning. It also helped the class teachers become more adept in constructing their own geometric drawings.

Reflecting on success and improvement

It is important to note that not all learning outcomes were successful the first – or even the second – time they were attempted with the children. Sometimes the pitch of the activity was too challenging. Sometimes it was hard to estimate the length of an activity, which meant it might run beyond a timetabled session. In such instances, it wasn’t always easy to find the time to complete the learning. Sometimes the outcome didn’t feel as meaningful in the context of the wider learning as had been hoped. Teachers were encouraged to evaluate at least once each half term the activities undertaken with the children. Some activities were revisited and amendments made. Some were abandoned altogether. Some activities proved more successful than had been envisaged even by the teacher who had devised it. In addition to the Geometry outcomes themselves, the comments and reflections of the children on their learning offered an excellent way of assessing the success or otherwise of an activity.

Over the course of the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, Geometry started to play a more regular part in learning across the school from Year 1 to Year 6. It would not become formalised as a weekly stimulus for learning, however, for another two years.

It was only at the start of the 2016-2017 academic year that Geometry started to be used as a starter activity for an entire week’s learning. From this starting point, other areas of learning could be drawn out. As part of learning about woodlands, for example, children might start the week with a printing activity, looking at the five-part form of a chestnut tree leaf and comparing this to the five-digit form of their hands. Using these prints, they might move on in Maths to take detailed measurements of the length of each digit and each leaf, looking for patterns in the relative measurements. The following day, they might focus in greater detail on the length of each section of a human hand, measuring from wrist to knuckle, knuckle to the mid-finger joint and so on up to the fingertip. Questions for mathematical investigation could then be posed to extend the learning. What is the relationship between the measurements? Is this true of the measurements of all four fingers? What about the thumb? This focus for the week could also be extended to other subjects.

Support for teachers

Teachers in each year group had weekly meetings with the Headteacher and Deputy Headteacher to discuss the Geometry planning for the next week’s learning and look at how other strands of learning could be linked. These sessions proved to be crucial in embedding the principle of Geometry in learning within a relatively short time frame.

In the same period, the process of aligning the curriculum with the wider principles of Harmony got underway. When planning a term’s learning, teachers were asked to select a Harmony principle for each learning enquiry, which they felt matched the learning most closely. The principle was explored with the children and used as a means to contextualise their learning. In this way, the teachers in the school began to investigate where links between the existing learning nquiries and the chosen principles of Harmony could most naturally be made.

The children’s own half-termly reflections of their learning were also taken into account. As part of this process, the children were asked to explain, in the context of their learning enquiry, what they understood the principle of Harmony that they had been exploring to mean. Their responses, the depth of their understanding and their ability to link their learning to the principle were all valuable in determining which approaches were working well and which needed further refinement.

Embedding in the curriculum

The information gathered by evaluating the preliminary links made between the principles of Harmony and the learning enquiries was used to produce a whole-school Harmony Curriculum map ready for the start of the 2017-2018 academic year.

We have already seen how the philosophy underlying the principles of Harmony has much in common with the core beliefs that underpin teaching and learning at Ashley Primary School. Perhaps for this reason, the task of mapping the existing learning enquiries taught at the school to the principles of Harmony was a relatively straightforward one. The principle of Geometry had been introduced as a strand of learning which cut through all other areas of the curriculum and provided a starting point for that learning. This left six further distinct principles of Harmony to integrate with the existing Ashley Primary School curriculum. These were mapped to learning enquiries in such a way that each year group covered one principle in each of the six half terms and covered each principle once over the course of the school year.

In some cases, the exact phrasing of a learning enquiry question needed to be changed to enable a better fit between the Harmony principle and the focus of the learning. In other cases, the content covered in the course of a learning enquiry was amended or reordered slightly. But this was a process of tweaking rather than a wholesale change.

By taking one of the selected principles of Harmony in isolation, it is possible to use the Harmony Curriculum map to chart the progress in understanding that a child will make in his or her journey through their primary education. Taking the principle of Health as an example, we can see that in Reception, the child’s learning focuses on healthy modes of transport. This introduction to the principle of Health is easily accessible for children of this age as they will all have experienced walking, scooting or cycling. They can relate this concept to their own concrete experiences. In Year 1, the child considers how play can contribute to good health while in Year 2, he or she starts to learn in more detail about the role of nutrition, hygiene and wellbeing in achieving and maintaining good health. The progression in the complexity of the child’s knowledge and understanding of different aspects of the principle of Health continues in the intervening years until, in Year 6, they consider how the health and wellbeing of an individual relates to the health and wellbeing of a team or community and finally to the health and wellbeing of the world.

At the time that this research was undertaken, this new curriculum map was being followed as the basis of teaching and learning across the school for the first time.

 

Photograph: Richard Dunne

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