As you might expect from learning that requires a high level of accuracy and attention to detail, teachers at the school cite improvements to fine motor skills and to the presentation of work among the benefits of activities based on the principle of Geometry.
Teachers also note that children value the opportunity to be creative and to have the freedom to explore a Geometry activity, interpreting it in their own way and viewing it from different angles.
‘The children enjoy having the time to be creative, to be free to explore. They don’t worry about getting the answer right, as they would when they are learning about grammar, spelling or methods of calculation. They like being able to focus on what they are creating.’
Iona, Year 4 teacher
This is echoed in comments from the children, who clearly enjoy the child-led exploration that characterises these activities.
‘In Geometry you can explore more. No-one’s going to tell you you’ve done it wrong, like they might in Maths or English. There’s not just one answer so you keep trying things and changing things until you have something you’re happy with it. It makes me feel calm.’
Hannah, Year 6
Developing resilient learners
Hannah’s response highlights another skill that learning based on the principle of Geometry is allowing the children to develop: resilience. The teachers have also noticed this.
‘The children have their own expectations about what they want their learning to look like. If it hasn’t worked out the way they want it to, they ask to do it again. But in another subject you might not have seen before the same level of care taken by the same child. There’s an element of self-regulation there.’
Tasha, Year 4 teacher
What is it, then, that sets this learning apart from learning in other areas of the curriculum as something that is worth persevering with? What is it that nurtures in the children this motivation to succeed? One Year 5 teacher puts it very simply: ‘They know they can make beautiful things.’
The children are clearly very proud of the outcomes of their Geometry work. They acknowledge that at times the activities are challenging but they seem to enjoy the process of mastering a specific technique or learning how to use a geometric construction tool such as a compass effectively – tools they might not use in other areas of their learning. There is also the satisfaction of knowing that they have been challenged by their learning but that they have succeeded in creating something complex and visually appealing as a result of that learning, that they might not have expected they could achieve. Enjoyment and satisfaction are powerful motivators that encourage the children to set their own high expectations of the outcomes of subsequent Geometry activities.
The teachers also note that it is not always the children who excel in traditionally academic subjects who excel in Geometry learning and that this can have a significant positive impact on their sense of themselves as learners. The prestige attached to Geometry learning in the school no doubt encourages the children to attribute value to this learning.
‘Children who find other learning quite tricky can flourish in these activities. And they know that this learning has as high priority in our school.’
Louise, Year 5 teacher
A selection of Geometry learning outcomes
Using intersecting circles to explore leaf shapes, Year 3
Learning Enquiry: How can we learn to identify native trees through the seasons?
Exploring the symmetry of scarab beetles, Year 4
Learning Enquiry: What can the Ant Egyptians teach us about living in Harmony?
Using geometry to design an Indian mandala, Year 5
Learning Enquiry: What will we see on a journey through India?
Taking inspiration from Inuit fish designs, Year 6
Learning Enquiry: How do the Inuit of the Arctic live with Nature?
Understanding Harmony principles
While the outcomes of Geometry learning are more concrete – it is possible to ‘see’ what the children have produced as the result of this learning – the outcomes of learning about other Harmony principles are less tangible. The outcomes of learning about principles of Harmony are linked to knowledge and understanding.
Interviews with children in KS2 show that they are developing a good understanding of what the principles of Harmony mean to them and how they are relevant in the context of their learning. Some examples of children’s responses when asked to explain the Harmony principles they have been learning about are given below.
The principle of Diversity
‘The creatures in the rainforest are all different but they all live together as one. Without one, the others couldn’t survive. If hunters killed one animal, other animals would die.’
Harry, Year 3
‘If you didn’t have diversity in the landscape on Earth, all the wildlife would be the same. There are things in nature that people need and if we didn’t have a diverse planet we wouldn’t have all the different resources.’
Olivia, Year 4
The principle of Beauty
‘If you don’t learn to see beauty in the things around you, you’ll never feel inspired. Everything would feel negative. True beauty isn’t just about how something looks – it’s inside something or someone. Learning about the principle of Beauty helps you see that things are amazing – they have value.’
Eden, Year 5
The principle of Adaptation
‘You find examples in nature of how living things have adapted or changed to survive. It shows you how we need to adapt our lives and the way we live to make things better for everyone. We can make one small change and it will improve things for people in other parts of the world.’
Megan, Year 6
‘It’s understanding what different creatures do to survive. The natural world can’t always adapt as well as we can – it’s us who need to change.’
Thomas, Year 6
The principle of the Cycle
‘A cycle never just stops. It never ends. It repeats itself in a chain or like a circle unless something interrupts it. When a cycle is interrupted, the whole cycle breaks.’
Eden, Year 5
The principle of Health
‘If you want to stay healthy you must eat a balanced diet. We need to do exercise to keep fit. You should have a good sleep every night and keep calm. You need to have holidays and take breaks.’
Collective class response, Year 2
The principle of Interdependence
‘We rely on each other like penguins in the Antarctic depend on each other to survive the harsh weather.’
Lucy, Year 6
Framing Harmony learning
In conversation, the children often drew upon the context of their learning enquiries to help explain their understanding of a Harmony principle more fully. This is evident in these quotes from the children and is to be expected. The children in each year group spend many weeks immersing themselves in a specific enquiry and its associated Harmony principle. It is natural for them to refer back to their learning to expand upon their ideas and to relate their thinking to specific examples.
When Harry in Year 3 explained what he understood by the principle of Diversity, he supported his ideas using the knowledge of the rainforest ecosystem that he had acquired over the course of the Year 3 learning enquiry Why should we protect the rainforest?. When Lucy in Year 6 spoke about the principle of Interdependence, she drew on knowledge and examples from her learning enquiry about the Antarctic.
As we will discuss in Section 5 of this research, the choice of context within which to frame learning about Harmony principles is critical in supporting children’s understanding of these concepts. The focus for the learning enquiry linked to each principle and the examples and illustrations of each principle that the children are presented with as part of their learning need to be carefully selected. This gives the children something more concrete and accessible on which to build their understanding. The strength of this connection between example and understanding is well illustrated in the children’s explanations.
Applying understanding outside learning enquiries
However, it also became clear in conversation with the children, that some of them are already starting to look beyond the context of their learning enquiry and consider how their understanding of Harmony principles can be applied elsewhere.
Talking about the principle of Diversity, Bella in Year 3 recognised that diversity of thought is essential to debate and to learning:
‘If we were all the same, there would never be anything new. We can do different things and have different ideas. In our learning a teacher will ask us for ideas and if we all said the same we wouldn’t learn anything.’
Explaining his understanding of the principle of Adaptation, Zac, also in Year 3, spoke about the role of adaptation and change in learning:
‘If a piece of work isn’t very good, you might have to adapt it to make it better – like adding descriptive language to your writing.’
The mapping of Harmony principles to the school curriculum is still a relatively new endeavour. At the time that this research was written, the school was in its first year of following a developed Harmony curriculum map with each learning enquiry linked to a specific aspect of Harmony. These concepts were, therefore, still relatively new to the children when these interviews were carried out. The children might have explored each Harmony principle only once or twice in their learning up to this point. It is perhaps surprising, then, that some of the children were responding to the principles in this way, applying them outside the frame of their learning enquiries.
Revisiting Harmony principles
Now that there is in place a Harmony curriculum that allows each of the school’s seven principles to be explored through learning enquiries once each academic year, the children will start to revisit each principle as they move through the school. The children felt that this would enable them to build on their knowledge and understanding of a principle and engage with it in a different way.
‘When you start a new learning enquiry and you look at a new Harmony principle, you might have no idea what it means. But then you learn and the next year you add to that.’
Charlie, Year 3
The Year 6 children felt that they were already able to consider different ways in which Harmony principles might be interpreted, expressed and contextualised. This progression in the children’s thinking will only really become evident once they have followed this curriculum for a longer time. The Year 1 cohort in the 2017-2018 academic year will be the first group of students to have worked closely with the Harmony principles throughout their schooling. It will be interesting to hear their reflections on the principles of Harmony they have studied throughout their schooling when they reach Year 6 in September 2022.
Transcending subject boundaries
The Harmony curriculum that is now in place at Ashley Primary School is structured in such a way that subject-specific skills and content are taught in a more interdisciplinary context. Children are expected and encouraged to make links between their learning in different areas of the curriculum and to use these links to respond to their learning enquiry questions and define what actions they will take as a result of this learning. This more holistic view of curriculum development, with the contextualisation of learning at its core, requires and promotes a more systemic view of teaching and of learning.
In education in recent years increased emphasis has been placed on quantifiable academic attainment in the core subjects of Maths and English: the result of the so-called ‘standards agenda’. This has caused concern in many quarters about a narrowing of the curriculum taught in primary schools to focus on the content that is assessed at the end of KS1 and KS2.
In response to this, the movement to broaden the curriculum and move away from content-focused, subject-specific learning to project-based education that promotes the acquisition and development of skills, is gaining traction.
Delivering the keynote speech at the Whole Education: Attainment is not Enough conference in London in March 2018, Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), stated that a curriculum based on knowledge alone would not equip young people adequately to work and thrive in the future.
He cited research into skills needed in the workplace, which highlights decreasing demand for routine cognitive skills, which can be easily automated, and rising demand for skills focused on the use and application of knowledge, extrapolation and social skills.
Schleicher went on to say that the aim of education today should be to promote ‘interdisciplinary learning and the capacity of students to see problems through multiple lenses’. He called for education to move away from delivered wisdom to co-creation of knowledge in the classroom, to replace subject-focused learning with project-focused learning and to develop learning based on experience and activity rather than memorisation. In Schleicher’s words: ‘the past was interactive; the future is participative’.
Photograph: Richard Dunne