Education research Part 4: Overcoming challenges

In Part 4, we look at the main challenges that were encountered in the early stages of the development of a Harmony Curriculum at Ashley Primary School. For each challenge, the steps that were taken to overcome it are explored, along with an evaluation of how successful these proved.

Facilitating collaboration while maintaining accountability

When leading any project, it can be difficult to find a balance between collaborative and directive approaches, particularly where a change to established working practices is involved. This has been true in leading the development and implementation of a Harmony curriculum at Ashley Primary School.

Although the principles underpinning the Harmony Curriculum were introduced to the school by the Headteacher, the content of the curriculum was devised by the teaching staff with input from the senior leadership team. There were three main reasons why this collaborative approach was encouraged.

Firstly, the school’s senior leadership team knew that if the new curriculum were to become meaningfully embedded in future teaching and learning, it was essential the teaching staff be involved in its development. The change in the focus of the curriculum would only be sustainable if this was a project in which all members of staff were invested. This could not be a curriculum which was imposed but one which grew out of existing beliefs, knowledge and pedagogy.

Secondly, to achieve a richness and diversity of learning activities through which the new curriculum would be delivered, there needed to be a richness and diversity of input, exploration and experimentation in its early stages.

Thirdly, in a school which values creativity and innovation in teaching and learning, the belief that teachers are the people best placed to develop the content taught in the classroom is firmly held. In recent years there has been much criticism within the wider teaching profession of curriculum change that is imposed from the top down, with what is perceived as little consultation of the professionals responsible for delivering this curriculum in the classroom. The development of a Harmony curriculum at Ashley school would not follow this model.

Devising activities

However, as has already briefly been mentioned, this was the first time that principles of Harmony had been applied in an educational context, so communicating how these principles might ultimately permeate, contextualise and further the children’s leaning was a complex task. Any pioneering enterprise is, by virtue of being the first of its kind, undertaken without much in the way of guidelines, templates or case studies. In the case of the development of a Harmony curriculum, there were no programmes of study on which to draw, nor any evidence of previous learning outcomes.

This meant that the staff needed not only the time but also the creativity and vision to devise entirely new activities through which this new strand to the curriculum could be delivered. Inevitably, this resulted in a perceived increase in teacher workload in the early stages of the project, which met with resistance from some members of staff.

As we have already referenced in the previous section, considerable support for teachers was put in place through a programme of professional development, peer support through the sharing of learning outcomes amongst the staff, and coaching through weekly planning meetings for class teachers with members of the senior leadership team. These measures helped teachers devise ideas to use in class and ensured that the activities being planned were in line with the overarching vision for the development of a Harmony curriculum.

Ensuring a high profile for Harmony

The scheduling of weekly slots for teachers to feed back on Geometry teaching and learning to staff and to the senior leadership team also meant that teachers could be held accountable for ensuring Geometry learning had a high profile on the timetable, and that the content taught was of high quality. This accountability was important in the early stages of the project when competing demands on teachers’ time could otherwise have meant the development of the Harmony curriculum proceeded at a much slower pace.

The demands placed on teachers’ time became less of an issue after the first academic year in which Geometry activities were introduced. By the end of the first full school year in which the principle of Geometry played a part in learning, each year group had built up a body of learning activities linked to learning enquiries on which to draw the following year. Activities would continue to be tweaked, refined and sometimes replaced, but for class teachers, the most labour-intensive phase in the curriculum development project had passed.

Communicating the benefits of a Harmony Curriculum

 To gain the support of the whole school community for the development of a Harmony Curriculum at Ashley, the benefits of Harmony learning needed to be communicated to governors, staff and parents. The principles of Harmony underlying this curriculum also needed to be explained.

This has been no small undertaking. It is always easier to work within the boundaries of an existing system than to branch out in a different direction. The more systemic view of teaching and learning that underpins the Harmony curriculum is not widely held. Instead, in England and elsewhere around the world, education is structured around knowledge and skills which are compartmentalized into individual subjects. These are taught in isolation from one another. This ‘separateness’ in learning is engrained in the fabric of the National Curriculum in England, and in the curricula of many other countries, which organize content according to subject.

Even in a school where learning was already structured around enquiries that drew together content and skills across the curriculum, persuading the staff of the benefits of embracing a new view of teaching and learning framed within the principles of Harmony was not going to be easy. Where working practices within a system or organization are established, it is not uncommon to find that there exists a kind of inertia – a reluctance to take on board change and to develop it. Any number of factors may contribute to this, from personal preference for a certain way of working, to workload, which can make the implementation of change appear a daunting prospect.

The power of learning outcomes

To some extent, the children’s learning outcomes proved to be a good way of communicating to teachers at Ashley Primary School the value of teaching and learning based on principles of Harmony. As has already been discussed, the principle of Geometry was the first principle to be introduced to the school’s curriculum. This learning has very visual outcomes, which means the children’s progress, understanding and application of skills becomes very evident in a relatively short space of time. For some teachers, once they could see the children’s high-quality learning outcomes, witness their development of skills such as close observation and fine motor control, and understood how these activities could be used to explore mathematical concepts such as rotational and reflective symmetry, they accepted that this learning deserved its place in the school curriculum. Some teachers also embraced the opportunity to further their own learning by researching and devising Geometry activities, and this was a motivating factor for them.

For other teachers, delivering the Harmony curriculum continues to be a challenge. What is interesting is that many of the teachers who have embraced the Harmony curriculum most fully are those who are the most recently qualified and who are new to the school. These teachers may not have worked in any other school environment where learning is structured in any other way. They know no other way of working so they are developing working practices from the very start which are matched to the demands of the Harmony curriculum. This suggests that it is the change to working practices that the development of a Harmony curriculum calls for, rather than the Harmony curriculum itself that throws up the greatest challenges. To give an example of how working practices need to change to fit the Harmony curriculum:

‘Usually the process of planning and delivering a curriculum of learning starts by referencing the National Curriculum and pulling curriculum objectives into a planning document. This is a very logical thing to do, but it means that the National Curriculum objectives drive the learning and, if planned in subject separate ways, the learning quickly becomes very disjointed and disconnected. It can all feel rather piecemeal and even pointless from a student perspective.’

Taken from the Harmony Teachers’ Guide, ‘Harmony: A new way of looking at and learning about our world’, by Richard Dunne

Conversely, teachers at Ashley School take as the starting point for their planning a Harmony principle then draw content and objectives from the National Curriculum that support the exploration of this principle.

Nurturing a systemic approach

The pace of change may also have had an effect on how comfortable teachers were with leading Harmony learning at the outset. We should remember that the ultimate aim of a curriculum built around principles of Harmony is to promote contextualized, connected learning and ‘joined-up’ ways of thinking in order to foster a systemic change in the way that we perceive the natural world and our place in it. If all learning from Reception to Year 11 had at its core principles of Harmony, young people would have over the course of their schooling, 12 years in which to develop this more systemic perspective. Here, teachers needed to adopt a more systemic approach to their own thinking as well as to their teaching, and to immerse themselves in Harmony principles in a much shorter timeframe.

Proving to the teaching staff the value and benefit of this new approach to learning has taken time and continues to be a work in progress. The same can be said of the task of communicating to the school’s governing body the value of the integration of Harmony principles in learning. To fully understand why this is the case, we must first understand the nature of school governance.

The role of a school’s governing body has traditionally been to help provide strategic leadership for the school as well as supporting the work of the senior leadership team and the staff. An effective governing body will take a holistic view of the education that occurs both inside and outside the classroom, as well as the general wellbeing of the school community. When the working relationship between staff and governors is effective, governors (particularly those with responsibility for a specific area of the curriculum) will make regular visits to the school to observe and gather information about the work and the learning taking place. However, beyond this, governors (with the exception of staff governors and those governors with a teaching background) may not have had much experience of a classroom or school environment since their own education.

To fulfil its function, the governing body is required to take a top-line view of the performance of the school in the context of external factors such as educational policy, the performance of similar schools nationally and the performance of local schools, as well as Ofsted inspection guidance. The analysis of data relating to progress and attainment across the school – and compared to other schools – is a key part of this role.

The impact of the standards agenda

As we have already seen, when the Harmony curriculum was first introduced at Ashley School, the English education system – like many other education systems around the world – was dominated by what has been termed the ‘standards agenda’. This approach to educational reform, which seeks to increase academic attainment in core subjects, continues to be a powerful force in education today. Clearly, it is important to maintain high standards in education and to look for ways to improve educational practice. However, this focus on ‘driving up’ academic standards has had the inevitable outcome for schools of narrowing the focus of school development so that it is focused on the analysis of attainment data in core subjects, at the expense of other areas of innovation.

Another consequence of this dominance of the standards agenda in education is that initiatives that do not have an immediately quantifiable impact on a school’s attainment data are in danger of being undervalued. In turn, this can have a stifling effect on innovation in areas such as curriculum development, which risk being dismissed as a distraction from the focus on data. This poses a very real problem for schools seeking to add value to the education of their students in a broader sense and this has certainly been felt at Ashley.

Integrating Harmony into a crowded curriculum

There have also been logistical challenges to overcome in the introduction of a Harmony curriculum at Ashley. Finding the time for weekly Geometry learning in an already crowded primary curriculum, was one of the most immediate issues to be dealt with.

With the dominant focus in education on standards in the core subject areas of Maths; Reading; Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar; and Writing, class teachers initially found it hard to see how they could timetable a session devoted to Geometry learning each week. This meant that it was important that the Geometry learning complemented the other subjects on the timetable. It could not take time away from them.

This perception by teachers and schools that time devoted to core subjects must be ringfenced at all costs is an interesting one. Speaking at the Whole Education conference, ‘Attainment is not enough’, in 2018, Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, stated that comparison of student attainment across the world does not support the common-sense assumption that more time spent studying a subject leads to greater proficiency in it. Nonetheless, to ensure consistency of provision in core subject teaching across classes and year groups, most schools have an expectation that an English and a Maths lesson is taught each day. This inevitably puts pressure on the amount of time available for learning in other subjects.

Solving problems

At Ashley School, this challenge was tackled in two ways.

Firstly, a regular Monday morning slot for Geometry learning was introduced across the whole school so that each class would start its learning for the week in this way. Over time, the timing of this slot has been relaxed so that classes are able to fit Geometry into their learning throughout the day on Monday, if necessary. This has helped classes in KS1, in particular, to fit in their Geometry learning alongside other timetabled sessions, such as Guided Reading, which takes place at the very start of the school day. The Guided Reading session is not easily moved in the timetable as parent helpers assist with this activity, and they stay on after dropping off their children. In other cases, the timing of a workshop booked to support the children’s learning, a special assembly or a school trip might also contribute to the Monday morning Geometry slot being moved.

As the timetable for each class is monitored by the Deputy Headteacher each week, it is easy for the school’s senior leadership team to monitor the allocation of time for Geometry sessions and to ensure that this remains a priority in the weekly timetable.

Secondly, teachers were encouraged to weave learning from other areas of the curriculum into Geometry learning, wherever possible, Maths being the most natural fit.

The integration of Harmony principles has been more straightforward. The remaining six Harmony principles around which the school is developing its curriculum act as a lens for each learning enquiry, cutting across the curriculum and helping to bring together learning from different subjects. As such, they do not need to be timetabled into a specific slot.

Blending Harmony with the existing curriculum

A further challenge, which other schools engaged in curriculum development may well also have experienced, concerns the structure of the current National Curriculum. This document has not been designed in a way that promotes cross-curricular planning or cross-curricular learning. The content and skills to be taught are set out by academic subject.

At Ashley, developing a curriculum built about principles of Harmony, which also covered the statutory content of the National Curriculum, was not always straightforward. While some learning enquiries leant themselves more readily to blending National Curriculum requirements with Harmony principles, others did not. For example, the Year 5 learning enquiry about rivers and oceans leant itself perfectly to exploring the Harmony principle of the Cycle while also covering the content set out in the Geography programme of study for KS2 and the role of evaporation and condensation in the water cycle from the Science programme of study for KS2.

However, teachers did not always find it so easy to marry the content of the National Curriculum with principles of Harmony. The History-focused Year 2 enquiry around the Great Fire of London, for instance, needed to be revisited many times before a balance between the National Curriculum and a Harmony curriculum was established.

What this seems to point to is the importance of reflection and revision when undertaking curriculum development. Teachers and school leaders need to have the time to evaluate the success of curricular innovation. They also need to be working within an organisational culture in which honest reflections can be made. Yet these conditions are not always present in schools.

Ofsted’s own research into the taught curriculum highlights that, for some senior leaders, the pressure to focus on attainment in national tests dominates school priorities. This means that curriculum development is pushed down the agenda. In this scenario, it is unlikely that a lower-level priority will be allocated the time that we can see from the Ashley experience is necessary to achieve sustainable curriculum change.

Ensuring progression in skills and in content

 As has already been noted, the teaching staff at the school received a programme of professional development to support the implementation of Harmony learning – and Geometry learning, in particular. During these sessions, staff members in different year groups carried out the same activities: constructing a quatrefoil with a compass then using this outline to create a four-petaled flower, for instance, or creating a vesica as the starting point for a sketch of a leaf. These sessions were helpful in providing staff with ideas to use in class, and in helping them develop their own proficiency in constructing geometric forms. However, in the first year that Geometry was introduced to the school, it became apparent when the children’s learning across the whole school was monitored, that several Geometry activities had been replicated in different year groups.

This posed few problems in the first year of the introduction of Geometry, but it was clear that this issue would need to be addressed in subsequent years to ensure the progression of the children’s skills and understanding.

As teachers became more confident in devising Geometry activities themselves and relied less on the activities that had been showcased for them, the problem of repetition became less of an issue. And once the task of mapping the Harmony curriculum began, a few years after the introduction of Geometry learning, it was easier for the senior leadership team to gain an overview of the learning activities being carried out across the school and prevent duplication.

The children’s own development of the skills associated with Geometry learning also played a role in the evolution of the learning activities undertaken in each year group, year on year. A good example of this is the children’s increasing proficiency in using compasses to create geometric forms. When Geometry learning was first introduced in the school, many of the children had rarely – if ever – used a set of compasses. Over time, the children’s level of skill using compasses increased so that they were able to construct more complex geometric forms with a much greater degree of accuracy. This meant that teachers were able to pitch Geometry learning activities at a higher level with the passing of each academic year. For teachers, too, increased confidence and proficiency in teaching Geometry activities, meant more complex activities were successfully attempted with younger children over time.

Supporting children’s understanding of principles of Harmony

The principles of Harmony that form the cornerstone of learning at Ashley School are not concepts that we necessarily engage with often in our daily lives. Our thinking has become disconnected from the natural truths that are embodied in principles of Harmony and which are evident in ourselves and in the world around us. If principles of Harmony did not challenge our thinking in some way, their importance would already be recognised and widely accepted in influencing the way in which we live. The work being done at Ashley School would be the norm, rather than the exception, and the focus of this research would be very different.

However, the examples in Nature which best illustrate principles of Harmony are often very simple. The challenge in a primary school setting with children ranging from 4 to 11 years of age, is to introduce children to ‘big’ concepts, which are occasionally abstract in nature, in a way that is ‘small’ enough to be tangible and accessible to them. Finding the right examples of Harmony principles to use with very young children – and allowing them to explore these in a way that makes sense to them – is key.

South Farnborough Infant School, which has also introduced Harmony to learning across the school (and which we will focus on in the next section), has taken a similar approach, finding simple examples and activities to illustrate principles of Harmony. However, the infant school also taken the step of adapting the names of some of the principles to use with the children.

The name of the principle of the Cycle has been expanded to include a more visual reference to ‘Circles & Cycles’, and the principle of Health has been amended to ‘Healthy & Happy’ to make more explicit reference to the importance of mental and emotional health in overall wellbeing. In the Early Years Foundation Stage, the principle of Interdependence has been renamed ‘Working Together’ and the principle of Diversity is called ‘Same and Different’.

 

Photograph: Richard Dunne

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of
Scroll to Top