Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Integrated learning at its best!

Students at Opunake Primary School ( Taranaki) create a replica of Captain Falcon Scott's Antarctic hut to culminate their term's study.
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Now and then you come across schools that are simply different.

Opunake Primary is one such school.

Once regarded as 'struggling' it is now seen as a very innovative and creative school that does equally well at ensuring the 'foundations' skills of literacy and numeracy are in place.

If you visit their website you can learn about what makes them tick but to really appreciate what they are doing a visit is vital.

Opunake has developed an Integrated learning approach across the whole school to 'immerse( their students) in authentic based, inquiry based contexts' so as to help students, 'make connections between knowledge, skills ,feelings, values and attitudes.' As well the staff introduce their students to a range of well thought out and applied 'thinking skills' that will see them through their life long learning journey.

Most primary schools will familiar with integrated learning, in some form, as well as being aware of the range of thinking skills available : de Bono thinking hats, Art Costa's 'intelligent behaviours', 'graphic organisers', Blooms taxonomy etc. What is different at Opunake is how well they are implemented and the outstanding results gained by the students, with guidance from their teachers.

The time to visit is the last two days of any term.

This is when all the classes combine their carefully planned aspects to transform a large room ( really two rooms)and nearby corridors into what can only be described as fantastic experience to visit. What visitors will see is a a powerful 'Te Papa' style exhibition of displays, exhibits, working models, large mural, models and art work, based on the theme that the students have been working on during the term. It is almost impossible to see the walls of the rooms as they are covered with black plastic, or foil, and displays lit by focused lighting. Videos and computer presentation run continually , some on to big screens, to show work students have been involved in, including relevant dramatic interpretations. Students are available over the two days and one evening to explain, or demonstrate, to their curious parents and relations who are the guests invited to view the exhibition

The current display features the terms work on Antarctica, one aspect of the environmental theme for the year, called 'Our Fragile Earth'. As part of the display students have recreated the hut built in Antarctica a century ago by explorer Robert Falcon Scott. The replica hut boasts authentic touches like rough hewn timber and kerosene lamps. Other exhibits feature work done by families as homework!

An earlier exhibition based on the school studying Egypt included a large model of a pyramid, mummies, the Sphinx and every aspect of life in ancient Egypt you could think of. Term one this year the theme was disasters, next term the display will be focused on global warming and finally, in Term Four, How the students can make difference.

This is serious fun learning for students, teachers and parents alike.

The process starts by teachers working with family grouped students 'brainstormimg' ideas and concerns about the theme selected
.This is undertaken the term before. The teachers, following student input, then plan activities to develop background knowledge for students to undertake in small mixed class groups - group includes students from year 1 to 8. Co-operative learning skills are obviously a vital aspect. As well, to introduce the terms work and to excite learners, teachers 'perform' a dramtic aspect of the study. For the Egyptian Study the staff performance was mock, but realistic, mummification ceremony!

Following working in the 'mixed' groups ( allowing both students and teachers to work with a range of age groups) teachers then work for the remainder of the time in their own class teams and students also become involved in individual research topics, or activities including, if they wish , family projects. All the work for the end of term exhibition has to be planned carefully to use the available space. Students , in the process, gain experience in contributing to a major presentation.

The school bases much of its thinking on the writings of James Beane integrated learning model. Beane believes in schools as democratic communities where the curriculum is collaboratively developed. He believes that the curriculum should arise out of the questions and issues that students are concerned about and that, when defined, students should then make use of subject disciplines as necessary to ensure students gain in-depth learning.

But it is not the writing of Beane on integrated learning that makes the difference at Opunake. Nor is it the excellent use the school makes of implementing a range of thinking skills. Nor the innovative use of mixed aged groupings.

What makes the difference, in my opinion, is the belief that all students can do quality 'work'
, to achieve their 'personal best' in whatever they do , and for this work to be displayed with the respect it deserves.

What is also evident, when visiting, is the tremendous pride felt, not only by the students, but also the teachers - and the parents who are awed by the quality of what their children achieve. All this is due, in no small measure, to the dynamic educational leadership and enthusiasm of the principal. But it is a team effort!

The school's vision is 'Taking Learning To New Heights'.

The school has achieved this, but knowing the principal and her team, there will be always new heights to scale.


Anonymous said...

Great to see such an example as this!! It seems to me that one of the most difficult things to do with kids is to make them feel powerfull. Usually we make them feel powerless! To engage them in a facilitated fashion such as is occurring at Opunake is a very empowering process, obviously one that is community based. The kids will remember this time for the rest of their lives. We are only starting to reconfirm the importance of positive community connections. Things like listening to, and valuing others inputs, accepting other opinions and working in a dialogue. Learning such skills at a young age will have a huge impact on the future sustainability of the communities these kids live in and the relationships they form and transmitt in the future!!!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks 'anon' for your thoughtful comment - it was really appreciated.

Education , as you say, is all about 'empowering' students and connecting them with their communties.

I am sure the students will remember the learning experiences they have been part of creating at Opunake School. To be honest all students remember their school experiences but not always positively! All too often , for some students, school experiences limits their life opportunities.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,
Great post ... it sounds like a visit to the naki is a must in the last two days of term!!!
The website link oyu put in took me to the college ... this address takes you to the primary school website
It was well worth the look too, really enjoyable.