US RURAL PROBLEM-SOLVING THRIVING

A voluntary initiative promoting project-based learning in rural schools began four years ago with a handful of schools and will be expanded. Schools volunteer to participate in the programme.

"In most schools, we treat the subjects as distinct units of instruction. We might have 50 minutes of math, followed by 50 minutes of language arts, followed by 50 minutes of science throughout the day," said Dan Guericke, cooperative director. "The approach we're taking is, when you attack a problem, you may be working with math, science, language arts and art all at the same time. It's the teacher's role to tease out whatever standards are being addressed in each of those areas and determine whether mastery is being achieved."

In one school two staff teach biology and language arts simultaneously Every written biology assignment also counts as a language arts assignment. The students recently learned about genetics, anatomy, physiology and the environment by developing a model for the "perfect cow and pasture." The model varies, attuned to individual classrooms and students.
"I've been a part of a lot of initiatives in my years in education and this was one that made the biggest change for me as an educator and also transformed my students' outlook on education," one participating teacher said. "My students were empowered by the work they got to do in the classroom, because they knew they were solving a problem that was real and was relevant to them, and they knew they were making a difference."

She added that teachers are encouraged to share resources and information about projects they developed with other schools. Teachers also have access to an online site to share that information or ask questions. Professionals from various fields in the community are encouraged to come to schools to talk to students about their field.

"We thought it was a great opportunity for our kids, to provide them with an opportunity to get out and do a little more hands-on type of activities that deal with more real-world problems. We all know when they can get out and do things, the engagement goes up tremendously. We are careful, with many new top-down required State initiatives, not to overload teachers."

NASS welcomes such news- even if derived from secondary years. Effective UK primary schools have applied the principles since Plowden in 1967. It is eminently regrettable they have not become universal, and so invited wasteful and damaging intervention to solve problems such methods would have resolved.

We have long encouraged collaboration as a way to identify and sustain perceived best practice. Will some enterprising member schools now be investigating what is the perfect pasture for local cows- or what defines the perfect cow? Did the Dakota project start with a pupil's question.

Such work remains within any freedoms the Government claims to offer teachers- even if fitted outside the curriculum prescribed! At a recent National Education Trust conference such principles and practice were seen as ways to meet many prescribed requirements.

NASS is aware of particular experiments in organisational flexibility such as the growing number of part-time Headteachers and the on-going professional development this can mean for the senior teacher on days when there is no Headteacher. A free sixth form college in Sweden operates a four-day week, though pupils have the school itself open the fifth day. Staff are paid for four days. A State sixth form college elsewhere in Sweden offers staff one day a week free for reflection. It is a disciplined, responsible system under which teachers must explain the outcomes of a day walking the dog or otherwise reflecting and show how it is influencing their teaching. They maintain special notebooks for the purpose.

Does a four-day week have potential for UK schools- not least rural schools? Government argues for a longer school day and is very concerned at the costs of overall bussing.