St Mary the Virgin is a school positioned right in the heart of Wales' capital city of Cardiff. As a nation, Wales are on the cusp of turning our education system on its head, and at its heart lies a vision with four core purposes:
It is, essentially, a pupil focused curriculum that listens to pupil voice, assesses individual needs, embeds learning in enquiry and provides contexts that are relevant to the school. As we looked at ways to explore this challenge, we were introduced to SOLE and the work of Jeff McClennan and the natural 'marriage' of our curriculum and SOLE soon became evident.
After some initial local meetings with a local Children's University in Cardiff, we were able to meet virtually with Jeff and listen to his vision for SOLE, and its role in peer learning and pupil facilitation. We soon came to realise this was a perfect fit and how, even in the midst of COVID and distance learning, we could encourage our pupils to think creatively, lead their own learning and grow in knowledge together.
As a school, we chose to follow this approach with our oldest pupils who are age 10 and 11. In all honesty, we were nervous about expecting so much from pupils who we could not be in a room with. Added to this, reliance on teaching such a new skill at a distance was something very new (as it would be for any educator I imagine!)
Initially, we looked at how this approach could deepen pupil knowledge and examined what Big Questions could open up discussion, whilst initially be based in something which had an element of familiarity, providing a level of confidence as we began.
Our distance learning is based in Google Education and this provided a challenge as we did not have the option of Google Breakout rooms. So, just to challenge our pupils a little further, we provided links from Google Classroom to a Microsoft Teams where we could put pupils into virtual breakout rooms. From there, pupils were placed into strategic groups and presented with an open ended question. Our first question was 'How has Cardiff Bay changed?' As a question rooted in our locality and previous knowledge as well as personal experience, it was a question that would allow a broad range of responses.
Pupils then shared their thoughts in small groups and used Google Jamboard (another new skill!) to share their answers in their group and provide a platform to share with their class. Jumping in and out of the rooms, we were able to listen in on 10 and 11 year olds having informed, articulate discussions around a broad, challenging question. This was followed by a whole class feedback session where pupils were able to share their learning and lead the peer to peer discussion with confidence.
The greatest measure of the SOLE session's impact was the enthusiasm with which the pupils wanted to repeat the activity.
Yet beyond the pupil enthusiasm, as educators, we saw a real, concrete working-out of those values and purposes that are embedded in our new curriculum. SOLE enabled our learners to be independent, to lead their own learners, to pursue lines of enquiry that were relevant to them, to organise themselves and experience learning in a way that is self-led rather than teacher delivered. We moved on and looked at questions that ranged from 'What did the Romans do for us?' right through to 'Where does our food come from?' and widened the approach to our 9 and 10 year old pupils who looked at the Big Question 'What can we do to reduce our carbon footprint?'
As we return to face to face learning, we know the principles can be applied to anything that engages our pupils, and we are continuing to use this enquiry-based model as a basis for planned pupil activities. As learning continues, regardless of whether that is face to face or online, we are looking forward to using the SOLE approach to equip our pupils to be independent learners with enquiring minds and the confidence to pursue their own thoughts and questions.
Becci Baston is the Deputy Head teacher at St Mary the Virgin Church in Wales Primary School.