An Integral Curriculum at Amesbury School

Ensuring that learning is real life and takes place in an authentic learning context is one of the commonly touted characteristics of 21st century learning.  The main thinking behind this is that students will learn best when there is a real purpose for their learning. I am sure this is true. However, I am coming to understand that a much more important reason is that the complex times our children are growing into will require a much greater ability to make decisions which are very complex in nature. These decisions will require synthesis of huge amounts of wide-ranging, diverse and contradictory information and ideas, complex thought processes, strong moral/social justice awareness ( a strong vision of how the world should be) and an acute political awareness. As a staff, we have come to know this as decisional capital as per Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves (Developing Professional Capital, 2013); and, I think, the only way to gain this capacity is to engage with real life problems. Decisional capital cannot be taught as a bunch of skills in isolation, though skills are a necessary component. Decisional capital is developed as people engage with the messiness of real life situations and problems and use reflective and other practices to increase their understanding of the reality of how the world works and make decisions which display this increasing “practical wisdom.”

At Amesbury School we believe it is important that this kind of learning is not only for the adults in the school; but that students have opportunities to begin to develop decisional capital. We also do believe (as above) that students learn best when they can see a real purpose for their learning, and “real life contexts” provide this.  Hence, at Amesbury we strive to deliver an “integral” curriculum. This means that learning begins with real world experiences/interactions or problems or contexts. As we inquire into the experience/interaction, we realise that we need skills to understand the “thing” better and so we step aside from the real world experience and learn the skills that will help us with our inquiry. We then take the skills back into the inquiry and now we are better equipped to carry on our investigation into how the world works.

This is the ideal process, but the reality is that learning, particularly in the early years at school cannot always (or even often) be based on real life contexts. There is considerable skill-based learning that needs to happen so that students can begin to engage more deeply in the inquiry process. So, though it is our belief that skill-based learning such as reading, writing and maths is best when it “falls out” of an inquiry, we realise that for our junior students particularly, learning programmes need to be more skills-based until the students develop a sufficient level of skill to access learning at a deeper level within an inquiry. This changeover of emphasis happens at different ages for different children. We believe, in general, that it happens about the time a student reaches Level 20 in reading. An important aspect of the personalisation of learning at Amesbury School is recognising where students are at and ensuring that each child’s programme is appropriate to his/her developmental level in relation to this.

This “integral curriculum” approach is different from more traditional schools which tend to present decontextualised learning for much of the day and do this in very clearly defined bands of time.  At Amesbury, you are likely to see this much more in Koru Hub – although our goal is to integrate the skill-based learning of reading, writing and maths into inquiry as much as is practicable. But in Harakeke Hub, although, of course, reading, writing and maths are taught regularly; it, hopefully, will not happen in the kinds of clearly defined bands you might see in other schools. We would expect this learning, at this level, to be taught increasingly through an inquiry approach. Although, it might look a little different for individual students with differing needs.

The current inquiry called The Dragons’ Den” is a good example of this. A real-life, authentic opportunity to take part in the Churton Park Festival provided the context for the inquiry. Teachers looked at the matrices to see what achievement indicators in reading, writing and maths could/would authentically be covered during this inquiry and, in their planning, they set goals for each student. As students moved through the inquiry, the authentic activities or tasks they did for the inquiry, such as writing emails asking people for help and support or seeking information, provided evidence towards the achievement of the indicators. As required, and in a timely manner, the teachers provided skills-based workshops for each student who needed it, to assist students to gain the skills to successfully participate in the inquiry (such as giving change in maths or working out profit margins).

The teacher planning required for an integral approach to teaching and learning is complex. To begin with, we have the real life context of the inquiry which teachers need to explore and plan for.  What are the essential understandings of the world or the powerful ideas we want students to explore as part of this inquiry? Then we have the skills-based component. What reading, writing and maths skills will authentically “fall” out of the inquiry?  Teachers will have to prepare a range of skill-based workshops to cover these. However, there is a further layer – we now need to personalise this, because not all children will need the same workshops or the same level of workshop. Some students will already have the indicator highlighted on their matrix and they will need a different set of workshops or to cover a similar indicator at a higher level. Within the delivery of workshops, students will take more or less time to pick up the learning. This will need to be catered for in the planning.

Our commitment is that each child will receive the education that he/she needs, not the one that is better for another child in the group. Our commitment is also that we will not waste students’ time by having them sit through a workshop or session that is either too hard or too easy.  We want the learning of all students to be exactly as it needs to be.  Of course, this is aspirational…..we are not there yet.  However, we are getting closer to having the systems, structures and processes which will enable this aspiration to become a reality.

And then sometimes we are just not able to provide an authentic context for coverage of particular achievement indicators. Sometimes, in order to ensure coverage of the Amesbury Standards, we do just have to provide decontextualized skill-based learning. It is not how we prefer to do it, but sometimes it is the only way.

I know that as parents you want everything for your child. What makes this approach safe in terms of ensuring that the skill-based learning of reading, writing and maths is continuing appropriately within the “integral” framework, is our focus on the matrices. The matrices ensure a constant focus on where your child is at and where he/she needs to get to next.

I want to mention that an “integral” approach to learning introduces much more complexity to teachers’ work, but, we believe, it is the only way to go. The students’ engagement during The Dragons’ Den inquiry is testament to that fact. Many of you have commented to me on your child’s enjoyment. But let me be clear….it is fun, but it is not only fun. There is appropriate and personalised learning of the basics and some deeper understandings of the world all wrapped up into an engaging inquiry. As a result, our children will not only be able to do reading, writing and maths, but they will also learn to engage with the world in meaningful and complex ways.