Planting On

Butties and biscuits were at the ready and the kettle was on. I clicked play to start ‘School kills Creativity’, an animation about learning, by Ken Robinson. It was playing on the SMART board. People were chatting about their day and I wondered whether anyone would take any notice of the film. I nipped back to my office. When I returned, all eyes were fixed on the screen. One of the key questions Ken Robinson poses is why do so many of our children start out bursting with curiosity and end up asking so few questions? Good question.

Does it seem strange to you that this was the introduction to a session called ‘Planting On’, as session about embedding Skills for Life in other subjects. Isn’t it part of the WEA’s approach to encourage critical thinking in all our classes and, perhaps, understand why this is difficult to achieve? Not only our students but our tutors too have come through the same system.

We were meeting to discuss how we can link together all we have covered during the previous four sessions. ‘How would you define embedded teaching and learning?’, I asked. Both small groups gave their suggestions and I shared with them the one from the National Institute of Adult and Community Education (NIACE):

‘Embedded teaching and learning combines the development of literacy, language and numeracy with vocational and other skills. The skills acquired provide learners with the confidence, competence and motivation necessary for them to succeed in qualifications, in life and at work.

Does our school system do this for our children? Not according to Ken Robinson, at least not for the majority of them. We suggested that the embedded knowledge and skills would flow naturally from the subject matter and were likely to be used creatively. That is our challenge and are we up for it?

What do we mean by ’embedded’? This term can cause confusion. NIACE offer three models of embedded provision. The first is an integrated approach, where opportunities to address LLN skills are identified in all session plans. Learning activies are mapped to the core curriculum. The curriculum can be delivered by one member of staff with knowledge of context and understanding of supporting LLN skills development and planning support from other specialists, as required.  We have tended to follow this path in the North West region.

Secondly, there is a ‘sandwich’ model. Literacy, Language (ESOL) and numeracy needs are mapped to and drawn out of the context. Each session is staffed by a different member of staff where double staffing is not practical for staffing and funding reasons. Learners have two Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) – one for each strand of learning.

The third one is called the ‘overlapping’ model. This combines aspects of both of the othr models and allows single or double staffing as appropriate. 

Next up, we did a little group activity. I split the group into two and asked them to divide subject cards into three sets. The name of a possible course title was printed on each card, for example, Digital Photography, Nail Art, Family Finance. I asked the  groups to sort the cards into three piles – one where there is a clear link to basic skills, one where there is some link and one where there is no link at all. One of the groups had a couple of cards in the third category but moved them, following discussion.

Is there any subject matter which cannot be delivered through an embedded approach? Throughout these training sessions, I have continually emphasised the benefit to learners of working in groups, talking to one another. Tutors ask how they are to do all of this and teach their subject outcomes in the time allowed? The key to this is to identify which specific LLN skills are needed to achieve the course learning outcomes. You don’t have to cover everything but you do need to know what skills are needed on your course and at what level.

‘For most contextualised courses’, I told them, ‘there is a pecking order. The majority are likely to focus on speaking and listening skills. Next comes reading and, lastly, and only if it’s an integral part of the subject matter which learners have to do, writing skills.’ Why’s this? Because developing writing skills requires so much time and work that learners needing this level of support ought to be signposted to discreet LLN provision. Of course, learners will still be reading and writing. It means that tutors will not be specifically addressing those skill areas in the planning and delivery of their courses.

This took us on to talking about our Learner Journeys. Some of us felt it important to let learners know how much time they had to complete a task in class. How many of us look round and feel under pressure not to finish last? Where does that feeling come from, I wondered? Yet, if one who takes the time given to consider a problem fully, s/he may well have a deeper or different  insight. Or they may just be going at their own pace. The tutor should allow a reasonable amount of time and stick to it, so as not to rush or fluster people.

The other point that came up was speaking and writing in plain English. This is something we would all sign up to but we all lapse back into teacherspeak at times. If someone, not necessarily the tutor, explains something clearly and simply to you or to the class, then you have done well. Remember those words. Learning isn’t, indeed, cannot be restricted to what takes place in the classroom. There is a quote from R H Tawney on the wall in our training room, which expresses this. He writes

 On the nature of the WEA class

“And the classes are classes, not lectures. Thanks to the fact that they are small, tutor and students can meet as friends, discover each other’s idiosyncrasies, and break down that unintentional system of mutual deception which seems inseparable from any education which relies principally on the formal lecture. It is often before the clssses begin and after they end, in discussions round a student’s fire, or in a walk to and from his home, that the root of the matter is reached both by student and tutor.”

(R H Tawney, 1914)

The moment when we understand something fully is a wonderful one. We’ve all experienced it. Quite often, it happens when we’re not expecting it.  Suddenly, one of the group took us in a new direction. Saying she had been educated abroad, she asked why so few English people ask questions. She notices it at work. Colleagues don’t ask if they are unsure about something whereas she wants to ask lots of questions, yet feels discouraged. Is that your experience too? Is it cultural, socially conditioned, gender-related…other? What are the consequences if we stop asking?

We left it there for now and carried out an audit of a session plan for healthy eating and ceramics course. I asked them to think about what maths and/or English knowledge and skills were needed to achieve the learning outcomes. One tutor commented that it was like a light going on. Before, it had been implicit. Now, she realised how much maths she was expecting her learners to know already in order to do what she was asking them. I said,’Well, now you know, you can come up with a good initial assessment tool which enables you to find out what they already know when they join the group, can’t you?’ I could tell she wasn’t entirely sure she could but that is, as they say, the subject to the next session.

And the sole learner who liked working on his own was fine about this too.

Sir Ken Robinson (born 4 March 1950) is an author, speaker, and international advisor on education in the arts to government, non-profits, education, and arts bodies. He was Director of The Arts in Schools Project (1985–89), Professor of Arts Education at the University of Warwick (1989–2001), and was knighted in 2003 for services to education.

Originally from a working-class Liverpool family, Robinson now lives in Los Angeles with his wife Marie-Therese and children James and Kate. For anyone interested in viewing Ken Robinson’s animation, cut and paste the link below into the search bar at the top of the screen:

Double clicking on the image will take you straight to Youtube.