Wednesday 12 March 2014

Using Real-Life Contexts for Learning

In education, we talk a lot about how real-life contexts give learning a purpose.  The irony is that often we fabricate these to allow us to deliver the national curriculum.  If you work in a primary school you'll definitely know what I'm talking about: a visit from "Henry VIII", a letter from "the council" or a request from the "captain of the Titanic".  In my NQT year I had children writing to, from and about historical and fictional characters, drawing graphs and charts which no-one saw and doing experiments and investigations to cover the content.  I tried to give learning a "real-life" context but mostly this was achieved through make believe and pretense.  It was learning for the sake of learning.  If I'd have asked myself why I was teaching, or the children why they were learning, the answer would have been the same:

"Because we HAVE to."

That was before I read the book Inspirational Teachers, Inspirational Learners over the summer.  There was a brand new school year beckoning and I was desperate for ways to improve my practice for my second year of teaching.  I was determined to make it an "inspirational" year for the kids and me.  There were two main points I took away from the book.  Firstly, that learning can be greatly enhanced with REAL real-life scenarios and projects.  Secondly, that enterprise can help to create a true purpose for learning, whilst giving children important life skills.  I finished the book completely inspired to drop the pretense and the make believe to make way for real purpose-driven learning in my classroom.

Then I came across the first hurdle: the National Curriculum.  How on Earth could I make Keeping Healthy and Ancient Greece have a REAL real-life purpose? The latter seemed particularly difficult because of the distance in time between the my class and the era they would be learning about.

The book helped me out with the Keeping Healthy topic by suggesting putting on a paid-for dinner for parents to come along to, thus creating a REAL real-life enterprise project for the topic.  The national curriculum required some dance in the year so, armed with a date for the meal and the go-ahead from the head, I proposed a Dinner & Dance project to my class.  After a whole session of bouncing around suggestions of what we could do to make it successful and special, we had some amazing ideas.  The children wanted to make it an international-themed, healthy dinner and dance.

From their ideas alone, I created an entire 6-week curriculum which covered many more subjects than I had originally hoped.  They wanted to
  • make bunting of the flags of the world (DT).
  • research a country each (ICT, Geography).
  • make posters to go up about the countries (English). 
  • advertise the event so designed posters for the school and radio adverts for the blog (ICT). 
  • learn dances from around the world (PE, Geography). 
  • find out how to make the meal healthy and where the healthy foods came from (Science, ICT).  
  • write to a local hotel and a chef to see if they could help (English).  
They got replies from both and visited the B&B where they learned how to run a business, lay tables and advertise clearly.  They had to deal with prices, profits and tickets. With regards to why I was teaching and the children learning, the response had changed from "because we HAVE to" to:

"Because we NEED to." 

Our learning had a point. A purpose. A REAL real-life scenario to drive it, whilst still being underpinned by the national curriculum.  I was covering content but it didn't feel like it. The children were making progress but it wasn't the slog it could have been.  They had a reason to make it their best work - their family and friends were coming along.  Not only that but they were paying to come along!  All that curriculum learning and "extra" learning - collaboration, communication, enterprise, etc - came about just because of a simple purpose.  Something real to aim towards, together.

After the Dinner & Dance was a roaring success, with 50+ people attending and enjoying, £200 raised and newspaper reports printed in the local parish paper, I started having doubts.  That idea had come from the book I'd read - what if it only worked for certain curriculum topics or subjects?  Not being a defeatist, I set to preparing a "because we NEED to" curriculum for my most difficult topic: Ancient Greece.  SO far in the past and so seemingly irrelevant to these children of the 21st century - how could it have a purpose?  One thing was certain - I couldn't take them back in time to make it real!

This time, my inspiration came not from a book but from a child in my class.  He had been to London for a stop-motion animation workshop and was so enthused when recounting the whole day to me.  That's how I got the idea that the children could become Mythological Movie Makers.  So, with a date for a cinema afternoon and the go-ahead from the head, I proposed a stop-motion project to my class.  They would work in teams, becoming production companies complete with logos, taglines and jingles.  They would choose, storyboard and script a Greek myth before filming it in stop-motion animation using Lego.  They would then record the voice-over, edit the movie together and export it as a film ready for the cinema afternoon.  Parents would be invited (at no charge) and the school would provide popcorn and fizzy drinks for the occasion.

It didn't really take much more than that to get the children excited and ready to learn.  As a group, they read SO many Greek myths and debated about which one to use and why certain ones wouldn't work.  There were times when they had to troubleshoot, diffuse arguments, take turns and compromise.  Decisions were made about who had the skills for certain jobs and mistakes were quickly corrected to ensure perfection. The icing on the cake was when it came to "shooting" day and, unbeknown to me, each group had arranged to bring in lego, top-quality cameras, lighting and tri-pods to ensure they had the best pictures. Over 3,000 photos were taken that day and, whilst the classroom was a mess with children lying down everywhere and tables over turned with backdrops stuck on, the learning was plain to see to everyone who walked past. Despite a visit from the big "O" on the day of the cinema, all the movies were ready in time (just) and the afternoon was a success.

Later in the year, I had a glimpse into planning "because we NEED to" learning without any constraints from the curriculum or the powers that be.  You can read about that week, my favourite in teaching, here.  To read more about the Dinner & Dance project, see here and to see some photos of the Mythological Movie Makers project see here.

To finish, here are some important things to remember when creating "because we NEED to" learning:
  • Use parents, family and friends - they are a brilliant, free resource! They will often do anything for their children and even part with a small amount of cash to help with enterprise topics.  Make sure you give them a lot of notice of any events as they are also busy people.
  • If you have a class/year blog - use it.  If you don't have a class/year blog - get one!  It's the best way of reaching lots of people.  Lots of people = lots of purpose.  It also means if you've invited people in, they can be updated with the progress and serves as a place for questions, information and advertising! 
  • Keep it simple - come up with a basic outline of what you want the children to achieve then go straight to the kids.  Their ideas will always be better and more suited to their interests than your ideas! 
  • Don't force it - like with cross-curricular links, the power of the learning can be lost if the links are more like a spider's web!  Only do something if it feels natural and possible and, if the kids hate the idea, abandon it and use one of theirs! 
  • Give the children power, choice and responsibility - they need to own the project.  If it's teacher-driven, it can be as contrived as if it were make believe.  If they want to do something that you don't have the time for, say "yes" but delegate it to them! (A child wanted to run a raffle at the Dinner & Dance.  I said "yes - you organise it".  I didn't hear anything from them for the whole 6 weeks but on the day they turned up with prizes and tickets and made an extra £30!)
A photo from the Dinner & Dance


  1. Super blog post, this is definitely a route I want to follow more so I will get thinking for the summer term. Thanks for posting.

  2. This looks great. Any ideas how the rainforest can be made more accessible for Year 3 - creating a real life context?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


Thanks for your comment. All comments are moderated before they are posted so may take a short time to appear on the page.