Curriculum decisions – Using knowledge to create moments of joy

There has been a fair amount of discussion around whether it is best to take children on educational visits before or after teaching a topic. I’ve been a fan of going towards the end (or at least after teaching some of the content) for several years now. I can trace this back to the first time I taught a topic on Charles Darwin in Year 6 (which I describe in this blog and visited Down House. The class had already done a separate topic on the Victorians, and I noticed how much of that knowledge they were able to apply when looking round the house, and how excited they were to actually be in Charles Darwin’s house because they already knew quite a bit about who he was, his life and why his discoveries were so important. However, I have not always been able to explain exactly why I think going on the visit after learning something about a topic is often a good idea.

Then I read the following paragraph from Clare Sealy’s blog (1) , which helped to crystallise my thoughts on the matter:

‘To learn something is to be changed in some way that that lasts beyond the immediate. If we encounter momentary joy or fleeting pleasure along the way, so much the better. But it is the lasting change that makes learning purposeful. Learning enables us to see the world in a new way. Whereas before we only saw trees, now we see elms, oaks and sycamores. Whereas before we only saw rocks, we now see granite, limestone and sandstone.  Whereas before we only saw shopping, we now see profit, loss and externalities.  Whereas once we saw ‘one bad apple’, now we see the historical roots of deeply institutionalised patterns of injustice.’

I identify so strongly with this description; this is why I love teaching. I find those moments when I see or hear something new and recognise a link with a piece of knowledge I already have so exciting, I want to help the children I teach experience that joy in the world around them.

When thinking about this, I remembered a particular moment from the residential trip I took my class on last autumn. For context, I teach in the East End of London, and although some of our children have experience of visiting relatives in rural areas, this is mostly abroad, and they have very little experience of rural England, so our residential is at a rural studies centre in Essex. This is slightly different to visiting a PGL-type activity centre – although children experience outdoor activities such as archery, cycling and orienteering during the week, there is also a lot of outdoor play in the grounds, and there are two walks in the woods and fields. This year was my second time on this trip, so I tried to plan the curriculum leading up to it to make sure the children got as much out of the experience as possible.

The trip took place in November.

In September, I taught the Year 5 science unit on lifecycles of animals and plants. As part of this we revised ways of grouping plant and animals. To prepare children for what they would see on the trip, I included lots of practice of identifying common British woodland plants and animals. I specifically included types of tree that I knew children would see, mosses, lichens and ferns, as well as stinging nettles and dock leaves (which I discovered the previous year it’s really important for children to be able to recognise before they walk in the woods!).

Then I introduced the vocabulary urban and rural through an English unit on setting description, using a variety of texts with contrasting city and country settings. First, we read The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, and extracts from the stories of Brambly Hedge. We identified features of the different settings. I explicitly taught children what brambles and hedges were and we focused on some other plants and trees that appear in Brambly Hedge.

Our class novel in this term was Varjak Paw, which includes some good city description. I supplemented this with The Promise (city) and the first chapter of The Hodgeheg (town), as well as extracts from Charlotte’s Web and The Wind In The Willows (country). We analyse the strategies the authors use to create atmosphere through setting description in these stories, and write our own stories with a city setting, but a secondary objective for this unit is to develop children’s vocabulary for urban and rural environments. (2)

In October, I taught a geography unit on urban/rural contrast, including population and land use. After some revision of UK locational knowledge and physical and human features, I introduced the comparison of the East End of London with rural areas in the South East of England using photos of my life growing up and still living in rural parts of Kent. Telling my story of growing up in the country was really powerful for the children, and using the photos helped to build their vocabulary relating to the countryside even further (3). They seem to particularly love my description of how when you’re driving in a country lane, if you get stuck behind a tractor you have to just drive along slowly behind it! This naturally leads into children sharing their own experiences, some of relatives in other parts of England, and some in rural parts of Bangladesh, as well as comparing the lifestyle with their own city homes.

We also included map work, revising plan view maps and comparing maps of the area surrounding out school with the area we would be visiting. We identified the different facilities and population density in each area and thought about the advantages and disadvantages of living in each place (which gave me the opportunity to correct some misconceptions during the discussion).

By the week of the trip, naturally the children were very excited. But in addition to the normal excitement about spending the week with their friends, and the activities, many of the children were really looking forward to seeing all the things we had been learning about in real life. On the coach journey, as well as being asked how much longer, I was repeatedly asked whether we were in a rural area yet until I finally answered yes. Children were excitedly pointing out vegetation and hedges.

On the first day after settling in, the first activity is a walk in the woods. This is the moment that Clare’s blog made me think of. The majority of the walk (apart from the time they were jumping in muddy puddles) was full of discussion of the different plants we came across. Children were constantly asking me whether different plants were dock leaves, whether what they could see on trees was moss or lichen, whether different bushes were brambles, and which trees were oak trees. There was a lot of excitement in particular about the different types of fungus growing in the woods. And this year no one got stung because they could all recognise the stinging nettles!

Most of those children wouldn’t have got nearly as much from that walk in the woods without the pre-teaching of all the different things they would see and the vocabulary they needed to describe it. The joy they got from identifying all these plants they had learnt about at school, in a real context, is an example of what Clare was describing in the paragraph above. If we can structure the curriculum to ensure children feel that joy on every visit, we are creating truly powerful learning experiences by providing them with the knowledge they need to appreciate the experience more fully.

(1) How to speak truthfully about what it means to be human: a user’s handbook.

(2) A note about how I follow up this learning later in the year, to really embed it in children’s long term memories. In the spring term when we learn about migration, we do a unit on the picture book When Jessie Came Across The Sea in English. Jessie moves from an Eastern European village to New York (in the 19th Century). We compare and contrast the two different settings in the text, and how Jessie’s life changes as a result.

(3) In Tom Sherrington’s The Learning Rainforest Fieldbook (2019), a child from the previous year’s class gave the reason that he liked having me as a teacher that I was really good at explaining what a rural area was like because I lived in one. This is a good example of the privilege of story in our memories – he was interviewed in July, and this moment from the previous October was what stood out to him from the whole year.

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