It’s Autumn. Time to get the topic box out! By Alistair Bryce-Clegg

7th September 2017

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As a classroom teacher, I was a great lover of ‘the topic box’, it seemed that all areas of the National Curriculum nestled within it just waiting to be released by doing the same activity that I did this time last year (and probably the year before)! I showed great diligence in the creation of my ‘topic map’ and was chuffed at the fact that I managed to shoehorn all aspects of the teaching that I needed to do into one topic title – however tenuous the link.

That was just it, my teaching was not based on the interests of children nor the requirements of the subjects that I was teaching. It was driven by the need to fit into the topic. The topic was king! I am talking about 20 years ago now and you would think that things would have moved on since then, but from what I see through my work in schools and other settings, things are very much the same.

High-level attainment comes from high-level engagement.  To get maximum engagement for all children we need to have a diverse approach to the themes that we use in our teaching rather than just stick to one.

Assessment will tell you what the children need to know, the hardest part is capturing their interest so that they engage in the learning process and in turn the knowledge has more chance of sticking!

It is imperative that you are really clear that when you are planning for effective learning you theme your teaching around children’s interest, not their gender. Regardless of their gender, you are going to ‘dress’ your teaching for children around what motivates them most. If this is dinosaurs, then you provide dinosaur activities. If it is princesses then you provide princess activities. This is nothing to do with ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ it is to do with interest.

Be prepared for children to interpret the stimulus that you provide in very different ways. For some, the huge egg that you leave outside for them to find may inspire an interest in dinosaurs but perhaps unicorns with another (who are we to say that unicorns don’t hatch out of eggs). Your planning and your teaching had o be flexible enough to allow this to happen otherwise you are saying to children that there is only one way that they can interpret their learning…YOURS!

The end product of the activities that you set up should not always lead to the same outcome. The process of creating those outcomes is the important bit. What the children could produce should be applied to any theme that inspires them.

You might create an activity to make the dinosaur bread bones, but equally, you could make unicorn horns, dragon’s teeth or mermaid tails.  It is the bread making that is the skill, not the fact that it is a bone.

Most activities should offer children the opportunity to engage in a range of processes and create lots of possibilities for open ended investigation and questioning. Our aim is always to get the children to master the skill or the process not to get thirty versions of the same end result.

Some of your children might be highly engaged by the process of making fossils of dinosaurs out of dough or clay, but the process is about using objects to make patterns and impressions in malleable materials, so if other children are more motivated by another subject or another material then that is fine as they will still be learning the same process just through a different theme.

Of course, some of the activities are for inspiration to engender some of that mystical stuff known as ‘awe and wonder’. Objects or experiences for you to create and leave for children to find or discover. Although you might have in your head what you think their response will be prepared to go with whatever they come up with, remembering that all of the children will probably not think the same.

Plan for skill development, not the end product.  Dress activities for interest and not gender. Teach objectives, but be prepared to dress those objectives differently for different interests and you will get some high-level engagement.

Most of all enjoy the power and magic and individuality of children’s imaginations and have some fun!

Oh, and ditch the topic box.

Alistair will be opening Childcare Expo Midlands on Friday 29th September at 10am! We look forward to seeing you there.

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