Childhood is a special time in our lives and as educators we recognise that we are very privileged. Our curriculum is thoughtfully crafted in order to stimulate, inspire and raise standards for every child as well as to give them lifelong literacies, competencies and qualities so that they are happy, sociable and fulfilled today as well as in the future. At the Spinney, we say:
The curriculum is a gift that we give our children to take into their future. It is a gift we will never see them fully open but it is one which we hope will serve them well.
Three years ago, Professor Linda Hargreaves invited The Spinney to be part of a transnational European project called SEAS4ALL, led by the European project manager Maria Vieites Casado. Since then, we have attended training at Barcelona University as well as participated in training in our own schools, and we have implemented a number of Successful Educational Actions (SEAs) into our curriculum offer.
SEAs: What are they and how do they work?
SEAs are described as ‘successful’ rather than just good practices or even best practices because they are pedagogic actions that are effective in different contexts, irrespective of socio-economic or cultural factors. SEAs are based on two key components: dialogic interactions and inclusionAn approach where a school aims to ensure that all children ... More of everyone in the whole school community. They have been implemented in over 1,000 schools across the world (see https://www.step4seas.org/project-partners), and have consistently been shown to achieve the best results in instrumental learning as well as promoting pro-social behaviours, positive values and improved coexistence. SEAs are inexpensive, effective and highly transferable (Ramon Flecha, 2015).
CREA (The Community of Research on Excellence for All) at the University of Barcelona have identified six core SEAs:
- Dialogic literary gatherings
- Interactive groups
- Educative decision making by the community – the dream
- Family education
- Dialogic training for teachers
- Dialogic model for prevention and conflict resolution.
I will focus on the first and second actions as these are the most frequently implemented in the UK.
In dialogic literary gatherings, or DLGs, children are offered a choice of an adapted age-appropriate classic text to take home and read – for example, The Odyssey, Great Expectations or Don Quixote. The children read an agreed part of the book a week ahead of the DLG and come to the DLG ready to share their thoughts and to contribute to discussion. Children that are unable to access the text can be supported at home to have the passage read aloud as necessary, or a teaching assistant can work with the child before the gathering. When they are reading at home, the children are invited to choose an idea, a passage or a few words from the text, which they will be sharing with the group, and they note the reason for their choice. In the gathering, typically comprising teacher, children, TAs and parents if participating, participants sit in a large circle.
This is a manifestation of the underpinning values of equity, solidarity and democracy. The teacher (usually) chairs the session. Participants raise their hands and offer to share their choice with others and, when invited, read their chosen excerpt of text (phrase, sentence or paragraph) and explain their reasons for selecting that part. Other participants comment on the choice and reason, agreeing/disagreeing, presenting new arguments and extending the original idea with their own ‘funds of knowledge’. From these prompts, five to 10 minutes of discussion might ensue on diverse topics such as love, death, friendships and racism, with children expressing moral and ethical arguments, often in long utterances – 40 words or more.
Some children, having listened to the ideas of others, change their thinking during the dialogue. Critically, children have agency – they choose the topics, they control the content of discussion, and they have their ideas respected. Research consistently shows that children contribute over 80% of the talking time within DLGs, with over 75% of children contributing (Hargreaves and Garcia-Carrion, 2016).
In interactive groups, or IGs, the class is divided into four or five mixed ability groups. The teacher prepares a task per group on the relevant theme (often in the UK context this is maths activities), which can be done in 15 to 20 minutes. An adult volunteer (family or community member, school support staff or trainee teacher) sits with each group to ensure that the children collaborate well, help and explain the task to each other.
The volunteer does not teach, but facilitates the children’s support for each other. After about 15 minutes, the children move to the next task with a new volunteer, such that by the end of the lesson they have completed all the tasks. The teacher can observe, listen and support those children who need it the most. In explaining the task to others, the children eternalise their thinking, modelling and developing higher order thinking skills and reinforcing understanding.
Both dialogic literary gatherings (DLGs) and interactive groups (IGs) exemplify Ramon Flecha’s theory of Dialogic Learning (R Flecha, 2015), itself derived from the work of others, including Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Habermas and Freire. Egalitarian dialogue is fundamental to the success of DLGs and IGs, as well as the other SEAs. Egalitarian dialogue ‘takes different contributions into consideration according to the validityIn assessment, the degree to which a particular assessment m... More of their reasoning, instead of according to the positions of power held by those who make the contributions’ (Valls and Kyriakides, 2013).
Egalitarian dialogue gives children the same right to speak as the teacher and removes the ubiquitous ‘follow-up’ or ‘feedback’ response, giving open dialogue a chance to develop. A second principle of egalitarian dialogue is that of ‘cultural intelligence’, which accepts that every person, irrespective of status or background, has intelligence to share – abstract, practical, homegrown, certified or book-based.
Impact of SEAs
Since incorporating SEAs into our curriculum, we have seen a positive and transformative impact. Our results continue to be strong in statutory tests; however, in addition we have seen improvements in class coexistence and cohesion. Friendships have been strengthened and the frequency of disputes reduced.
The values of solidarity, equity, democracy and humanity are now more deeply rooted into the work of our school and we build our curriculum on these foundations. Relationships across the school and with our community continue to be positive; however, we are more mindful about how we organise our meetings (including dialogic pedagogic gatherings for teachers) to ensure that these adhere to the principles of egalitarian dialogue that prioritise arguments of validity over those of status and power.
Two leading research projects have evidenced the excellent results of SEAs in Europe and the UK:
INCLUDE-ED Project: Coordinated by CREA (Community of Research on Excellence for All) from the University of Barcelona, this project was the only research in the social sciences selected among the 10 success stories of the European Framework Programme for its added value to science and society. As a result of this research, the European Commission released several communications encouraging schools to become learning communities.
ChiPE Project: This was coordinated by the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education and led by Linda Hargreaves and Dr Rocío García Carrion, demonstrating its effectiveness in six schools in East Anglia: European Commission (2011) ChiPE – results in brief: Let school children speak.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED IN THE UK
The Cambridgeshire School Improvement Board (CSIB) is a partner in the UK of the STEP4SEAS Project, a K3 Erasmus+ co-financed project, focused on impacting educative policies. The CSIB is offering training in ‘Schools as Learning Communities’ and ‘Successful Educational Actions’ for any school interested in finding out more or wanting to implement them in their own settings.