Today, on United Nations' World Teachers' Day which celebrates the role that teachers play in providing education at all levels, Professor Alison James, Head of Academic Quality and Development, explains how the University's Juniversity initiative is making a step change in raising educational aspirations.
It is entirely fitting, and a tribute to teachers globally, to mark World Teachers' Day with the story of Juniversity.
For those unfamiliar with it, Juniversity is a bold, ambitious, and values-driven venture, with the principal aim of creating a place to strengthen connections between primary school and university. In particular, it seeks to raise aspirations in pupils from disadvantaged areas who would not normally consider higher education to be something within their grasp and of relevance to their lives.
Modelled on the concept of a teaching hospital, Juniversity will ultimately be housed in an innovative and technologically-equipped building, hopefully from Autumn 2019. It will provide flexible and experimental spaces in which teachers, academics, students and researchers can pioneer new and creative teaching and learning techniques using the involvement of business and creative entrepreneurs such as artists, architects, and scientists.
Although the dedicated physical hub has not yet been realised, this did not prevent us from running our first event over two days in June 2017. Our participants were two groups of Year 5s - 75 pupils on each day - from Portway Junior School, Andover and Castle Hill Primary, Basingstoke. We hosted them at our West Downs site, in a hall affectionately referred to by one visiting teacher as 'Hogwarts', and no doubt different from their usual rooms.
We wanted to create an opportunity for children to do something exciting and meaningful and experience a 'start-to-finish' adventure, from the moment they left their schools to the moment they returned home. It had to be something which would be educational, but above all which would be fun. We wanted them to feel happy, inspired and at ease in the biggest version of 'big school' you can get - a university campus.
Juniversity has several key aspirations, among them developing the attitudes and interpersonal skills to enable young people to face new challenges in learning and life. With this in mind, we chose as the theme for the event 'My learning journey to success', drawing on what the pupils had learned thus far about reflecting on progress and developing a growth mindset.
LEGO® was chosen as the medium largely because, as an accredited LEGO®SERIOUS PLAY® facilitator I already had copious amounts of it (you needed plenty with 150 children) and because of the constructionist principles underpinning the method. As all teachers will know, Seymour Papert was the father of constructionism, believing that children learn best when they make something. In so doing, two things happen; one is that they create an item and the other is that they create new knowledge.
In this spirit, a workshop was devised with four sessions offering a range of activities, and combining key principles from LEGO SERIOUS PLAY with elements from LEGO EDUCATION®. These determined that the children would build metaphorically, not just literally, and could decide what each brick represented, and that everyone would build, share and speak, ensuring no one dominated at each table.
While LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is designed for adults, LEGO EDUCATION is designed for children and is built on the concept of the Four Cs. Each activity invited them to Connect - respond to an open idea; Construct - build models embodying their responses; Contemplate - reflect on their, and other people', models and shared observations, and Continue; use their models and understanding as the platform for a further activity. They built models of their 'best school selves', of ways to build on their strengths and to explore their greatest room for growth. They did so singly, in pairs and in groups, and had riotous but insightful conversations about each others' creations. In many respects, their thoughtful and symbolic representations of their learning evoked the underpinning principles behind Personal Development Planning in HE - only with more noise.
For me, as someone who has taught at all levels except primary, it was an exhilarating and terrifying prospect. The logistics, first of all. How would we keep 75 children on 12 tables in a vast hall with bags and bags of LEGO on task and enthused? This we did by recruiting wonderful volunteers, trainee teachers and accompanying staff and parents and providing some guidance; part pedagogic, part crowd control. Next, my personal concern was making sure that I didn't pitch any of the activities at too high or too low a level (the thought of the latter, and patronising the children, was actually my greatest fear) but had experienced primary colleagues to reassure and advise me.
And then, on the day you wonder whether all your theoretical plans, which make sense on paper, will actually translate in reality. As I stood waiting in the silent, spacious hall just before the first coach decanted, I thought of the line from Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come". Well, we had built the day, and we knew they were coming (as they came up the stairs you could hear an increasing buzz like an invasion of locusts - albeit lovely, friendly ones) but how on earth would it turn out? Would they like it? Would they be bored? Would they run amok? And would they build??
They did build. And speak, and share and help each other, and stick their hands up to participate and stunned us all by recounting the most extraordinary stories of their learning. Some of these were funny, some impressive, others were quietly heart-breaking, while the self-awareness of certain children was striking. Many of them combined the joyous bounce of a nine or ten year old with a wisdom beyond their years. I was also in awe of the helpers, teachers and their visionary heads, who guided, supported and interacted with all the children in a way that was kind, informed and authoritative. At a time when teachers in any area of the education sector can feel undermined and underappreciated by government policies and positions, I felt huge pride in, and respect for, everyone who plays a role in ensuring children have the best possible experience at school.
Feedback from participants was extremely positive. All aspects of the day had made an impression on the children, from the coach ride over to the university, to the LEGO and anything related to food. Teachers from Castle Hill wrote afterwards:
"Year 5 were thrilled to be part of the first day at the newly launched Juniversity. It was a day that promoted collaboration, cooperation and the chance to learn through Lego, which immediately grabbed the children's interest! Watching them work alongside their peers, discussing, adjusting ideas and praising one another's creations was fantastic. The children gained a lot from the day and had the following things to say about it:
"Juniversity showed me that I can be myself and use my imagination to create and problem solve."
"Juniversity helped me to be more creative because I had to solve problems with very little equipment."
"It reminded me of all the things I'm good at and helped me build my teamwork skills."
It was brilliant that our head, Mr Martin, could also join us on the day. He said that he enjoyed seeing the children participating in an amazing interactive day with the emphasis on learning and fun! He hopes it is the first of many such days in Europe's first Juniversity."
This was our first Juniversity event and one we have learned a great deal from. For me it was a privilege to be part of it and to be able to see first-hand the incredible contribution to young lives that primary teachers in the UK make.
The Juniversity project is supported by the Enterprise M3 Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).
Find out more about the Enterprise M3 LEP at www.enterprisem3.org.uk
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