Report on visit to Tromso, Norway Feb 2016

Once again our Governing board have supported the growth of our schools by enabling staff members to visit other educational practice beyond our shores. Our group comprised staff from   Boskenwyn and Germoe and we welcomed our Educational Psychologist to share this experience with us. We visited Tromso, in northern Norway.

Our purpose was to explore two areas;

1. To explore why pupils learn outside so successfully when it is -20 and, during the winter months, completely dark at all times.

2. To see if we could learn more about the 'Inquiry Based' approach to learning that the International school in Tromso has adopted.

With our federation's approach to learning judged to be 'outstanding' we need to begin planning where we take our work in the future. We are so mindful that 'outstanding' means the start of a new journey and we are extremely excited by this! The new Head teacher will no doubt acknowledge our journey to date and should fit in seamlessly to support and grow the next steps we will take.

So what did we discover?

In order to really grasp the context it would be helpful to describe Tromso. This northern most city in the world is situated amongst the fjords on a series of islands surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains. The air is remarkably fresh; no sign of pollution and life seems tranquil. In the winter months there is little or no daylight. When the sun returns, for just two minutes on the first day, there is huge celebration. For several months, the area is covered in snow and people have to dress appropriately to keep warm. Life goes on as normal, vehicles drive on iced up roads, the infrastructure is not hampered by the cold and schools do not close. Pupils often ski to school. We saw them all lined up by the entrance.

Snow is a great muffler of noise and a sense of calm prevailed everywhere. Life is a little slower and calmer, people take their time. Society models this for the children.

1. To explore why pupils learn outside so successfully when it is -20 and during the winter months, completely dark at all times.

It quickly became apparent to us that the force of nature rules this land. Ignore this at your peril! As a result, respect for nature is immense. We saw man and nature living in harmony. It is a way of life to them and it positively nurtures well-being. In school, working and playing outdoors is constant and staff in the schools we visited reported less child illness. Quite often at home we think cold and rainy means potential illness. This is simply not the case.

Learning takes place, even in the dark. One school we visited had a plot of land by the fjord edge where children played all day, retreating into tepees with log fires to nap. They used sleeping bags or reindeer skins for warmth and laid on raised platforms. They were lulled to sleep by the ripples of the fjord. Children ate cold lunches, generally comprising bread, cheese and meat. Outside there was little in the way of resources and children played imaginatively with each other, exploring and thinking. We have been so right to offer Forest School experiences as these mirror what we saw.

We were reminded about our culture's over-anxiety about risk assessments, safety and decision making by pupils. We have worked so hard on growing pupil ownership of self-management. Ofsted said these skills developing in our pupils were life-long. I realised how much further we are now than when we visited Copenhagen in 2014.

We learned about the 'Loft' philosophy; an approach which focuses on how to improve rather than dwell on and analyse what caused the problem. Children were encouraged to think in this way during work and play but staff also used this as a philosophy for their pedagogy. We could see the benefits of the 'onward and upward' approach but we felt that some reflection on why something didn't work can be valuable too. Our schools mantra of 'even better if....' helps us focus on improvement and positivity whilst taking some time to learn from our previous experiences or 'oops! moments'.

Interestingly, there are many males working in the kindergarten, in one school 40% were male. This natural balance reinforced the family feel and it was touching to see them playing so naturally with the children.

Action:

  • The importance of children being dressed appropriately to work outdoors.

  • Overcoming the concept that being in the cold makes you ill. There is no such thing as wrong weather, just wrong clothing.

The possible need for Lucy, our Forest School teacher, to offer further opportunities for parents to explore what it all means.

2. To see if we could learn more about the 'Inquiry Based' approach to learning that the International School in Tromso has adopted.

The school is situated in a modern, light and airy purpose built building. As an international school, it accommodates children from all over the world. Their parents come to Tromso associated with career moves and mobility is high. The staff are qualified teachers with a thirst for travel and also come from all corners of the globe. They follow the International Primary curriculum so when they move to another school elsewhere in the world the transition is seamless. Older pupils follow the International Baccalaureate programme.

Class sizes were very small, never more than 15 pupils in one class. We witnessed lots of learning but the most powerful we saw was in the Yr5/6 class where pupils were investigating structures and buildings. The whole approach was inquiry led, pupils asking questions, thinking, evaluating and establishing their own next steps. The culture for working collaboratively was well established and this made the experience even more meaningful. It reminded us of our approach which has been praised as 'unique and streets ahead' by Ofsted.

However, we are held so much more accountable for adherence to the national curriculum that, to a certain extent, our hands and therefore the pupils' minds seem somewhat tied! The inspector totally supported our vision for further development of the skills progression steps with our pupils. Our confidence in how we are facilitating learning would allow us to develop an approach of 'What do you need to know in order to understand this concept?'

The inspector agreed with us that, in order to allow pupils to successfully access the new maths curriculum, learning must be approached in a more problem solving way. This is where the 'Inquiry Based' approach could serve us well. At this point in time we need to reflect more fully and discuss this in depth as a staff to be certain that our way forward will allow pupils to explore what still developing those fundamental maths skills. We will also actively involve the children in our next steps. As always, we welcome your thoughts too!

To continue her research, Helen Neil, our maths specialist across both schools will lead this investigation. We will also share our research with Richard Light, Senior HMI and the inspector at Sithney, who is leading national initiatives in maths. It would be so beneficial for us to access this visionary thinking. He has genuine concerns about the way the new maths curriculum is being taught in schools but was excited by our forward thinking approach. We are in a great position to grow this rapidly.

Action:

  • To further research the 'Inquiry Based' approach.
  • To consider how we can make use of this approach to support our unique skills progression planning system.
  • To engage all staff, pupils and parents in this process.
  • To consider how his approach may help the development of maths learning in school.
  • To ensure we are leading lights in the delivery of the new maths curriculum.

 On a final note, we met the most inspirational people. We chatted with a kindergarten leader who started her school in 1980 and has grown it ever since. She had so much wealth of knowledge, common sense and passion for her work. It moved us to hear her journey and made us reflect on how the little things we do influence lives as much as the big things.

We also met an experienced Special Needs teacher who spoke with compassion about each child's journey. It reminded us of how individualised these children's journeys are and how rewarding it is to make a difference when you fit the curriculum around he child and not the child around the curriculum.

We ended our wonderful conversations with this thought... Rigorous testing shows such a small part of a child's journey through school. We are so proud of what we do to ensure each child is valued for who they are and what they can achieve in life. Things don’t grow by measuring it. If we celebrate difference, we can't measure it but we can see the life-long gifts we have given!