Issues in Primary Foundation Subjects and RE
Teachers are required to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum covering the core subjects: Literacy, Numeracy and Science and the foundation subjects and where possible ensuring five non-statutory cross-curricular elements including creativity, ICT, global issues and literacy and numeracy across the curriculum (QCDA, 2000).
This heavily charged curriculum and a restricted timetable have led teachers to think of new ways of delivering foundation subjects. The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) schemes intended to provide support for teachers in presenting a curriculum seen as difficult to fit into the time available. However the ‘over-prescriptive’ (Jones and Wyse 2004) delivery of the curriculum via the National Strategies has been criticised by the likes of Ofsted (2003) and other government bodies for restricting creativity in both the teaching and learning. This lack of creativity in education is seen as a major issue by experts such as Sir Ken Robinson (2006) who argue that it can have a negative impact on the development of the ‘whole child’ at such an important stage of their lives. In order to tackle both issues of time and lack of creativity, teachers and educational specialists have looked towards cross-curricular and theme-based learning. These approaches to teaching and learning are said to contribute effectively to the creative learning and development of primary aged children.
When considering the role of primary education in child development, reports by OFTED have focussed on how schools promote the personal and social development of their pupils. The Scottish Curriculum of Excellence (2004) goes further still by establishing the four purposes of education as the development of: Successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.
For the purpose of this study, we will consider how the four areas of development as set out by the Curriculum of Excellence (2004) can be enhanced and promoted through the creative teaching and learning of foundation subjects at primary level. In a fifth section the barriers to creativity and child development within foundation subjects will be analysed.
Here we will consider how a creative approach to foundation subjects can contribute to the development of successful learners by examining the characteristics of a successful learner and identifying how children learn best.
The development of successful learners is a complex process and involves more than just high attainment and an ability to retain information (Kyriacou 2009, Wallace 2001), the key to successful learning is to provide children with skills which will allow them to independently use and apply their knowledge in new contexts and situations (Hayes 2004). It is this skill of identifying links between prior knowledge and new contexts that highlights the importance of creativity in primary education in helping develop successful learners.
Creativity can be a difficult concept to define as it is abstract, cannot be measured and is also highly subjective (Craft 2000, Jones & Wyse 2004, Prentice 2000). However, Barnes (2007 p8) offers a clear yet open definition of creativity as being:
‘The ability in all humans imaginatively or practically to put two or more ideas together to make a new idea.’
It can therefore be suggested that successful learners have acquired creative thinking skills enabling them to transfer skills to other subjects (Wallace 2001). Here creativity is considered to be a learning process as opposed to a learning style (Craft 2000).
Foundation subjects can offer opportunities for the development of creative thinking by providing children with a ‘questioning classroom’ where they are encouraged to participate in challenging activities such as debates where they challenge and question views and opinions (Fisher 2004). Creative thinking can also be demonstrated through the children’s different representation of ideas; visually, physically and verbally (Fisher 2004)
During a recent placement, I was able to observe a R.E lesson where children were asked to use a spider-gram to illustrate their ideas surrounding ‘remembrance’. The children used the spider-gram effectively and were able to link ideas together and develop explanations of other key words. From observations it was clear that all children proceeded in different ways but the outcome was identical; they successfully produced a visual representation of their thoughts and ideas surrounding a topic demonstrating their use of creative thinking.
This example also highlights the importance of providing a dynamic and engaging learning environment in the development of effective learners as the level of children’s mental capacity can be enhanced through effective stimulating and creative teaching methods (Wallace 2001).
Considering how children learn is an important factor in the teaching of foundation subjects. Theories on which learning environments are the most effective vary considerably but today Constructivism is generally accepted as being the most effective for child development and learning as opposed to ‘Transmission’ models of learning.
There are also debates surrounding the delivery of foundation subjects. Experts such as Barnes (2007) and Jones and Wyse (2004) argue that creativity and cross-curricular learning go ‘hand in hand’, but others such as Nachmanovitch (1999) claim that the structure of subject specific learning ‘ignites spontaneity’ benefiting creativity.
This study supports the constructivist and cross-curricular approaches to successful learning as these approaches are reflected in a majority of schools’ policies and practices.
Constructivists such as Piaget and Vygotsky argued that children learn best when they are given opportunities to build on their prior knowledge and learn through practical first-hand experiences (Kyriacou 2009). Hayes (2004) also argues that learning is enhanced by experiencing and that trans-missive teaching cannot replace this. Experiential learning of foundation subjects can involve field trips, designing and making a product or art piece and investigations.
Children’s understandings of topics under study can be brought to life by trips to museums and other field trips (Hayes 2004) offering opportunities for the children to relate what they know about a particular topic to how they experience it. Children also learn from investigations where the outcome in the beginning is uncertain. They learn through the process of applying knowledge and understanding to acquiring new skills (Hayes 2004) for example in an art lesson
On a previous placement where the children were about to begin a topic on ‘Lindisfarne’, the school arranged a day visit to the island in order to spark the children’s curiosity and provide them with experience from which they could develop and attach knowledge back in the classroom. During the first topic lesson that followed the trip the children wrote down a number of questions that had arisen from their experience on Lindisfarne and discussed with the teacher what they wanted to find out about the island. This provided the teacher with a clear view of the children’s interests and initial understanding of the features of Lindisfarne which enabled her to plan for child led investigations that highly motivated the children and gave them ownership of their learning. I felt that the use of the children’s experience combined with a cross-curricular approach to the delivery of the topic established a very creative and motivating learning environment.
Cross-curricular learning as mentioned briefly above has been defined by Barnes (2007 p8) as:
‘When the skills knowledge and attitudes of a number of different disciplines are applied to a single experience, theme or idea, we are working in a cross-curricular way. We are looking at the experience of learning on a macro level and with the curriculum as the focus.’
This approach to teaching and learning allows for a broad and creative delivery of the curriculum. An OFSTED report (2003) found that creative classroom environments were often where teachers used cross-curricular themes and did not feel bound by orthodoxies (Hayes 2004).
Foundation subjects are often used in a cross-curricular way through the teaching of topics and themes. For example the topic on ‘Lindisfarne’ mentioned earlier focussed on geography, history and some aspects of R.E. This approach meant that coverage of both history and geography was possible within the same lesson, thus gaining valuable time and making the learning relevant to the children’s experiences of Lindisfarne.
The development of successful learners depends on the provision of a creative, experiential, and cross-curricular learning environment where the children can develop thinking skills and creativity essential to successful learning.
Confidence plays a vital role in the development of primary aged children as it contributes to their physical, emotional and moral well-being enabling them to enjoy their education and fulfil their full potential. In order for this development to occur, teachers must believe that all children can achieve (Gipps & MacGilchrist in Pollard 2002). This belief is then translated into high expectations and providing motivating, appropriate and relevant challenges for the children (Gipps & MacGilchrist in Pollard 2002). Setting children learning challenges can be a complex task as teachers have to take into account their different abilities and learning styles in order for the children to become motivated by appropriate and relevant challenges (Kyriacou, 2009).
Over the past 30 years theories on different learning styles also known as ‘multiple intelligences’ have sparked debates over the number of ‘intelligences’. Gardner established eight ‘intelligences’ including; verbal/linguistic, logic/mathematical, musical, visual/spatial, kinaesthetic, naturalistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal (Jones & Wyse 2004) and stated that approaching subjects in a number of different ways that cater for different learning styles, will help to engage a maximum of children and with this engagement creativity will flourish. However, Gardner’s theory was highly criticised as people found it hard to relate to just one form of intelligence and often felt they learnt in two or more styles (Barlett & Burton 2007). In response to these debates Sternberg (1985) distinguished three more comprehensive types of intelligences: analytical (measurable in tests e.g. IQ tests), Creative or experiential (The ability to see connections between things and develop original ideas), practical or contextual (The ability to read situations and people then manipulate to one’s needs e.g problem solving).
The implications of these theories led to an acknowledgement that children do not learn in the same way and in order to develop children’s confidence they must feel that they are able to achieve and overcome learning challenges.
Creative teaching and learning of foundation subjects offer a holistic approach to the development of confident individuals. For example a P.E lesson involving children carrying out long jumps, measuring the distance of their jumps and finding ways of lengthening their jumps enables all three types of learners as defined by Sternberg (1985) to apply and use their form of intelligence within a context that also allows them to develop other intelligences. An analytical learner would thrive in the measuring and comparing of distances jumped whereas a creative or experiential learner would benefit from the practice of jumping and be able to relate their experience to other activities involving jumping, measuring or analysing results. A practical learner would be able to read the results and establish techniques to improve the distance of their jump.
This example demonstrates how including elements of cross-curricular learning in foundation subjects can help engage and motivate children different learning styles and covers some of the non-statutory cross-curricular elements: numeracy across the curriculum and creativity (QCDA 2000).
Promoting the development of children’s confidence in foundation subjects also involves the children feeling valued and respected (Hayes 2004). This implies that teachers praise and reward children for their efforts and contributions. Failure to value and praise children’s work can demotivate and crush children’s confidence (Craft 2000). Lack of confidence can also affect children’s creativity holding them back from taking risks and exploring which are very important elements of children’s development and creativity (Barnes 2007, Palmer 2007). Sir Ken Robinson argues that if children are not given the confidence or opportunities to take risks and make mistakes they will be educated out of their creativity. Child led investigations offer valuable opportunities for children to take risks, make mistakes and develop their confidence. Observations on placements indicated that children thrive to learn and explore in environments where they feel ‘free’ to apply their knowledge and skills in order to solve problems and investigations.
Foundation subjects such as R.E, citizenship and PHSE help contribute towards the development of confident individuals by addressing issues and discussions surrounding Respect and Self-Respect. These subjects and topics help the children to feel safe within their learning environment and establish a trusting relationship with their teacher and peers which in turn assists their physical, emotional and moral well-being. They equally enable children to communicate their own beliefs and views of the world through discussions and debates (Curriculum of Excellence 2004).
The understanding and growth of self-respect as mentioned previously is an active contributor towards the development of confident children. Moreover Respect plays an important part in helping children become responsible citizens.
Recent teaching experience offered a valuable insight of one school’s ethos where they aimed for children to become ‘independent and responsible learners’. Children were given responsibility and ownership of their learning during child-led investigations and in carrying out classroom duties such as tidying, handing out resources and registration.
Foundation subjects such as history, geography, R.E, Citizenship and PHSE offer occasions for children to consider their responsibilities on issues surrounding the environment, local and global communities (Weil & McGill 1989) they also provide opportunities for children to use their creative and critical thinking skills in order to consider their future (Barnes 2007). An observation of a PHSE lesson after the recent natural disasters in Japan was an illustration of this. The teacher was aware that many of the children had been talking about the Tsunami and were somewhat affected by the images shown on television. During PHSE the teacher decided to talk about ‘Charity’. The children expressed a strong willingness to help the victims of Japan by raising money and came up with the idea of a ‘cake sale’ to help raise money. Although the children did not feel responsible for the disasters in Japan they were aware that they could play an active role in helping the victims. By coming up with the idea of a cake sale they used their critical and creative thinking and took responsibility for the charity event. After having organised and held the cake sale the children received individual certificates from the head teacher to reward them for their charitable action. The children displayed a true sense of proudness in being the original creators of the event. What this example shows is that foundation subjects can lead to creative learning where the children take full responsibility of their learning and acknowledge the impact that it will have on the wider community, in this case the victims of Japan.
Development of social skills is also high on the educational agenda. Teachers and education specialists have often suggested the use of collaborative learning opportunities when seeking to develop the children’s social skills (Kyriacou, 2009, Pollard 2008 and Wallace 2001). Group work itself is one of the three key skills stated in the non-statutory skills framework (QCDA 2000) alongside communication and problem solving. Wallace (2001) suggests a framework for developing effective thinking skills and stresses the importance of the social context which group work can provide in offering a climate of interaction, sharing and cooperation (Wallace 2001). When engaging in group activities children learn to become self-aware and build cooperative relationships with their peers in order to accomplish the task. Foundation subjects such as PE offer practical contexts within which children can develop team skills and use creative thinking to establish winning strategies and techniques (Littledyke & Huxford 1998).
In sum, encouraging children to take responsibility for their learning and roles within the classroom and local and global communities allows children to develop self-awareness and respect for other people thus contributing to the development of social skills.
The fourth area of development to which the creative learning of foundation subjects can contribute is that of ‘effective contributors’.
The notion of children becoming ‘Effective Contributors’ implies that they are able to apply critical thinking to new contexts, work in partnerships and teams, create and develop and solve problems ( Curriculum of Excellence 2004).
In order for children to become effective contributors they need to feel the need and motivation to contribute and understand its purpose (Kyriacou 2009). For teachers this means that they must set a context/ audience and be explicit about the purpose for the learning experience.
From observations on placements giving the children a purpose and audience for their learning is often a result of creative teaching linking learning to a wider context in order to establish a motivating environment and focus for the children’s learning. Jeffery (2008) relates this ‘meaningfulness’ of learning to ‘relevance’
For example in Music the children were learning about percussion with a view to participating in the end of year performance. This particular context motivated all the children to do their best as they all knew they would be performing in front of their friends and parents and wanted them to be proud of them. It also gave the children an understanding of why they were learning to play percussion instruments preventing them from feeling that it was somewhat useless or void of meaning.
Children’s ability to apply critical thinking to new situations demonstrates the effectiveness of creative learning and thinking skills developed within foundation subjects as mentioned earlier.
The ability and willingness to create and develop also implies intrinsic motivation (Kyriacou 2009) and acknowledgement that their creations or developments will be valued. The creativity here is not restricted to the more traditionally creative subjects such as Art and Design, Design and Technology and Music (Jeffery & Craft 2001) but envelops all of the foundation subjects where children may produce an original or unique idea, concept or indeed a physical work of art/ creation.
Children who have assimilated creative and critical thinking skills and who are able to use techniques such as open-ended questioning, mind-maps and spider-grams will be able to apply these skills independently to problem solving in a variety of contexts and subjects.
Observations from placements suggest that children contribute more in environments where speaking and listening opportunities constitute an important part of the learning. In one RE lesson the teacher used a number of open-ended questions such as ‘What are your thoughts on this?’, ‘How would you feel in this situation?’ and ‘why do you think this is?’ to provoke dialogue amongst the children and then on a one-to-one basis. The children engaged in dialogue guided by the teacher’s open-ended questions and became more and more involved as the teacher continued to add questions to the debate. The children also began to ask each other questions and challenge one another’s views. This use of open-ended questions enabled the children to think in a creative why by having to seek for clear answers that often required critical thinking and evaluating the situation. It also helped establish an environment where children contributed naturally and effectively and the dialogue between pupils and the teacher flowed easily. On reflection this was ensured by the teacher’s skill of asking pertinent and thought provoking questions but also by the encouragement given to the children to participate in a non-judgemental environment.
However, this example demonstrates that the factors contributing to the successful and creative development of Primary-aged children often depends on the learning environment and teaching to which the children are exposed. This last section examines the barriers to creative learning and development of Primary-aged children in the context of foundation subjects.
Although there is a significant amount of research surrounding the contributions of foundation subjects in providing creative learning and helping children develop into confident and successful learners, there are however barriers to these contributions.
The first barriers surround the delivery of creative teaching. For many Creativity is purely associated with the Arts (Pretence 2000) limiting creative approaches to the delivery of foundation subjects.
Some even argue that because creativity cannot be measured, it will not help raise attainment levels which are measured (Craft & Jeffrey 2001). This is highly debateable as creativity contributes to other skills which may be measured. For example creative and critical thinking demonstrated in a written test surrounding environmental issues will support the child’s evaluations of the topic thus contributing to a good quality piece of written work.
Another issue surrounding creativity is that of subjectivity. Opinions on what is creative and what is not vary from person to person. Creativity is subjective and therefore if a child’s creative efforts are not recognised or valued by the teacher then this can impact on their motivation and confidence (Barnes 2007). This can often be the case when teachers send out messages to children about what is considered to be the right or wrong outcome of an activity. Children become afraid or being wrong and are less likely to take risks and be creative (Robinson 2006).
Other barriers to Creativity include teaching that is badly prepared for and lacks subject knowledge. Creativity has to be carefully planned for and an important amount of subject specific skills are required other-wise the learning opportunities are restricted, blurred and become unclear to pupils (Craft & Jeffrey 2001). Attempts to deliver creative teaching on recent placements have sometimes resulted in the children becoming disinterested as the learning objectives and context were not motivating or clear enough for them to become engaged. These experiences highlighted the importance of detailed and thorough planning even when planning for child-led activities and investigations.
Teachers who have had little input or training in creativity often feel intimidated or even scared at the thought of teaching and planning for creative lessons (Barnes 2007). These attitudes are sometimes backed up by arguments claiming that effective models of creative teaching have been imported from contexts that do not always match the context of their schools where they are trying to adopt their creative approach (Craft & Jeffrey2001).
The ‘over prescriptive’ use of QCA schemes of work criticised in ‘Excellence and Enjoyment’ (2003) is claimed to impede creative teaching and learning and students have noted the lack of breadth and balance and a steady decline in time dedicated to foundation subjects (Barnes 2007, Pretence 2000). Some of the schools on placement followed the National Strategies as if they were the statutory curriculum.
Other teachers who were greatly concerned about the progress of their pupils in core subjects would often marginalise foundation subjects as being ‘less important’. This has led to discussions over terms used to distinguish ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ subjects suggesting a hierarchy amongst subjects (Prentice 2000).
Recent suggestions about future changes to the curriculum also indicate a ‘back to basics’ approach where foundation subjects such as History will be given more ‘importance’. These suggestions indirectly criticise cross-curricular learning where History has been taught as part of topics or themes because it is felt that within a topic children may not be aware of the historical aspect if it has not been taught discretely. On reflection this may be a valuable argument in some cases where the delivery of subjects such as History has not been explicit to the children but this depends on the whole school approach to their delivery of the curriculum and the quality of the teaching.
In sum, foundation subjects help contribute towards the development of the ‘whole child’. Creative approaches to the delivery of foundation subjects such as cross-curricular learning and the development of thinking skills have been argued as essential factors in the development of successful, confident and responsible individuals. The range of subjects taught and the variation of activities provided facilitate creative learning and development for all children by catering for and acknowledging their different learning styles.
However, despite significant research on the benefits of Creativity in Primary Education, Creativity remains a non-statutory element of the National Curriculum leaving teachers and schools to consider Creativity within their own policies and practices.
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