Food for thought for inquiring minds

The University of Leicester’s School of Education is the principal centre in England for the EU-funded Fibonacci Project – a major European scheme aimed at encouraging relevant and practical learning in primary and secondary schools.
Food for thought for inquiring minds
Top from left to right: Science Coordinators Sarah Eames (Sandfield School, Leicester) and Sam Maxwell (Wolsey House Primary School, Leicester) compare animal skulls at a Fibonacci twilight session.

Fibonacci Day always brings a certain amount of excitement and anticipation at Sandfield Close Primary School, in Leicester.

On this occasion, Sarah Eames, the school’s science coordinator, had designed a lesson shortly before Christmas exploring pendulums, using a story she made up herself about elves playing on tinsel ropes.

“Working in groups, the children had to work out how their elf could stay longest on the swing,” Ms Eames said. “Different groups came up with different questions based on the type of string, its length and weight and the angle of the drop. Then they counted or timed the swinging rope and we created a class booklet with each group writing up their experiment.”

Ms Eames is one of 25 primary and secondary teachers from 12 schools being educated using enquiry-based methods advocated by the Fibonacci Project at the University of Leicester’s School of Education. The University is the principal centre in England for the EU-funded scheme, which has included 36 partners in 21 countries. It was chosen as a key player internationally because of its success and work on previous schemes, notably the Pollen Project, led by Professor Tina Jarvis, a community approach for sustainable growth of science education in Europe.

The Fibonacci Project brings together the teaching of maths and science through inquiry-based, practical approaches that are relevant to children, but which also demonstrate the links between the two subjects.

As an international centre, the University of Leicester will host conference and training sessions, including the next major conference of the Project, with a focus on research, scheduled to take place in April 2012.

Professor Janet Ainley, Director of Leicester’s School of Education, said the project had two main objectives: to raise standards in maths and science by improving the professional development of teachers; and to raise the profile of, and interest in, the two subjects which are seen worldwide as key to economic growth and success.

“The project is about teaching mathematics and science using inquiry based approaches,” Professor Ainley said. “Each centre has funding to work with groups of teachers to develop these, and that knowledge is then cascaded down the structure to other teachers.

“We work with teachers to look at how themes arising in the science curriculum can be developed in a cross-curricular way. It is based on teachers and pupils posing and exploring questions through investigation and practical approaches."

A lesson may, for example, focus on the theme of flight and investigating the use of parachutes. The discussion might involve children talking about what they know about parachutes and how they work, moving on to actually designing one.

The pupils would be expected to examine whether a round or rectangular one would be more effective, what size it should be and what material should be used.

“As well as science, there is a lot of maths going on here with pupils studying shapes, taking measurements, collecting and analysing data and then actually making parachutes,” Professor Ainley added. “Children are using all sorts of scientific processes. It is real science and very hands-on and relevant.”

Teachers attend five sessions during the school year – two full days and three twilight sessions – where they take part in activities designed to give them lesson ideas they can try out in the classroom, and customise for different age groups.

Participants get to meet and discuss different approaches they have taken; which have worked and those that have proved more challenging.

The teachers are supported by academics in science and maths – Frankie McKeon and Tina Jarvis – from the University of Leicester, who visit them and observe, and then report back on progress.

For the purposes of the project, the University is twinned with universities in Dublin and Belfast – an arrangement that allows centres to disseminate information and learn from each other.

“In particular, Fibonacci challenges us to explore the similarities and differences in our two disciplines; what inquiry might mean in each of them and how the strands of content from each area might be brought together in a meaningful way,” Professor Ainley said.

Teachers taking part in the project said it was already reaping benefits in the classroom, with both pupils and staff feeling engaged and motivated in lessons.

Matthew Laws, who teaches Years 3 and 4 at Cossington CE Primary School, in Cossington, Leicestershire, said the Fibonacci approach was particularly effective in consolidating learning.

“The pupils love it because it demands of them to be inquisitive,” he said. “They really enjoy all the data-handling, drawing charts and scatter graphs. It makes the whole process so much more meaningful for them, and we have seen their understanding growing. They really see the relevance of what they are doing.

“Using open-ended tasks also means that they can make learning their own. They decide which direction they want to take the activity. It really encourages them to think for themselves and become independent learners.

“It is also more fun for us to teach in this way.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Eames is organising her school’s Science Week which, this year, will highlight the links between numeracy and science, and collaborative working to engage the pupils in activities that have a purpose and scientific outcome.

“We need to equip children with the confidence and skills to be able to do these subjects, and ensuring that they are able to achieve something.

“They also need to learn that science does not always work first time and you may have to alter your experiment again and again.

“The Fibonacci Project links lots of things together. It provides me with confidence, inspiring CPD and the chance to discuss science and numeracy teaching with teachers in different schools and across different age ranges.”

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