Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Quandary - 26 Jul 2007

As a long-time primary teacher my heart sinks at topic work returning to the classroom. Younger colleagues say Iím wrong.

Hillary's Advice

Younger colleagues probably donít remember the days when topic work often meant a term-long meander through The Vikings without anything to show for it beyond a display of misshapen cardboard helmets. In many schools the rigour of literacy and numeracy hours blew in like bracing sea air.

But step away from those memories and remind yourself not only that children love to learn through exploration, but also that, when they grow up, their lives will be one non-stop parade of Ďtopicsí. Whenever they book a holiday, or rent a flat, or apply for a job they will need to think through the geography, maths and psychology of the situation. And as they grapple with the really big issues of their day, such as climate change, it will be vital for them to be able to juggle with numerous complex dimensions in their minds.

Todayís resurgence of topic work is being born out of teachersí frustration with the rigid divisions that have ruled in primary schools over the past couple of decades. They know that integrated learning makes sense. But hopefully the changes will remain firmly rooted in the clear framework for learning that the national curriculum brought in. So, while a half termís work on, say, canals, will allow children to learn about how and why the canals were dug, study how locks work, take a trip to a local canal, and paint pictures of canal boats, it will also be sure to cover specific and named areas of maths, English and science.

Which is not to say that all subject-specific learning should be tossed out of the window. Children need maths and music lessons. They need to be taught the chronology of history, and the grammar of any foreign language they embark on. But the very best education for the under-11s will always make sure thereís a good balance of both.