Learning to Learn: A Latvian Way of Escaping School Routines

We can perceive the school as a place that children have to attend TO BE TAUGHT some, presumably useful and usable, knowledge, whether they like it or not, decided by somebody as worth acquiring, in a manner and format dictated by curricula, programmes, regulations and so on, or we can expect it to be a place where children LEARN things and STUDY to understand relations between such things, where they do it with interest and vigour and where an environment is created for everyone to fit in. At the same time, as grownups we know that the school is a meeting place of children with different abilities and with many different family backgrounds and in order to ensure it to be a place for everybody we need easy and low-cost “here and now” solutions.When thinking about learning and fitting in problems we came to a conclusion that the key to whatever activities in the process of learning is MOTIVATION – not only on the part of children, but also teachers, and interestingly enough – parents, too. As a result of such deliberations the project Learning to Learn – Targeting Learning Difficulties of Children from Marginalised Social Groups in 6 Rural Communities in Latvia was developed by six grassroots organisations to be implemented from April to December 2014 in six communities in Latvia: Beverīna County, Brocēni County, Valmiera City, Rugāji County, Zvārtava Civil Parish in Valka County and Kurmene Civil Parish in Vecumnieki County, where the project partners, the six grassroots organisations – Association “Iespēju durvis” (Beverīna Co.), Family Association “Ligzda” (Brocēni Co.), Foundation “Skolai pie ezeriņa” (Valmiera City), Association “Mēs pasaulē” (Rugāji Co.), Association “Atrodi laiku sev” (Valka Co.) and Association “Kurmenes viļņi” (Vecumnieki Co.) cooperated with local schools to devise activities to show children that learning is an interesting and exciting process of exploration of oneself and the surrounding world, to remind parents that their role, support and understanding in the learning process make up one of the most important elements of the child’s success formula, and to help teachers to find new sources of inspiration for the diversification of the learning process.

During the project the NGOs together with the schools sought for and tried out in practice non-traditional solutions for the variation of the learning process, to make the acquisition of the curriculum content interesting and exciting. Numerous activities were organised, all together 43 – too numerous to provide descriptions of all of them. To mention a few, the small rural schools in Beverīna County organised the County Measuring Campaign. Each grade at each school (there are three altogether in the county) measured a particular object – the school building, a great tree in the vicinity, a bridge across the river in the village, etc. – determining different measurements and other characteristics, thus learning different units of measure and the relations between them and applying them in practice. Later the results were compared with the measurements acquired in other schools, whereby the benefits were threefold – information about size of important objects in the county was acquired directly from the source; mathematic knowledge was refreshed; and children learned how to work as a team, how to agree on the best strategy for action.

The school in Valmiera held a series of events to facilitate pupils’ reading skills. The participants had to read a book and present it to a pretended audience (played by other participants) – a particular social group, for example, bikers, senior citizens, punks – trying to convince them to read the book as the most suitable reading matter for them. The children were very creative, took up the roles of heroes of the stories, used different additional accessories to persuade their audiences. Their presentations were assessed by a jury of students from elder grades, while teachers only provided support and consultancy.

At Rugāji Secondary School the Sports & Physics Festival was organised where children first learned a law of physics and then tested it practically through sportive activities.

Students were encouraged to make meaningful use of modern technologies – at the school in Vecumnieki County classes were organised for learning grammar and at the same time mastering film-making. The participants worked in groups and made two videos on social problems they found topical – irresponsibility towards pets and misuse of mobile telephones by teenagers.

Parents in their turn had a possibility to meet different specialists for understanding of the peculiarities of the learning process and the best ways of helping their child to acquire different skills and knowledge with interest. Work with parents from vulnerable families focussed on implementation of such activities, which allowed them to feel as a part of the community and become involved in the processes thereof. In this area huge work was done in Zvārtava (Valka County) where a parental support group was open for almost the entire duration of the project.

Activities aimed at strengthening the relations between parents and the school were equally important, so that parents would feel they belonged there and would engage in the processes taking place at school. For example, in Zvārtava Creative Days were organised at Ozoli Elementary where parents discussed themes of importance with teachers and had creative workshops together. In Rugāji a Father’s Day Cross-Country Race was held, while in Brocēni it was the Family Forum in which parents, grandparents, children, youth volunteers and local government representatives participated to discuss the role of the school in the local community.

The project activities planned specifically for teachers in most cases were meetings with specialists according to the preferences voiced by teachers, to discuss the current situation and seek for improvement solutions. Routine work, burn-out resulting from countless duties and filling out different documents are frequently mentioned as main reasons that prevent teachers from creative and unusual organisation of acquisition of the learning content prescribed by the curriculum, therefore meetings with psychologists, class management, emotional intelligence, text analysis and other specialists were greatly appreciated. Some partners organised teacher experience exchange visits, while teachers at Brocēni Secondary School launched cooperation workshops for subject teachers – at these workshops teachers of the same subject from grades one to twelve meet to discuss the challenges related to teaching of the particular subject. The workshops were attended by teachers from all schools of Brocēni County.

Geographically the project partners were located as far from each other as 100 to 400 kilometres, therefore to avoid excessive spending on fuel for any partner meetings we tried out opportunities offered by modern technologies and organised a Skype conference. The project progress, events organised by each partner, as well as input for the methodological material of the project were discussed. The methodological material was planned to be a compilation of best practices and success stories of all project partners, supplemented with examples of tasks, event descriptions and result evaluations, etc. Among others it contains a copyright material developed and approbated by a preschool teacher from Rugāji County about application of ORF musical method in preschool education groups, and a full class plan with teacher’s comments for video making and grammar learning workshops held at the secondary school in Vecumnieki County. Development of the methodological material was not easy, but very useful experience for the organisers and authors of the activities, since organisation is one thing, but telling the story to others so that it becomes a ready-to use material is another.

At the end of November all project partners and participating school representatives met for a project and material evaluation and closing event in Beverīna County. The theme of the event was the “school for everybody”, that is, how to create a school that would be available to everyone, where every child would engage in the activities most suitable for them and would be valued according to their individual achievements instead of some general standard. With this in mind from the very beginning of the project, the activities were planned so that they would be suitable and interesting for all and everyone.

The compiled methodological material is available on the following homepages: www.parmainuskolas.lv, www.iac.lv and www.iespejudurvis.lv – the material is in Latvian, with the introduction translated in English. All ideas, descriptions and exercises may be used freely, also tailored to the user’s particular needs.

The project lead partner’s email address info@iespejudurvis.lv may be used for any enquiries.

The project was implemented with the funding from Open Society Foundations Education Support Program and is part of the international initiative “Grassroots Europe for Local Wellbeing”. Experts of the Education Development Center (Izglītības attīstības centrs – IAC) provided consultancy and assisted in disemination of the information.

Linda Krūmiņa, Project Director, Association “Iespēju durvis”

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