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Learnings from lockdown

Written By: Alex Crossman
8 min read

The public health emergency caused by Covid-19 Coronavirus has challenged accepted practice in schools around the world. The nature of that challenge is twofold. First, how teachers and school leaders ensure their students’ education can continue while school buildings remain closed. Second, how schooling itself should change once those buildings inevitably re-open.

The Education Endowment Foundation sensibly reminds us that the most sustainable, most effective approaches to virtual schooling will emerge over time through experimentation and dialogue between teachers and school leaders. After two weeks of experimentation in my school, the following seven learnings are an initial contribution to that dialogue.

1. Remember what hasn’t changed

So much of our day-to-day lives as teachers has changed dramatically. It is important to hold onto those things that haven’t. First and foremost, your values as a professional and your ethos as a school. These should be unaffected by the lockdown. If, on 20th March, you believed passionately that all children deserve access to an excellent education, irrespective of their start in life, family circumstances or additional needs, then nothing in the past two weeks should have given you cause to question those beliefs. Indeed, a commitment to equity in education becomes ever more important given the differential impact of this health emergency on more vulnerable groups.

Also unaffected by the lockdown are the key insights we have developed as a profession. Much of our practice needs to adapt, as I’ll discuss below, but the principles underpinning quality-first teaching are as relevant in a virtual school as they ever were in a physical one. In particular, the need to engage all learners, to challenge all learners, to build their capacity for independent learning.

Much of our practice needs to adapt, but the principles underpinning quality-first teaching are as relevant in a virtual school as they ever were in a physical one.

2. Appreciate what has… and for whom

The most vital source of support any learner receives in school is through direct, face-to-face dialogue with their teachers and teaching assistants. At best, these interactions will have diminished since schools closed. They may have ceased altogether. In some cases, engaged and well-educated parents will be able to fill part of this gap and students will take full advantage of the online learning opportunities schools make available. Others, however, will be moribund in the infamous 30 million word gap that Hart and Risley found between the highest- and lowest-income households. Absent the opportunity to discuss their learning, they will become frustrated, disengaged and de-motivated.

This means that teaching over online platforms must be more heavily scaffolded and must make even more explicit provision for the development of key vocabulary than teaching in the classroom. Well-designed resources and creative use of technology to bridge the language gap existing in so many households should be the object of every teacher during the lockdown.

3. Get to grips with the technology

The transition to virtual schooling will have been easier if schools have already invested in a single platform for online learning. Our school had long-since adopted Google Classroom as our virtual learning environment. Our teachers and students had the advantage that virtually all homework was already set in this way. It has been far easier for us to scale up this platform and to find new, more creative ways of using it than to navigate multiple platforms with different user interfaces, functionality and degrees of reliability. Having a common platform also provides a clear focus for professional learning – the chief means through schools can address the understandable anxiety felt by some (typically older) colleagues when using technology. We have funded training for all of our teachers to become Google Certified Educators. The point is not to extol one platform over another: the point is to make an informed choice and to stick to it. Only when your teachers have got to grips with the technology can they effectively focus, as they should, on pedagogy and curriculum.

4. Prioritise wellbeing

Virtual schooling is not taking part as a result of a social experiment, but of a social crisis. We need to consider the impact this is having not just on our students’ physical health but also on their mental health. Some of your students will live in households where someone has symptoms of Coronavirus, if not a positive diagnosis. As time ticks by, the likelihood is that more and more children will know, or know of, someone who has passed away because of the virus. Even for those children that remain relatively untouched, the prospect of being confined to their homes for weeks at a time will be challenging. Our school has committed to survey parents and students every two weeks, focusing as much on wellbeing as on learning. The first set of survey results revealed that around 20 percent of ourstudents were showing visible signs of anxiety related to the public health emergency.

We have adapted our practice by encouraging home study routines that support learning without adding to anxiety. At least in the short term, we have engineered a reduction in workload so that students and their parents have time to adapt. We have ensured that schoolwork is scheduled to give students a reasonable amount to do every day but without confronting them with a week’s worth of work when they first log-on on a Monday morning – something that more vulnerable students in particular said they found stressful. We have ensured that all teachers are setting weekly deadlines, so that students feel they have a reasonable amount of time to complete work. We have also encouraged teachers to set at least some work that can be completed offline, in order to reduce the amount of time children are spending in front of screens.

5. Stay connected

Every teacher understands the need to cultivate positive relationships with their students. Our school, like many, has established well-functioning pastoral contact programmes for all students. But this does not remove students’ need for dialogue with their subject teachers. This can be in the form of a certain number of live-streamed lessons per week – one reason among many why I disagree with the NEU’s rather absolutist stance on this use of technology. It can also take simpler, less novel forms. Feedback on completed work is vital not only so that students can build their knowledge, deepen their understanding and increase their erudition or fluency, but because of the signal it sends that their effort is valued. Likewise, the use of your school rewards system.

Students should stay connected to each other in ways that support learning rather than simply reinforce existing friendship groups. Teachers can encourage connectivity in their classrooms by establishing virtual breakout groups to work on specific tasks, by encouraging reciprocal reading activities online, or by having students record their own reflections on how they completed specific tasks.

Teachers and other professionals also need to stay connected to each other. You are still a school, a group of middle leaders, a Science department, an admissions team. You should continue to function as one. This means that regular meetings must continue, though in a way that is sympathetic to those colleagues whose parental responsibilities will now loom large in the work day. Meeting agendas should routinely include a focus on colleagues’ wellbeing, if they do not already. It means that check-ins between meetings should include all staff. A weekday that passes in which a colleague has not heard from anyone in his or her team is a day too long – particularly in light of the reduction in other forms of social activity. It doesn’t have to be all work. A group of my colleagues are organising a weekly ‘pub quiz’ in which everyone participates over Google Hangouts.

As a school, we have provided parents with personalised digests of schoolwork set for their children and its due dates.

6. Build parental capacity

Parents nationally and internationally have been conscripted into the role of teaching assistant without any of the necessary training. As teachers, we recognise the way teaching assistants can transform the learning experience for many more vulnerable learners. Our task now is to provide, as best we can, support and guidance for parents to step into that role. The chief task will be to build parents’ confidence in tackling curriculum content much of which they have long-since forgotten from their own schooling and more of which may be entirely new to them. Still more important, for secondary school students, will be convincing committed parents that working alongside their children is likely to be less effective than encouraging good study habits, such as creating calendars, setting goals, etc.

As a school, we have provided parents with personalised digests of schoolwork set for their children and its due dates. We have provided talk stems for parents to use when having conversations with their children about schoolwork. We have also organised online forums for parents to swap strategies and to provide support to one another. The best example of a parental strategy so far? The local authority project manager who taught other parents how to construct a Kanban board laying out a week’s worth of schoolwork in their children’s bedroom.

7. Summon your creativity for the present (and your courage for the future)

The opportunity that lies hidden in this crisis is to rethink the way schools operate, not just at the margin, but quite fundamentally. Teachers and school leaders should embrace the creative challenge presented by virtual schooling. They should investigate, for example, the many circumstances under which curation of public learning resources, such as those under creative commons licenses, might be preferable to the creation of tailored, allegedly ‘proprietary’ resources. And teachers should explain why they’ve chosen specific resources in order that students can begin to make better decisions for themselves. Teachers should explore the freedom to group students more dynamically across whole year groups, whole schools or even – who knows – across schools when setting specific learning tasks, rather than perennially being constrained to a specific class. Teachers should consider ways in which they can more routinely blend the use of pre-recorded content with live exposition, modelling and specific intervention for those students who need it most.

Embracing this creative challenge will require courage; not so much during the lockdown as after it is lifted. A good deal of teachers’ professional training is either premised on a normative view of the classroom environment – the way we group students, if not always quite how we seat them – or focused on how to foster that view in their students. Managing change will require us to see these arrangements as the practical constraints they have always been rather than as the fundamental truths we have sometimes presented them as.

Rahm Emmanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff, famously said that a good crisis shouldn’t go to waste. The wholesale closure of our schools is ‘our’ crisis. Whether our schools and school systems emerge from it stronger will depend on our willingness to take decisive action.

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