23 November 2020

The Monday Briefing: From me to you

The Monday Briefing: From me to you

“It has been the best thing for divorce lawyers, and the worst thing for humanity”

This thoroughly depressing headline was found in the South West Londoner newspaper back in August. Describing lockdown, the article featured comments from several divorce lawyers outlining the fact that they had been rushed off their feet during the enforced period of confinement. There was also a revealing expose about how suspicious partners had been able to unearth their significant others’ adultery through the introduction of a £300 sophisticated Infidelity DNA test. A cheaper test (£42) can let you know if your partner has been cheating, but can’t identify who with. Sales have risen 15% apparently over the last six months.

“Hopefully there won’t be another lockdown.” said a divorce lawyer, probably through gritted teeth.

This incredible exhibition of distrust lies in stark contrast to my experience of teaching during the lockdown. Within the delivery of our online learning platform, teachers had no option but to trust the learners - and the results were transformational - for staff and for students.

Trust is fundamental to every relationship. 

I think this has best been presented as a theory by Chinese Philosopher Confucious. Apparently, he told his disciple Tsze-kung that three things are needed for any government to be successful: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can't hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end because "without trust we cannot stand". 

I think that this analogy is especially true in education. A school can have an abundance of sporting facilities; a plethora of technological resources; a superfluity of funds with which to invest in every facet of their institution. It would not matter without trust. Without mutual trust within the staff body, from teacher to student and on to parents, nothing tangible can be achieved.

Contrary to what one may expect of what could have happened with the enforced separation of staff and students during lockdown, absence actually brought everyone closer together. Our overall attendance went up from 93% across the College to 98% utilising our online platform, where we continued to run the timetable with some tweaks, moving one hour twenty minute sessions down to one hour in order to mitigate the effects of ‘screen fatigue.’ The traditional methods of working (exercise books and pens) were quickly replaced with Google Docs and the Google Classroom, and the transition was as seamless as possible.

I still look back, with a certain degree of relief, upon receiving an email of vindication for the new system from one of our parents, three days into lockdown:

“Without question all of our daughter's teachers - all those with whom she has had virtual contact with in recent days - have been outstanding.  It's not just the pupils that have been anxious about proceedings, but teaching staff as well I'm sure.  And so much extra time has been invested "behind the scenes" as they (and all of us in our own jobs) have faced a significant and enforced virtual up-skilling.  Something that will bode well for the future of education I'm sure, although it's far too early to start being self congratulatory.  But, all in all, please pass on a big "well done" to all your staff.”

The sentiment within this email was particularly pertinent to me because it confirmed what I knew: that the educational landscape had changed.

With an already high level of mutual trust between staff and students, we were able to take students through an awkward period to the end of the academic year with the same degree of purpose and challenge. Mock examinations went ahead in Easter - students all signed a disclaimer devoting themselves to following the rules - and where performance was unexpectedly strong, they underwent Viva interviews to justify their improvements. Digitally setting and receiving homework tasks seemed to hold students accountable just as well, if not more effectively, and I’m very pleased to say that all of the staff at the College have taken this opportunity to truly reflect on their practice, as I have to look at our overarching academic principles.

The challenge was, and is, clear: how do we take forward the best aspects of our practices formed during distance learning, and integrate them with normal classroom practice - which the staff, the students and I are all delighted to have resumed?

And the answer is in the embedding of a form of blended learning, which has enabled students to become far more independent in their approach.

A common issue for many schools is in staff ‘letting go’ of their students - enabling them to become self-dependent. Because of the distance learning enforced by lockdown, we now had little choice but to take more risks in empowering our students. During an inset session at the start of the year, I emphasised the fact that the gains made during lockdown had to be capitalised on, and that the Google Classroom platform was here to stay. I made it clear that I was keen to embrace the change rather than to shy away from it. The College has now established a form of ‘Flip Learning’ which passes the initial responsibility for learning to the students rather than a dependence on teaching staff to drive it. It is explained in the diagram below:

With staff now having clear instructions to post the materials for lessons at least a day in advance of them, students have the chance to take the initiative. They read through the presentations and pre-class notes, using textbooks and suggested extension resources to embed the basic content of the lesson, seeking out potential problem areas and then utilising teacher direction during the lesson to make up the deficit in their learning. I ensured that all students, during their induction over the first few days of the academic year, now had an easily understandable system for how effective learning can take place using the best of both worlds, and this can be found below (credit to The Hectic Teacher for this - @HecticTeacher)

The reasoning behind this change was that the sequencing of learning could now be adjusted to enable students to deal with the first, and easiest, stage of learning themselves (shown in Bloom’s Taxonomy below), for staff to then guide them through the process of applying and analysing this learning, with this then being assessed through appropriately set homework tasks. This collaborative approach has certainly empowered students to become more independent and self-sufficient within their studies, and there is no going back now.

We are, of course, on the initial stages of this journey but a transformation is certainly underway. 

From my point of view, I’ve always seen the College as a bridge between a school and a university, and this method of learning encapsulates that far more efficiently than we were ever doing before. I have always wanted students to leave here with a sense that they have developed the skills to succeed in the next stage of their learning. I can already see our GCSE students adopting the work habits of successful sixth form students, whilst our year 12s and 13s have gladly accepted the philosophy that it is their time to take the lead.

Anxiety about the future of education, both within the College and in the wider sense, has given way to optimism, and that is, quite rightly, down largely to how the students here have adapted to the challenging circumstances they find themselves in.

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