Looking forward to September
There has been a great deal of discussion in regard to the way in which learning will look different this coming September when schools fully reopen, much of this has been focussed on the changes necessary to normal operation within schools. Within the confines of this piece we won’t be going through the minutiae of what the response to the government guidance looks like, instead we’ll be considering how the lessons from both online learning and the return to school can offer us in terms of improving the way in which we work with children and families.
Schools that are likely to make the greatest success of the return are going to be those that are able to focus on how they return to normal operation rather than simply opening, while also considering what they have learned over the last six months of teaching that they can move into the new school year. Those schools that have engaged with virtual and live classrooms fully are in the best position to consider this, not only from their own internal observations but also as a consequence of the feedback and engagement from their communities with the adversity of the situation has pulled school communities together; be this staff who have had to learn together quickly or greater and deeper communication between parents and the school. Emerging from conversations and feedback with teachers, children and parents three themes are emerging; the role of technology in supporting independent and extended learning, conversations and feedback around work and the way in which learning in classrooms has become highly visible within our communities.
As the lockdown approached our schools set themselves the challenge of ‘bringing the classroom into the living room’, the most significant effect of this has been the level of visibility that has been given to families in regard of the learning process. Not just the dynamics that exist between a teacher and class in learning, also the types of questions and conversations that elicit learning and responses from children, the level of detail in planning and delivery required to move a child forward in the learning. The greater understanding of the work that teachers do has led to a greater appreciation of the profession, this can be seen in the media, social and printed, in questionnaire feedback at Bellevue schools and in the spike in applications to teacher training. It’s critical that we maintain this visibility, and that we find ways of continuing to allow parents this insight and understanding not just so that the appreciation of staff is continued, also so that parents continue to develop their understanding of their children’s progress and how this may be supported. It’s also very clear that in many cases the regularity and quality of communication has been enhanced by the possibilities of video conferencing; so for those who find this a useful way of engaging expect to see virtual parents evenings offered by schools, alongside webinars on key areas of the curriculum and key note events such as the year ahead meeting supporting families busy lives.
For both children and staff our competency and capacity in the use of different computing tools and applications has soared. There were many benefits of children accessing, submitting and teachers marking their work online, Within the group we received feedback from 1000 pupils above Year 5 on their learning experience online, as well as conducting focus groups with younger children. Children of all ages recognised that, alongside developing their skills with video conferencing and sharing work they had been afforded other opportunities to develop, that they valued and wanted to build on. First and foremost amongst these was the ability to work independently, coming back to work in their own time. In essence children are saying to us that they want more time to think, to act on their own behalf, to come back to ideas that they have encountered. This, surely, is an entirely good thing and feedback from the groupwide survey of teachers paralleled this idea; staff see this developing in their children and are committed to continuing and building on the use of classrooms to allow children visibility of the daily work outside of the class time. Several schools are already looking to take their homework for older year groups online to support this process; one final side effect is that this will also enable families to see and share the work children have been doing on a daily basis in school.
Alongside the development of greater independent learning It is important that we continue to capitalise on the other clear benefits; children can work together on shared documents, submit work and communicate with staff readily, independently and individually. One of the elements from feedback that was less expected was an appreciation of the different ways that online learning afforded children to engage in conversations with staff, as well as the ready accessibility of staff. There were two different elements within this; the way in which the timetable structure afforded different ways of communicating and the functionality available in online conferencing tools. In the first instance many schools were delivering live introductions and then allowing children to work ‘offline’, or creating drop in times for children (and parents) in afternoon sessions designated for independent learning; this created greater opportunities for one to one conversations, and children appreciated the chance to talk about their work directly and found this feedback more useful than the marked work. Alongside this children found that being able to contribute to lessons through the chat function allowed them to put forward their opinions more willingly than they usually did in class, which makes some sense when we reflect as adults on our willingness to proffer an opinion or answer when we are unsure! We know that feedback is a critical component in supporting children’s learning and it’s going to be critical to consider how we work opportunities for the above into children’s daily learning experience; the implications for this are more wide ranging, if children find one to one conversations about their work more valuable we need to consider questions such as ‘Should we focus on verbal feedback and reduce the amount of written feedback and marking produced by teachers?’.
None of the above is to suggest that the blanket application of online learning is a panacea for independent learning, or that there is no downside to this. There will be many aspects of learning that will, and must, continue to be delivered traditionally and this period has also highlighted the challenges of online learning. One of the significant issues for learners and teachers has been the ability to ‘switch off’, not unsurprising as the line between your home and your working or learning space becomes increasingly blurred and with the tools to access this readily available through your computer. This is going to require some consideration of how we support pupils in making decisions about how and when to use online tools and critically when enough is enough. One of the notable adaptations that schools have made over the last few months is ensuring that appropriate amounts of pastoral time are built into the curriculum, so that discussion around balancing online learning and isolation can take place. Ensuring time is made for these conversations on the return to school is going to be a key tool in allowing pupils to return to school smoothly. These are critical conversations and school leaders and staff have been proactive in raising and discussing these issues and the associated concerns so that effective practice can be shared and implemented.
Although we cannot ignore that a return to online learning could be a possibility through the Autumn whether due to confirmed cases, a second spike or a local lockdown. Pupils in BV schools have enjoyed a continuity in their education, through the actions of schools and support from home – that schools both acknowledge and are grateful for. Independent schools are often at their most effective when they combine a strong sense of tradition and values, with an entrepreneurial and open minded approach to innovation and learning. It’s critical that we learn from this period of change and forced innovation so that we can make the most of the skills that children and staff have acquired while reflecting on what continues to be important to all of us; having learned a great deal we can face September with optimism whatever it may hold.