‘Calming the Storm’ – a reflection on 5 days of Lock-Down

It is inevitable that so many of our metaphors on crises point at our country’s war experiences of the last century, and encouraged by Dad’s Army etc. that ethos still flows rich in our writing. I’ve chosen the ‘weather’ metaphor instead, feeling it more apt. Like the arrival of the great winter storms this year, we’ve know they’ve been coming and we’ve planned our defences accordingly, battened down what hatches we could and awaited with bait breath the onslaught. Storm’ Dennis’ was an utter brute, blowing in at up to 140 mph/230 km/h , its impact for 7 days. The effects filled the news screens and we watched with baited breath as the flood defences of Ironbridge held up against the might of the torrent that the River Severn had become.

During this January, we became aware as a country of the emergence of a new ‘flu’ in China, that was rapidly causing one of its provinces to ‘shut down’ into isolation. In turn, within our school, we commenced some tightening of procedures, reviewing of our processes, checking what might happen in terms of emergency closure and considered our options. The call went out from my laptop to ensure all of our staff were bringing themselves up to date with the full use of Google Docs and its allies’, and checked that if not already, our classrooms themselves were going on-line with their teachers. What could possibly go wrong?

As Academic Principal, it falls to me first to confirm what our educational direction is to be, and how that is to be realised within the context of our school here in the Thames Valley. Obviously I sound out teaching approaches with my colleagues in leadership, but as there are few agreed ‘models’ on distance learning instruction for schools closed by pandemic, it falls to me to lead the discussions and affirm the choices. Given that the school spans the entire age range, the last thing I can set out is a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and it is very evident to any member of the Claires Court community that we do choose to do an awful lot of things in differing ways because of this, not just because of the age spread, but also because we teach a wide ability spectrum and we separate the children by gender from age 5 to 16 as well. Could the task be more complicated?

One of the ‘problems’ I experience as a well seasoned education researcher is that I know ‘stuff’ and the evidence that is required to validate decision making in education needs always to be better than a ‘hunch’. I won’t bore you at this stage with the details of Richard Elmore’s seminal paper* on how it simply isn’t possible to scale up promising educational practices into a national ‘rule of thumb’. What we know in schools, and mine certainly reflects this trend, is that we have amazing teachers who do amazing things in their classes, get breathtakingly good results, yet they all manage their classrooms differently. Even within a department, the contrasts can be quite stark; some teachers simply know how to teach and practice that really well, whilst others get to know their pupils really well, and investing time in those relationships rather than pedagogy holds them in equally good stead.

Elmore’s findings about the efforts in the USA (and 4 other countries) to standardise best practice in the classroom so that national standards could rise are grim indeed. From his study of 4000 classrooms in 500 schools he could not find a ‘super hero jumpsuit’ that teachers could slip on before stepping into role as a teacher. In short, ‘best practice’ in the classroom is an untrappable ‘Will-of-the-Wisp’; sure we can identify those simplistic things that can be harmonised but what we can’t do is simplify the complexity of learning. Helping students practice a skill they already have is one thing, but helping get their heads and hands around a concept new to them is quite a different matter.

“Who’s Elmore?” I hear you ask – Professor of Education at Harvard, and a serious world expert in education. Elmore asks the question ” Can you “teach” people to learn in ways you have not?” and gives us a very straight answer. “I think not!” So there in lies the rub. When we select our teachers to join Claires Court, we look for subject, age and stage expertise, their ability to build and nurture skills and relationships in the children and young people (CYP). We take more than a glance at their social media profile of course, not looking for positives as on-line educators there more than checking out that they are the ‘real deal’ in their ‘public’ private lives. In recent years, we have never selected any teachers because of their competence with distance learning skills, and I can think of only one ever, Chris Sivewright whose efforts here assisted in the establishment of Economics in the Sixth Form.

I confess I had more than Ellmore’s evidence to hand, I also have the experience of many wider industries who have learned to deal with serious disruptions. The first thing you must not do is change all of your practices at once. It’s far better to change by evolution over time, and agree what it is that you are trying to achieve in the new circumstances, before choosing the tools and adapting the processes as a consequence. We have learned this over the last decade in various phases of education; you can’t give up play too quickly with the early years, where experiences, peer coaching and movement for learning are essential. At primary & secondary level, knowledge and expertise need time to build; the ‘lost decade’ given over to training for the test in the state sector is so well understood that it embarrasses those who forced upon the nation.

I also had the luck that schools in Hong Kong had emergency close down forced upon themselves by the riots there last Autumn. Schools had to close, but the teachers were able to get together, design systems and roll them out for a week or two and then, after their return to school, evaluate the Good, Bad and Ugly bits. There were certainly plenty, more of those anon. When the schools had to shut down again in January, and not just in Hong Kong but across the Far East, the schools’ diverse community began in earnest running ‘on-line’ education, bringing children to the screen for the most prolonged period of time I have ever known. Of course we know there are families that choose to home educate, those being disciples of that approach and consenting to be teachers-and-learners in the same household. It’s clearly utterly different when families are locked-in, no escape from each other, and where priorities don’t just include the children’s school curriculum coming down the ‘tubes’.

My previous blog describes the theoretical approach taken, so I won’t repeat that, other than to confirm our first 8 day period of Distance Learning has been to close down the work of the term, using the existing tools we have at our disposal and in ways that both the teachers and children understand how to deploy. We’ve tried to keep up the best of communications we can, to inform public examinations students on their prospects of receiving grades this year, and to support their on-going establishment of their subject credentials. Every morning, for secondary pupils, teachers have ‘surfaced’ new work and then monitored and ‘conversed’ with their classes in their various on-line subject and pastoral Classrooms. At primary level, we’ve been less prescriptive, and of course at the Early Years stage, really only been able to prompt and suggest for families to take control.

With the whole of the Northern Hemisphere currently online, and with so many schools ramping up their on-line classrooms on Monday, it came as no surprise that so many commercial services crashed and burned. Even Firefly and Microsoft Cloud services creaked badly – here’s one of those stories – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-52005999 whilst locally in homes with multiple occupancy, broadband speeds fell below the ability to stream live. These are certainly the lessons learned from the Hong Kong schools, but there are so many softer problems that need solving. Children are great peer educators, indeed true for adults too, and in the normal working day, all can receive support when their system appears not to be working. A quick nudge here, a ‘watch&learn’ there and every user is quickly up and running. At home, it’s utterly different, and very lonely indeed, where the tech problems don’t just magnify, they become insoluble without serious support.

We’ll know by Wednesday next just how successful all of our teachers and learners have been in adapting to their new workspaces and establishing their routines that will work for all the family. We’ve had so much good feedback; clearly for many, the approach has worked. I completely understand that for some, having online school in real-time is the solution they had expected, but sadly, as so many schools that have found last week, bandwidth and technology have not coped. Ellmore describes delivering ‘high level content’ in unfamiliar ways, like “knocking the corners of the grand piano to get it through the classroom door!” Yep, that was certainly an understandable metaphor witnessed!

Despite the very best of planning, and the careful direction to staff to go easy, the vast majority of teachers have learned in week 1 that being ‘distant and on-line’ is the most inefficient and time consuming way of working. Marking and Feedback takes so much longer, and we’ve had colleagues working to midnight to keep up with the ‘flow’ even though we had dramatically reduced the volume expected. Moreover, we have so many teachers who are both partnered up and have now become unexpected carers for their own family, children and adults, Time in the office has to be shared between the grown-ups if both are at home. Many staff’s partners are key workers too, so during some of the day, they are flying solo as chief cook and bottle washer. Calming the storm

Giles Coren writing in the Times today highlights some good advice for the ‘newly found careworker’:

A child psychologist and “neuroscience educator” in New Zealand called Nathan D Wallis has been doing the rounds on social media saying that all this remote schooling is a waste of time. Thank God.

I’m not saying that I’ve been looking for any excuse to nix the home school nonsense and get on with my life but when Wallis says, “Let your concerns about your kids’ academic outcomes go. They are stressed at this frightening time for the world. A four-week holiday from schoolwork is not going to do them any harm,” I am all ears.

He goes on: “When parents take over the teaching they tend to go to a 1920s model rather than a 2020s model (it is true I dusted off my old university mortar board on Monday morning and have been pinging chalk at the kids like billy-o) but trying to focus on reading and maths at a time like this is going to stress them out and harm your relationship.

Forget all that. Now is a great time to focus on self-care. Does your child know how to make their bed by themselves? (no) Do they know how to make their lunch? (they barely know how to eat it) Are they able to get up and make breakfast by themselves? (they aren’t even able to get up). These are skills your kids will need for the rest of their lives. They are easier for you as parents to focus on. And now is the appropriate time.”

Over the past 5 days, and with the support of Hangouts Meet, we’ve been developing our approach for the Summer term ahead – here’s a preview of our work under construction.

We’ll have a Handbook for the other stages, Junior and Sixth Form, covering the detail as required for that age and stage. What this framework does is advise and inform in more detail how we feel school will run during the summer term, until such time as we are released back into our premises. 

What we also know is that video and other visual interactions will help cement and build further the relationship of our teachers with the children and young people they teach.  We’ve already trialled some Hangouts, amd our YouTube channel is filling with great examples of Teachers in action. What we have not yet done is ‘Calm the storm’, as the full impact of Covid-19 is not due to hit until 2 weeks time. I sincerely hope our community weathers the full force of the epidemic and my heart goes out to the other public services that will be having to manage the human damage in real time. As a teacher, that’s not my role, but I do sincerely affirm that our preparations for learning to continue through the Spring and Summer are assured. Let’s close this blog with a lovely video produced for this Thursday’s on-line music assembly. Spot me if you can! It’s aptly titled ‘Isolation’.

*Elmore, Richard. (2016). “Getting to scale…” it seemed like a good idea at the time. Journal of Educational Change. 17. 10.1007/s10833-016-9290-8.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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1 Response to ‘Calming the Storm’ – a reflection on 5 days of Lock-Down

  1. Linda greetham says:

    Thank you James
    Excellent read! Reality.
    Video brilliant.
    Loved your dance moves with Jenny. Keep posting!

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