“Up-socialising the school experience on-line…”

After Easter my school has this week returned to work, and it seems we have made a good start, though we have more to do over the coming days to redevelop the richer social experience of real school too. I have written before that we are on occasion shackled by the knowledge and responsibilities we have, and ‘going social’, ‘zooming’ our lessons has needed some care and calm from the outset. DfE give no direct advice to schools, though point specifically at the London Grid for Learning’s advice that expressly warns about live cameras on children, requires 2 staff in the room etc. It’s current advice, and so for this first week we have been cautious about the number of sessions that could be live. At the end of last term, after 7 days on screen, we asked our secondary students for their responses to the experiences they had received to date. They too are really cautious about being live on-screen and showed a strong preference for being ‘live’ with their icon profile photo. Peer group sampling is not enough though, and whittling through the layers and complexity of adolescent thinking, it’s quite clear really that on an individual basis they like being on camera with their friends, just not with the teacher in the room.

Sixth Form lessons have inevitably been flat out since the start, not least because for Year 13 we have been assisting those students to complete their studies at the end of the individual subject programmes before the ‘closing’ of their courses mid May. Thanks to the feedback from our parents forums running every Tuesday, it’s become very clear to everyone that whilst through the ‘as yet unknown’ process A level and BTec results will arise for the students, those ‘grades’ actually won’t confirm the students have actually embedded the skills with those that might previously be assumed to have happened. For example, the learning and memorising of vocabulary and formulae, and the repeated, rehearsed practice of same, of problem solving, of dragging back knowledge to create essays under exam conditions are normally well rehearsed through the first part of this Summer term. Such practice doesn’t just make perfect in the short term, but makes permanent for a much longer period, placing the students in good shape for their next steps at University. So once we are past this first 4 weeks stage of checking and affirming that we have all the evidence we need for the exam boards’ needs to provide the candidates with grades, we will turn our attention to the Course 101s that we can provide to prepare Year 13 for their next steps, whether they be into employment or into University. Now we can’t make these 101s compulsory, but at least we can scatter the ‘seeds’ and see what grows.

Year 11 plans are similar, though it is much more challenging for school and parents when the press reports that Ofqual have said ‘You don’t need to do more work’ now. Across the country, the vast majority of schools and students seem to have ‘down tooled’ and permitting the roll of the dice to fall their individuals’ way. And that does not help schools and parents like ours who actually wish the young people to work the hard yards now, appreciate that learning is a lonely place, and that as with Year 13, how can you ‘rock up’ for A level etc. in September feeling optimistic IF you have not gained the skills to match the knowledge? I know it is a cheap comparison, but imagine if for some reason, practical driving tests were cancelled and government confirmed that there was no longer a need to pass the driving test, because we had the data from the mental Highway code test and we could use the teachers’ professional judgement from that instead. Our Year 11 and parents have been utterly brilliant, with 100% attendance, and on the first and second days of term this week, I ran two optional sessions for the boys in my line of command, and enough took the opportunity to show up to learn how to tweak their G Suite skills (go check out Screencastify and KEEP notes for my content).

So where my headline comes into play is for the rest of the school, from Year 10 downwards, to Year 1 and even perhaps Reception. School provides a ‘schooling’ experience, not just an educational fount of wisdom. Having been teaching for 45 years now, I am the first to admit that education in schools is a very inefficient process. What should take 5 minutes to explain sometimes takes less, but most of the time takes disproportionately longer than even the raving pessimist could suggest. My ‘bête noire’ is simple punctuation and grammar. At interview when boys are entering the school, their written assessment work is almost always up to scratch. 3 years later, the same children tell us they have never been able to spell and punctuate. Ignore that please, a cheap shot. Suffice it to say, that for the vast majority of a child’s life in school, their best memories are embedded by their teachers, and not by what they could do in their exams. Teachers get that their classroom needs to be a productive and ‘fun’ place – we don’t ‘murder the School Secretary for her Coca Cola’ for our or her health as part of Science week!

So here we are, facing week 2, and working out how to up-socialise our on-line school by distant learning. It seems we are competing with the BBC in terms of these popularity stakes, and I fear, of course, that it is the celebrities that will win if we go with the ‘Kardashian effect’ rather than the experts’ approach. One of my chums on the national education circuit is Ross Morrison McGill, and his blog today is an absolute beauty, sharing as he does my admiration for Professor John Hattie and Tricia Taylor.

McGill has this to say about the Kardashian effect in schools “My concern today is that our teaching workforce is in a position in which teachers and school leaders believe their professional wisdom is no longer valid. We only need to turn on the news to see articles and videos on ‘homeschooling’ or ‘home learning’ cited by celebrities, rather than by actual teachers. Academically, this is something I have been studying which is known as the Kardashian Effect: “to share an opinion and be viewed as a voice of authority, particularly when an individual may not be an expert in the field, but their opinion is taken as a credible source because of the numbers of people they influence.” Note, experience in teaching does not necessarily mean expertise.

Hattie has this to say on the current situation in a recent paper with When Schools Are Closed: What Matters and What Does Not. “Let’s recall the effects of the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011, which severely disrupted access to schools. There was a rush to online learning with a cry for special dispensations for upper high school examinations. As advisor to the Qualifications Authority that oversaw these exams, I argued we should not give special dispensation. I based this on strike research, which showed no effects at this upper school level, with positive effects in some cases. Sure enough, the performance of Christchurch students went up, and as schools resumed, the scores settled back down. Why? Because teachers tailored learning more to what students could NOT do, whereas often school is about what teachers think students need, even if students can already do the tasks.

What is indeed interesting is the statement that teachers are able to focus their attention on the things that children can’t yet do well enough. Now, what with before and after Easter, we have barely had 10 days online, offschool, but those that are critical of our offer are clear that their children are struggling to work out what’s needed to be done. One of the great advisors of teachers on on-line learning is Russell Stannard, who has been on-line almost all this century. His view is really quite clear, that on-line always works best in combination with the classroom, known as ‘blended learning’ and if you must go ‘distance learning’, do try to avoid engaging with too many ‘live’ sessions with the class.

Taylor asks teachers to max out on building relationships, and references in her Book Join the dots the evidence that leads her, Hattie and, of course, McGill to the shared conclusion that almost all the success built in education is related to the wonderful relationships developed in school. Here she is writing last week about this new period of isolation from school, with the kitchen table becoming the classroom, under the heading Maintaining positive relationships is more important now than ever:

“A few years ago while conducting a focus group, I started by asking the Year 11 (10th grade) students, whom the school classified as ‘low-performing’, if they liked being in school. One girl responded, ‘I feel like my teachers don’t even see me.’ This has stuck in my mind. We know this girl: she is quiet and well-behaved but often falls off our radar, right under our noses.

“And now, in these extraordinary times of school closures, as adults and children navigate new terrain, moving learning from the classroom to kitchen tables and from human interactions to digital devices, our ability to connect with students has become increasingly more challenging. We won’t see students on the playground to ask a question or pass them in the corridor to slip in an encouraging smile. In a remote learning environment, everyday interactions obviously become more difficult and less natural. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds will face the biggest challenges due to a variety of reasons, such as lack of online access, quiet spaces to work and anxiety about homelife like finances and caring for others, to name a few. These factors will further alienate students from that sense of belonging to the school and classroom community that is so important in excelling at learning.

So as my school faces its second week of Summer term, and thanks to the power of Google updating Classroom to give us in-Form break-out MEETs, and with an afternoon of enhanced opportunities to bring the school together for clearly more social activities, we genuinely set out to be more social and engaging in what we can do within the constraints of professional behaviour. Under a very clear heading The arts are an even better barometer of what is happening in our world than the stock market or the debates in parliament. Great civilisations are not remembered for the wars they won, but for the cultural legacies they leave behind, I present to our secondary boys and girls, remote as they may be, around a kitchen table or in some more private space a ‘surely must be unique in the UK’ programme of artistic, cultural, aesthetic and sporting activities.

These are secondary-aged clubs and activities, to which many younger children and adults are invited to as well; I do hope we can recruit good interest into as many as possible. One of the most exciting developments of the last 5 weeks is not just that we have our skies, birds and fresh air back (I am writing from under the Heathrow flightpath and near the world’s busiest motorway usually), but that families are slowing down and reuniting in their homes. I have every hope that parents and children will come along and take part together, and that the genuine “Up-socialising the school experience on-line…” will include teacher, students and parents in that magic partnership that Hattie, McGill and Taylor would agree is the most successful way to support children in their educational development.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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