A Positive Side Effect of the Lockdown

An article from the Conservative Education Society (CES) by Rushi Millns.

With the Government phasing in the return of primary school children, it is natural for secondary school students and their parents to be wondering when they, too, might be able to return.

When the reports of this new strain of Coronavirus first emerged, no one could have predicted the wide-reaching impact this pandemic would have on the world.  I would never have believed that there would be circumstances in which schools would be closed down by the Government but here I am, two months down the line, teaching my students remotely.

Like those around the world, the people of the UK have had to adjust.  We have all had to alter the way we live, from shopping and socialising to working and studying.  Companies large and small have had to adapt, too.  My local florist started up a fruit and veg box delivery service, which has been vital to our community as people self-isolate and struggle to get supermarket deliveries.  One local pub offers meat and fish boxes, thereby keeping themselves and their suppliers in business. Schools are also working hard to continue the business of teaching and learning.  Broadly speaking, most schools have responded in three ways: either maintaining the students’ timetables with lessons simply transferring online; provide students with resources and activities to complete at home; or an adapted timetable that provides some routine but allows for more time away from the screen, this might be lessons in the morning and more practical activities in the afternoon or longer breaks between lessons.

We have all had to be creative and flexible in our thinking, and more importantly, we have had to develop more resilience.  In schools we encourage students in all of these areas but the holy grail is to develop independent learners who take ownership of their own learning.

I am one of the group of people who came into teaching after a career in industry, in my case the I.T. industry.  As I completed my post-graduate studies to qualify as a teacher, I loved learning about the pedagogies used in schools. Theories, underpinned by scientific research, put into practice.  When I was at school, I do not think I was ever shown a model answer or collaborated over an essay plan, let alone know what a mark scheme was. In those days, if you did badly then it was your fault, no one looked to the teacher or school for an explanation.  Of course, you basked in the glory of your hard work if you did well.

Fast forward a decade or so and the landscape is very different.  I walked into an environment of chunked lessons and scaffolded tasks where the scaffolding never seems to be taken away until they arrive in the world of work.  Where teachers seem to work harder than students to ensure every student is engaged, makes progress and obtains their target grade.  And the students know this.  I recall observing a lesson where a student refused to start the work, knowing that if he held out, the teaching assistant would scribe for him.  I even had a student approach me about dropping out of GCSE Computing; his closing argument was to reassure me that this was in my best interests because he had no plans to revise and when he ‘failed’ it would reflect badly on my results.  Today, if you do badly, the first question is what did the teacher or school not do to get the student the grade they wanted.

Let me be clear, I do not think we should go back to how things were when I was at school.  We have come so far with our understanding of effective learning, but I wonder, despite all our efforts, whether some elements of the current structure stop students building resilience and create dependent learners.

Over the last few weeks of teaching my students remotely, I have watched many of them struggle to adjust.  I am no longer standing at their shoulder prompting them to start or refocus.  They have to access the work themselves, read instructions, remain focused and complete tasks in a timely fashion.  For many, it is business as usual, this is what they do in their lessons anyway.  However, for those who require a prompt to get started or a verbal nudge to refocus are finding that they have to prompt and nudge themselves…and they are discovering that they can do this.  They are learning to take ownership of their own learning.  It makes me think that this period of remote learning is making them more resilient, more reliant on themselves to maintain the momentum of their lessons.

Across the country, students are finding that if they are to get any work done, then they are the ones who have to do it and that means being in the driving seat.  With busy parents, often working from home, trying to encourage their children to work and teachers remotely setting work, the onus is truly on the student to complete their set work.  Not all students are the same, many will have off days (the lockdown is challenging for everyone) and many parents are gaining a valuable insight into their child’s work ethic.  I recently attended a webinar on how to support children studying at home and one parent was angry because his child’s school was not making his child do their school work as the child refused to listen to the parents.  It was on the chat at the side of the video stream but I did wonder what the school could do that the parents could not.  It is a huge adjustment and I know one of the strategies that has worked for many parents is to maintain a study routine with rules around device use, similar to those implemented in schools.

Academic progress and success is a partnership between the student, the parents and the school.  This remains the case during these unusual circumstances.  I hope that this experience has allowed students to develop resilience and a greater level of independence that they will carry forward when they return to school.  When schools reopen, I hope parents will have a better understanding that the fundamental driver in their child’s academic attainment is their child taking responsibility and ownership of their learning, with the support of both parents and teachers. This is what will develop independent learners who are equipped with the skills and flexibility to succeed in the future.

Rushi Millns is CES’s Policy Ambassador.  She is Director of Careers & Outreach and heads up the Computing Department at a girls’ school, having taught in both the state and independent sectors.  She has stood as a Parliamentary Candidate, is National Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation and Deputy Chairman Political of the Windsor Conservative Association.

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