When thinking about the time lost during school shutdown it is easy to feel a little anxious, especially for our exam groups. We are all aware of the socio-economic gaps that exist in educational outcomes and I am not aware of anyone who thinks these won’t have grown significantly during the time of school closure. The usual disadvantaged groups are more likely to have struggled to work independently whether due to lack of motivation and structure or lack of resources (computers, shared internet time, quiet spaces to work) and other responsibilities (caring for siblings) at home. Some other individuals or groups may have fallen behind that we would not previously have had concerns about: those with many siblings for example, or with parents who are critical workers.
In thinking about how to close these gaps when our students return my initial thoughts were primarily centred on curriculum and knowledge: lost learning. How could I pick up the pace of my lessons, trim any inefficiencies in teaching and deliver material in the most intense but effective way to make up for this time before exams? And there are some clear ideas from research that will guide us in this. But as I looked into the matter, I realised I was focusing on the wrong concerns and, indeed, in danger of making matters worse rather than better. The first and most important impact of shutdown is going to be the emotional impact on our students and our relationships in the classroom.
Carpenter and Carpenter (2020) have argued that we should not underestimate the level of trauma the lockdown may have caused in the young people in our care. They note that they have suffered 5 key losses during lockdown: to routine, structure, friendship, opportunity and freedom. The subsequent levels of uncertainty and anxiety, even as things return to “normal” cannot be overlooked in our planning – in fact they must be central to it.
In which case our priorities on returning are not primarily about recovering “lost” knowledge opportunities. In fact, as teachers and tutors we will need to focus on the following areas:
- Rebuilding relationships – with our students and tutees, in the classrooms and around school. The extended period of shutdown may have led to the fragmentation of relationships that were previously thriving. In many ways we need to be prepared to restart relationships: revisiting classroom routines and expectations, guiding and repairing group dynamics and supporting students as they interact with us and each other. We are all aware that learning can be slower in the early weeks with a class than later in the year, as they get into the rhythm of learning together and with us – we need to be prepared that our classes and tutor groups may be significantly further back than they were in this regard and be ready to invest time in this aspect of our practice, rather than racing on with missed content.
- Managing anxiety about change – the nature of the shutdown means that a significant number of students may experience ongoing anxiety and insecurities about the stability of the world around them, including school. Transitions and uncertainty will need to be managed with great care and thought as will changes to routine e.g. unplanned assemblies, unstructured lesson activities or even things such as new seating plans. Unfortunately it is unlikely the schools will be able to pick up with a simple, straightforward routine from day 1. As the pandemic (hopefully) winds down, we may still experience limits to the group activities we can offer, and ongoing cover situations for sick and vulnerable staff. However, we are used to dealing with a small number of students who struggle with change or disruption to their routine and have strategies to help with this: from lesson maps to early communication about changes to their routine. We need to be prepared to deploy these strategies for most or all of our students until they are clearly settled back into school. Transparent lesson objectives and informative steps-to-success will be more important than ever, but so will effective communication, secure seating plans and guidance as to what to expect from each lesson as early in the hour as possible.
- Managing anxiety about progress; there is likely to be anxiety on the part of both teachers and students about learning hours lost and progress slowed. Objectively we know that every school is in the same situation, but as our internal research when the new GCSEs came in showed, knowing this doesn’t prevent anxiety in the moment. We have learned from past errors that accelerating the pace beyond that which students can follow, increasing our references to exams, exam skills, exam techniques, deploying “countdowns” or trying to increase the pressure on students is counter-productive. Whilst a certain number of people work well and even thrive under pressure, a significant number also become demotivated, retreating or giving up. So the best way to help our students recover is to focus on motivating them in the learning. From the point at which they return share with them clear and transparent plans that lay out how we will achieve the learning goals of the course. The PLCs we already have can help show them how we plan to structure this. One of the best things we might do for our exam groups is to avoid any mention of exams as far as possible and simply focus each lesson on its inherent value and relevance to them. This is good teaching practice at any time, but may well be essential in the Covid-19 recovery period.
- Planning a curriculum to close gaps; of course, none of this means that we do not have to make up lost learning and plan how to deliver a valuable curriculum to our students. We need to do some critical thinking in our teams about what the most powerful and important knowledge in our courses is and how we are going to ensure students leave school with this firmly embedded. This will be the bedrock of the transparent plans that help reduce their (and our own anxiety). Now is the time to deploy teaching strategies that will help us to achieve maximum impact. Crucially we need to be aware of the power of interleaving our curriculum to support students’ learning. (If you would like a refresher on this, here is a good place to start: https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/3/28/weekly-digest-3). An interleaved curriculum has the potential to be more powerful than ever in supporting our students. It will ensure that concepts and knowledge is regularly revisited which will help those who have ongoing absence created by the pandemic, or those who do not fully grasp material the first time around because they are still experiencing the effects of trauma and settling into routines. It will stop the learning students know they have missed since March being addressed in one big, high-stakes “block”, or being left until much later in the course, where it will hang over them like a big black cloud. And it will exercise students’ brains to maximum effect, ensuring that each lesson has maximum impact. Finally it is a planning investment which will improve our curriculum for years to come. If not already thoroughly embedded in your teaching, now is the time for interleaving.
- Improving learning strategies: and finally it should be noted that even those students who have been working successfully at home may well have developed learning strategies that do not support them in the classroom. Nuttall (2007) emphasised the importance of peers on learners’ ideas, misconceptions and schema-construction. Our own student voice survey clearly indicates that students are, understandably, using their friends more than ever for support and learning advice during lockdown. This and other strategies that support independent learning do not necessarily translate easily to group learning when students are back in class. However it would not be surprising if students cling to strategies that have proven useful during a period of great disruption and difficulty. Rather than attempting to “retrain” them into our ways of learning this is a great opportunity to build self-reflection and independence. Metacognitive techniques can be deployed to encourage students to reflect on their own approach to learning: what worked and what didn’t, how learning alone is different to learning in class and which strategies they will now discard and which they will continue to deploy – in class, at home and in revision.
As we plan a return to learning, whether that is in July, September or even later, I am therefore reflecting on the following questions to help me work out how best to support my students:
- What has been the emotional impact of lockdown for these young people and how can I ensure that this is recognised and supported in my tutor group and my classroom?
- How do we re-establish classroom routines in a safe way, without increase anxiety and trauma?
- What additional learning needs and gaps have arisen as a result of shutdown?
- Where do we restart the curriculum to support students’ emotional and learning needs upon return?
- How do I plan to support my students in catching up and build an interleaved curriculum to recapture lost learning? How will I share my plan with my students to help reduce their anxiety and reassure them that we are working to ensure they will not be disadvantaged by this situation?
I would strongly recommend all teachers, and especially form tutors, take the time to read:
Carpenter, B. & Carpenter M., (2020), “A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our Children and Schools Post Pandemic”, published by Oxford Brookes University.