The Next Steps

The trouble with schools is they more often than not avoid taking a leap of faith and avoid any advice that challenges the status quo

“On 26 March 2003, the Singapore Ministry of Health closed all primary schools, secondary schools, junior colleges and centralized institutions . . . The SARS outbreak reveals that many people in Asia/Pacific now need remote access to work or school in order to continue their classes while their schools are closed. . . All countries should develop contingency plans to continue education during a crisis . . . The SARS outbreak has shown how vulnerable the school systems in most countries are to a crisis that requires students to stay home for an extended period. . . Handling this sort of change in the learning process requires the following:

  • Students must have access to a computer in the home.
  • Students must have Internet access.
  • Students must have access to collaborative tools such as instant messaging, e-mail, chat rooms and NetMeeting — and know how to use them. Collaboration tools within office-suite products can also help students achieve results without physically contacting other students.
  • The curriculum must be flexible enough to allow group projects to be done via collaboration or in isolation.
  • Schools should prepare a contingency plan with a hardware provider to lease or rent laptops to students at reasonable rates on short notice whenever possible.

SARS Exposes the Digital Divide Through Education
15 April 2003   Ian A. Bertram, Martin Gilliland

Back in 2003 we were warned.  There were probably times we were warned before this, but I can remember this one.   I remember it well because it’s one of the reasons I’ve spent the remainder of my career harping on to anyone who’ll listen that we ought to be developing a project-based learning (PBL) programmes in schools.   It wasn’t that particular event that inspired me.  At the time as Deputy Head in one of the first City Academies in the country, we were really pushed by the Government to look at the latest pedagogy coming out of the US and a few other countries including Singapore.  

I was really inspired by New Tech High in the Napa Valley and started looking at sites such as the Edutopia and the Buck Institute of Education which promoted PBL.    At the same time a whole host of amazing Virtual Learning Environments (the term seems to have become almost obsoleted now) and fantastic collaborative e-learning tools began to stream into schools.  Shortly after this, the Government began its Laptop for Students scheme, with the aim that every child should have access to online learning at home.  It seemed as if we were heeding the warning.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though, and there were blocks.  As part of this first wave of academies our curriculum and T&L developments were monitored closely: “Make it innovative,” the suits from the Department told me – “be creative”.   And so, I set out equipped with all the wonderful theories that were buzzing around at the time and did what I hoped would be a good job.  On completion, I went to present my ideas to these same people.  I thought they were good – they didn’t.  “It involves “too much change for staff” they cried.   “Parents will not understand it!”.  

“But the students would benefit” I replied. 

“Change it!” they said with a hint of menace which clearly implied: “or else . . . ”.  And so, I went back to a safer model (but later sneaked PBL back in).

On another occasion (around 2008), I participated in a Government led working party of Head Teachers looking at the possibilities for a 21st-century curriculum.   We were all enthusiastic and were buzzing with ideas, resulting in what we felt were a coherent and workable set of proposals and plans.   We presented it to the Government officials who admitted that they liked it liked it but would take it no further.   “We’d have to change the whole exam system,” they said.   “It’s too sensitive politically, how would we convince the popular press?”   Needless to say, we all went off downcast and defeated. 

Some pioneering schools ploughed on though and there were many successes, but they were small scale and not celebrated widely enough.  They were also unfortunately overshadowed by some of the spectacular failures where whole schools designed around some of the PBL principles got it spectacularly wrong, resulting in school take overs and probably the birth of multi Academy trusts in England. 

People began to get cold feet around 2012 and little by little so many brilliant e-learning tools disappeared from the market, laptop schemes for pupils’ ground to a halt and PBL related activities became a distant memory, stamped out entirely, when Michael Gove became Education Secretary in England.  Since then, we have seen the growth in knowledge/content based learning, where the teacher once again has become the crutch for the pupil as they push them towards cramming all that valuable knowledge into their heads, ready to pour out in exams and then forgotten about over the subsequent months and years. 

Through all of this I kept the faith (without doubt at times I’ve no doubt come across as a bit of a zealot) and carried on trying to develop a workable model of PBL.  It’s been a battle and at times I’ve wanted to give up; why not take the easier route. At the end of the day, it is easier to have pupils in rows with the teacher playing far too big a role as the ‘sage on the stage (Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for it, which I’ll come to later). 

Standards appear to have risen under this content led/exam-based regime, but that’s because we are fixated on those end results in the shape of GCSEs and A Levels; primarily assessed now through exam.  The difference with project-based or extended learning activities is that they can lead to excellent results (A young person’s ‘passport to the future’), but along the way they also develop good habits of learning, competencies and skills, which provide the young person with the confidence, aspiration and wherewithal to use that ‘passport’ effectively; they are far better equipped for the world.  They also develop the craft of teaching

I look at this in more detail in previous blogs.  If you’re interested have a look at three earlier blogs Mastery; Pedagogy;

Over the years, drawing on practical criticism from colleagues, I think we now have a model that works. However, it’s difficult to implement, because it requires a paradigm shift in practice and understanding for both teachers and parents.   At my current school I think we’re well on the way, thanks to the impetus the New Curriculum for Wales has given us.  Sadly, it has also taken a deadly pandemic to provide more impetus.   

COVID 19 has exposed the faults in our system, across the country (and most of the world) young people in secondary schools haven’t been prepared for independent or effective online learning.  Their ‘learning muscles’ as Guy Claxton refers to them, have just not been developed enough. 

If you are in Wales, go and have a look at the content of each of the Areas of Learning & Experience (AOLEs).  The wording throughout encourages schools to develop these good learning habits (Look at my blog on the New Curriculum here).  There is still subject content, but it is there to provide a context for effective pedagogy to be developed and practiced.

I’m hearing that it’s possible we will have to apply a blended learning approach (home and school learning) for the bulk of next year.  It’s important we now begin to prepare our students for this over the coming weeks before the summer break and then into the beginning of next year.  We ought to be using this time also to develop our teaching staff also.  Their role will be very different.  Some have said this is not the time to be developing a new curriculum in Wales, but I believe, if ever there was a time, it’s now.   

This is the time to grab hold of this curriculum and begin applying the pedagogy that will create learners who are not dependent on the teacher being in the same room as them to learn effectively.  PBL is not the only solution, but I believe it’s a solution which provides the opportunity to develop independent, creative and flexible learners, equipped to handle situations such as those we’re facing now.  In Wales especially, this is a time to really embrace the pedagogy which underlies the new curriculum, and which will bring it to life.   It’s important we don’t squander the investment already made.

How will it look?

You can see a detailed version of how learning can be structured here.  This was written with all learning taking place in school.  However, this can be applied to our current circumstances. 

Very briefly, learning within PBL type activities can be broken down into three segments: 

  1. Seminars/lectures Although the teacher no longer has a monopoly on information, we should recognise that there will always be difficult concepts within various topics/subjects which will require personal explanation or elaboration in order to ensure real understanding.  In addition, concepts often need ‘brought to life’ by an enthusiastic practitioner.   For this reason, seminars are necessary, where the concept can be ‘taught’; at times, if need be, in ‘lecture’ format, delivered to large groups in half year blocks, groups of 60, 30 or lower.   Times and length of seminars could also vary on a daily or weekly basis.     In our current situation these could be online seminars, where the teacher most skilled at delivering the topic delivers it to the whole cohort.  Alternatively, we will be looking at these being delivered either on line or held in school when the topic needs repeated modeling or discussion.  I ideally there may also be times when an external expert who delivers the topic in a far more interesting/exciting way online (e.g. on You tube or BBC Bitesize) can be used.
  2. Focus sessions – Using concepts gained from the seminars mentioned above or from other sources of information, students will work on their projects in open spaces or in classes, with learning facilitated by teams of teachers.   At times one teacher may facilitate project work/learning with a large group, while another teacher takes smaller groups or individuals for extension or catchup work.  In our current situation the bulk of this will be carried out at home. 
  3. Tutorials – During Focus sessions students can also be taken for tutorials by their allocated tutor.   In addition to the work described above, this may be a 1:1 or small group tutorials, where feedback related to progress and quality is focused upon.   Focus sessions allow space for individual teachers to take tutorials.   These can be held in the same area or in adjoining tutorial rooms.   In our current situation, this is where we work with small groups in schools.   This is the most important element.  It’s where the teacher clarifies misunderstandings, provides feedback and looks at next steps

If you click here you can find detail on what constitutes the basics of a project.   This is followed by a checklist for planning projects and finally a script for teachers to follow when holding tutorials.  The tutorials are for me the vital part of this new blended learning experience.   The content of the of our projects, I’ll leave for another time, but do contact me if you would like any more detail.

Finally, obviously, we are now far more dependent on students having devices and online access. I’ll leave you with this quote from 2009 when over 300 schools in the USA were closed due to the fear of Swine Flu.

“Schools at all levels should be using this time to prepare for a possible swine flu pandemic, with online instruction being an important option to consider,” Thomas E. Chandler, the manager of technology and educational applications for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said in an e-mail. “And if swine flu does not materialize as a major pandemic, having an online distance-learning plan in place will always be useful, in the event of the next [crisis]. This issue is not going away.”

As Swine Flu Closes Schools, Tech. Could Keep Doors to Learning Open 2009  By Katie Ash and Michelle R Davis

We’ve had a few warnings along the way. I loath the irritating term “New Normal”, but in the case of education we certainly need to work hard to create a new one.  We have no excuse.  Let’s not sail out of this crisis without examining what education for the 21st Century should look like.  

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