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What can be done in this time of great resolve, when schools, like everyone else, are committed to helping their communities get through the now and build resilience for the moments to come? When we do eventually return to the old ‘normal’, will the impulse to also keep the status quo, the former, essentially Victorian, model of teaching, be strong? For me it will not.
When I stepped out into the chilly morning the first Monday after lockdown started, I’m not sure who was more anxious – me, or the slow trickle of early arrivals. My anxiety was centred on not knowing how many children would actually show up, or how the quickly put together timetable for our day would pan out in action. However, as many teachers have found, there was a freedom in the new situation which allowed us to take the children’s lead much more than we usually would. When we emerged into the playground at the end of the day and the children ran off to their parents with beaming smiles, the Head asked me how my day had been. It had been wonderful – I had been the teacher I had always wanted to be.
This kind of child-focused learning is not a new concept. Many teachers and educational theorists have researched and advocated for it, but do most of us have the time to actually put it into practice? Not as much we’d like, I suspect is the honest answer from most teachers.
Having loved my first day teaching in lockdown, I thought I’d set down a few of my reflections on how teaching and learning could work when schools open fully again.
1. We should let children learn from older peers
On that first day of lockdown, I had six children with me. All had parents who had identified themselves as key workers. Only one student was from my usual Year 1 class, the others were mixed ages and learning bands.
At break, I took my group to join the three Nursery and Reception children in the playground. It was a pleasure not only to have the time and freedom to play with them but also to observe their interactions with their peers and siblings.
Why should children be segregated by age when, as my experience on this day and the experience of any parent who has children of differing ages will tell you, younger children learn so much from their older peers? So, in future, let us try to create opportunities for children of all ages to work together.
2. We need to have time to respond to individuals as learners
With our mixed ages groups, we used an online learning platform and tablets to teach maths, with work set by each child’s class teacher. The students were immediately engaged in doing and having a go.
By cutting out my usual input at the beginning, my authority in the room as the holder of knowledge and learning was diminished, and I was glad. My attention was directed by pupil need in the moment. I was now a teacher coach – available to check in with each child, asking and answering questions as needed, and challenging and support each individual student.
Of course, I am aware that that with only six children in the room (compared to the usual 30) I was able to spend longer with them than would otherwise be possible. The questions it raises, and the potential it poses for the future of utilising technology as a tool to respond to individual learning journeys, are vast.
3. If we are more flexible, we can enable curiosity
Being an amateur potterer in a small veg patch at home, I decided we could go out and inspect the raised beds in the school garden. I had no plan other than to introduce some of the vegetables to the students and water them if needed.
Over one hour we touched on science topics such as the growth of plants from seed to crop, classification in plant families, and photosynthesis. Though some of the children were only four years old, and their questions were prior knowledge-dependent, my responses were based on this rather than some assumed age appropriateness.
They learnt practical life skills too: how and why we should remove the flowers from the bolting cavolo nero to encourage leaf growth and geography; where cavolo nero comes from; and, following on from that, where is Italy?
There were no limits to what they could learn because there are no limits to a child’s curiosity about the world.
4. With more time and less rigid planning, lessons can be more engaging
I started the afternoon, as I always do, with story time. I picked out a book about the solar system, introducing the topic in a fun and engaging way to younger readers.
Usually story time is restricted to 15 minutes, during which I always allow at least a couple of minutes at the end for children’s questions and comments. It’s never enough time and some children will inevitably feel disappointed that they didn’t get to ask their question or raise their point. I always feel guilty about this but feel I have no choice – we have to move on – there is so much to do!
On this day, that was not the case. The afternoon had been designated time for ‘teacher’s choice’ – I was to plan and lead activities, linked to the wider curriculum: art, science, and humanities.
And so, without the constraints of time, I read the book. Their engagement was no more or less than usual – my class always love story time. What was new however was the scope we had to explore and be led by their curiosity and interest. My old rule of ‘no hands up or questions until the end’ (a necessity to keep on timetable) was removed. We could take as much or as little time with this book as needed.
Following on from the chosen book on the solar system at story time was the best science lesson I have ever taught. No plan, and no resources other than the book, my knowledge and their questions. Within minutes one child was the Sun and another the Earth. Other children took on roles as the Moon and the gas giants. We were learning the cause of day and night, how the moon orbits the earth and how the Earth moves in relation to the Sun.
There should be more flexibility in timetables to allow for this sort of child-focused learning, to engage students and foster their love of learning by pursuing what interests them.
5.We have the opportunity to embrace change
Following my first day of teaching in lockdown, my main question is: what can we do to avoid the standard ‘teach – do – assess’ model that is the foundation of many of our lessons, no matter how creative we try to be? Do we have to return to the constraints of timetable, expectations and assessment where we so often cram learning into fixed, highly pressurised and compartmentalised boxes that can restrict us as teachers and children as learners?
Instead, can we not let teachers be guides to children’s exploration of the world; questioning, suggesting possible new pathways, and observing? On this we have much to learn from practices of our EYFS colleagues. Let us not end this abruptly when children move to Year 1 and beyond.
Let us move away from the focus on ‘outcomes’. When we let go of these and allow children to follow their natural curiosity, they are excited and energised. Let us not kill off their instincts as natural learners by restricting them to the forms of capturing and recording we are so attached to.
Let us provide children with the safe, structured environment we know they need and respond so well to. Structured does not need to mean controlled and restricted to the point where a child’s every movement is dictated by us – stand here, sit there in this fashion or that, walk this way, not like that.
Let us give them freedom to move and have access to the carefully organised resources and materials we have prepared for them as tools to support their explorations.
My hope is that we can move towards reimagining and reforming our education system so that will best serve our children for an unknowable future, preparing them for the challenges they will face.
If you would like support with ways to make learning more child focused, check out the My Creative School resource.
Another interesting think piece looking at what a curriculum focused on children‘s recovery could look like can be found on the Evidence for Learning website.