Learning Covid Lessons
Necessity is the mother of invention, and history shows that periods of crisis can also be times of great inventiveness. Faced with a pressing challenge, minds become focussed and barriers to change are overcome. The impossible becomes possible.
Much attention has rightly been given to the negative effects that covid has had on schools. Learning has been disrupted, pupils have missed out on pastoral care, and the 2020 public exams series did not deliver the fair and reliable outcomes that had been promised. Other problematic covid clouds on the school horizon include uncertainty about the standards that will apply to autumn 2020 and summer 2021 public exams (will the standard be the inflated summer 2020 centre assessed grade level, or historic norms?), and uncertainty about the content and timing of the summer 2021 series – content clarification is urgently needed as we are teaching it now! The Department for Education and Ofqual decision making timelines need to dovetail better with the realities of school and student life, as the current disconnect is harming pupils’ education.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Covid clouds can have some educational silver linings. Home learning last term forced staff and pupils to engage with digital technologies, and the result has been an explosion in digital creativity and new efficient and effective ways of teaching, learning and assessment. Teaching of basic concepts can now be done via online platforms, freeing up teachers in class to focus on higher order learning and 1:1 work with students to support and enhance individual understanding and progress. Many topics can be assessed by digital means with online tests reducing teacher marking loads whilst also providing teachers with instant feedback on what individual pupils can/can’t do, how long it took them to do it, and error patterns that indicate conceptual misunderstandings. All of this real time feedback data can be used to refine teaching so it is better tailored to meet individual pupil needs thus improving learning.
Covid is making us re-think school day staples such as assemblies and parents’ evenings. Whole school assemblies involve a huge amount of furniture and pupil movement for a relatively small amount of time when all pupils come together. There are definite benefits to such collective occasions and they do help foster school identity and cement school values. But the emergence of the video assembly during lockdown provides beneficial variety to the school assembly diet. Video assemblies can be targeted at particular year groups with age appropriate messages and they can also be interactive with follow on tutor group discussions rather than just didactic lecturing to silent ranks in the school hall. Parent’s evenings also involve a huge amount of furniture, pupil, parent and staff movement and can sometimes result in rushed conversations in noisy spaces that don’t quite deliver. Face to face meetings between teachers, pupils and parents will always be a vital part of educational feedback. But they can be successfully supplemented by video-conferencing where parents, students and staff can meet virtually from the comfort of their own homes and have uninterrupted, high quality conversations.
There are even opportunities for improvement in the chaos of summer 2020 public exams. The switch from assessment by exams to assessment by teachers disadvantaged all candidates because the rules were changed mid-way through the school year. But in addition it disadvantaged those pupils who come good in exams, and advantaged those who work hard throughout the course. The binary exams or coursework approach to assessment is unfair because depending on the 1 or 0 approach chosen one group of candidates will be favoured over another because of their preferred working style. Perhaps a fairer, more holistic approach, would include a mix of exam assessment and teacher assessed grades. The former could ensure that national standards and inter centre equity are maintained with all candidates sitting common tasks under exam conditions marked by external examiners overseen by awarding bodies. The latter would be fairer to the many talented students who are not at their best in the stressful and time limited environment of the exam hall, but who do excel throughout a two year course. Judging a pupil solely on what they produce in three hours of exams at the end of two years of work risks unrepresentative outcomes. A hybrid model which combines nationally standardised tests with teacher assessment of pupil attainment over a long period could produce fairer results. It would also provide an incentive for pupils to work throughout their course, and such cumulative endeavour (if carefully managed to avoid excessive perfectionism) could raise overall attainment standards.
There is no doubt that covid has created challenges for schools, staff and pupils but it is also creating opportunities too. I hope one of the positive lasting legacies of covid will be a generation of students and staff who are creative, resourceful, flexible and willing to think outside the box. When covid finally passes, as it will, schools must not slip back into old ways but instead use their covid experiences to achieve lasting educational improvements.