Less but better?

There are four full weeks of term left until our holidays. Having just entered level 4 of Covid restrictions in our local authority, these next few weeks won’t have quite the same feeling which the usual run-up to Christmas normally has. No frantic late night Christmas shopping. No Christmas coffee mornings or craft fayres. No Christmas dance or parties. No school nativity or church carol service.

Whilst there is undoubtedly some sadness around the cancellation of all of these forbidden annual celebrations, there is a small part of me that in some ways is quite glad that all the ‘stuff’ has been stripped away, and instead I can focus on quality time with my immediate family and what’s really important to me. Do we really need the vast commercialisation of Christmas? I’m trying to find positives in the challenges we are all facing instead of moaning about being unable to celebrate in ‘the way we’ve always done it.’

It got me thinking about how Covid could help us to see education in a similar way. It seems to me that in many ways the pandemic gives us a chance to really question why we’ve always done things this way. And whether, if by stripping away the ‘stuff’ we could impact more positively on the lives of our young people.

We’ve now survived nearly 4 months of teaching in this new normal. For me, it’s meant a fresh focus on pedagogy. It has involved slowing down to go faster. It has resulted in me seriously improving my digital skills. It’s definitely not been easy and I’m very aware of the huge pressure we are all under. But it has also been refreshing to be forced into discovering new and sometimes better, ways of working.

So therein lies the question. What’s important and what’s not? To answer this we firstly need to ask ourselves what the purpose of education is. If we consider this important point it perhaps gives us some clarity around what is central to our learning and teaching. For me, education is important to instil a love of learning, to teach our young people how to learn, and to inspire them to keep on learning. To give them confidence in their individual skills and knowledge as well as allowing them to find their voice in the world. So it’s important for me to consider what I feel contributes to providing the learning environments where this can happen. And question if it’s really effective just because it’s the way

There are many aspects of school life which look quite different to how they looked this time last year. It’s debatable whether these changes are impacting positively, but it’s an important debate to have. This disruption to normality and our assumptions is a real opportunity for conversations and questioning in education. I hope it’s a Chance for us to think differently about how we ensure the best for our young people.

Despite the many frustrations around the delay in relaying information about exam requirements in 2021, in contrast this has for me, been encouraging. I have instead, seen and heard teachers teaching to learn, not just teaching to an exam. I hope this has helped teachers to grow in confidence as they are reminded of the key concepts and learning in their subject instead of perhaps falling into the trap of teaching formulaic responses to exam questions. By focussing on the knowledge needed to confidently demonstrate the skills assessed, I hope our learners will be more prepared to approach whatever form of assessment they face. And perhaps cope better with further and higher education as a result.

In addition to this, in Art and design there has been a real shift of mindset to focus on quality not quantity of work. Rather than our young people churning out various similar pieces of art work – spending hours in class, after school and at home – to fill space on a sheet, we are instead encouraged to do less but focus on quality. For some of our learners, especial slow, careful workers, this shift is really advantageous. It allows their high quality work to shine without them being put off by the amount of work required. Many pupils have previously been turned off our subject by the sheer time it takes to complete folio work. Rather than the calming, creative outlet for young people which art and design should provide, it sometimes becomes a rushed dash to tick folio items off a list with teachers and young people both becoming stressed and anxious. I would welcome more discussion around how we help young people to capture and showcase their best learning. Let’s think about how we can best assess what we value.

Another consideration which I feel it would be useful to discuss is the structure and systems in place within schools. Do we need young people in the secondary building 5 full days? Do we need staff in School or could this open up opportunities for greater flexible working? Would later start times help young people to be less tired during the day? Can we learn lessons from the remote/blended learning timetable models many schools developed during lockdown, and which many young people thrives under? I know in art and design we were very excited by the possibility of seeing seniors for fewer but longer periods of time. In a practical subject this would be hugely beneficial. We saw the benefits this would have in terms of relationship building with pupils but also in terms of encouraging independent learning. There are so many questions which can be extremely unsettling and frustrating for staff, but yet it welcomes the possibility of a new normal.

Perhaps controversially, there are many other aspects which indeed contribute to a healthy school experience for learners but have had to be adapted. We must ask ourselves if these are essential or if there is another way we can give pupils these experiences.

I suppose it’s important to finally point out that every single person I know in education is currently working flat out in the strangest of situations to ensure the very best for our learners. School and senior leaders are under a huge amount of pressure at the moment, and I am personally in awe of how they are coping. The situation we find ourselves in in school is hugely challenging but it is no surprise that our amazing teachers are rising to the challenge. Right now might not be the right time to implement huge change. Capacity amongst staff is limited during current times. But I do think it’s important to debate the status quo. If we fail to have these conversations now, and go back to doing things the way we’ve always done them then nothing will change.

When things get tough this week remember that being positive is not pretending that everything is good, it is trying to see the good in every situation.

As always, it would be useful to hear your thoughts. Have a good week everyone!

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