Covid-19 – a dreadful opportunity for schools

On Tuesday the government here in The Netherlands announced that primary schools will re-open on 11 May and secondary schools on 1 June. Although somewhat anticipated, it’s triggered a lot of discussion about how schools will re-open in a safe way that respects the physical distancing rules still in place.

What’s obvious to all is that schools cannot re-open and carry on like they did before. It won’t be possible for everyone to be in school at the same time and that means our schedules, classes and routines cannot simply be re-activated. And realistically, we won’t be able to re-activate them for a long time as disruption is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Image by CoxinhaFotos from Pixabay

Is this a massive headache? Yes. Is there a simple answer? No. But it is a (dreadful) opportunity for us to re-think the way schools work and perhaps emerge from the crisis in better shape than when we entered.

We know that a lot of things schools currently do don’t make pedagogical or even basic sense. For me, the biggest is that schools are usually built upon the idea of groups of people doing the same pre-planned thing at the same time. Students are batched by age and expected to learn through fixed a timetable of classes often set for them often years in advance. 

And this jars with our understanding of learning as a very personal, individual process. As Sir Ken Robinson argues, we have systems based on a paradigm of standardization when what we need are systems based on the individuality of those they serve: the students and their unique bundles of interests, talents and needs.

Sir Ken Robinson – Changing educational paradigms (RSA Animate)

So why do we still do what we do? My experience of trying to influence that paradigm is that it is so strong because the assumptions it’s built upon pervade everything: the schedule, the curriculum, the mindsets of teachers, parents and students. Everything. So if you want to change the paradigm from standardization to anything else, you need nothing short of a revolution in all areas!

Covid-19 isn’t a revolution or something that anyone wants. But it is forcing us to go back to the drawing board and re-think everything we do. And that is an opportunity to do things better.

The good news is that we’re not starting with a blank page. There are plenty of “alternative” models to education and even more smaller scale initiatives that might be useful starting points.

For example, a number of schools in the #Future of Education Now network run a “9th day” timetable. This is where on regular days through the year – the 9th day believe it or not – the timetable is collapsed. Instead of regular classes, students sign-up for extra-support sessions, enrichment classes offered by teachers, students or other members of the community, or activities that take longer than an ordinary class would allow. Similarly, teachers can sign-up students who they feel need some extra support.

This initiative could be combined with existing systems of online learning to provide more effective personalized learning both during the Covid-19 crisis and after. Online task setting and classes remain, but students have a designated day(s) when they are in school with some of their peers – at safe distances! – accessing the sessions and support they need, rather than attending the classes their pre-set schedule tells them they need to attend. It provides flexibility as staff and students can self-isolate when they need to without disrupting provision. More importantly, it’s scalable, perhaps starting with one day and increasing as and when possible.

As I previously said, there are no simple answers. 9th day models won’t work for a lot of schools. Maybe when the details are looked at it won’t work for any! But the point is that there are options out there for schools to try and make Covid-19 a trigger for systematic improvement, not just a crisis to managed. That’s a point made by many others too; are we going to look back at this as a “temporary blip or a permanent flip”?

I’d go further to say that it is our obligation to try and make a permanent flip. If healthcare workers are walking into buildings full of the virus and people working in the food industry turn up to work each day to make sure we can all eat, the least we can do is try to think about long-term, systematic improvement and ensure their children return to schools better able to meet their needs.

So I’d be interested to hear what opportunities you see to improve schools during this crisis? And, more importantly, how do we bring them about?


Revelations about team teaching

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend the Future of Education Now conference at the Western Academy in Beijing. For me, one of the most exciting revelations of the conference is about team teaching.

If you’d asked me before the conference if I was involved in team teaching, I would have said “of course!”. After all, our team plans units together, we design and share resources and we help each other think about the learning going on in each others’ classes. Of course we team teach!

Except we don’t…

And here is the revelatory slide:

What we actually do is franchise teaching. Yes, we work together on the planning and take an shared interest in the learning of all of our students, but when we step away from our collaborative meetings and into “our” classrooms, we’re on our own. And the students are on their own with us.

I’m not saying this model is bad. Teaching is so personal, it’s great to have the flexibility to implement a unit in the way we think it’s best done for our students. However, we’re missing so many benefits of team teaching. 

See exhibit B from the conference, WAB Middle School’s Learning Lab and their approach to team teaching math:

Essentially, what they do is combine three or more math classes and set a common, differentiated math challenge. Students can then choose how they want to approach this challenge by going to a certain learning space. One space might be teacher-led, like a more traditional classroom set-up. Another might facilitate small group work on the challenge and one space might allow students to withdraw into a “cave” and think on their own about the challenge. Each space is supported by one or more math teachers.

As the video explains, this empowers students to make a choice about their learning, giving them ownership even when the learning objective is prescribed. And, dare I say it, choose to work with the teacher with whom they feel they have the best connection. Again, teaching and learning are personal, and we need to accept that some teacher-student relationships are stronger than others.

Having multiple teachers allows each one of these spaces to be well supported (if a single teacher tries to differentiate a classroom like this, they inevitably leave one or more groups to their own devices for at least part of the session). Furthermore it allows teachers to play to their strengths. Are they best in a more structured, teacher-led format? Then supervise the teacher-led section. Are they great questioners? Then maybe the small group area is the best for them.

My school isn’t blessed to have the amazing learning spaces seen at WAB (my colleague and I did seriously consider taking a sledgehammer to the non-load bearing walls between the classrooms – that’s the thinking you get when you cross 14 time zones in 6 days), but team teaching is something many schools can easily implement. 

For example, we’ve always griped about classes in the same subject being blocked with each other on the timetable: if one teacher is away, it’s very difficult to get a subject specialist to cover the class. But this structure means that two or more classes can be team taught straight away, simply using the different classrooms as the different zones.

And there are lots of different ways to use the different teachers and spaces, not just for the style of learning. Thinking from a Global Politics perspective, we could offer 2-3 group case-studies on the same concept, and allow the students to choose which is most interesting and relevant to them. During revision time, we could set-up the room based on different revision needs – one room looking at the human rights unit, one at peace and conflict, and one at exam technique – again dividing the rooms between our areas of speciality as a teacher.

Sometimes the most simple ideas are the best and this is certainly one we’ll explore further. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll be let loose with a sledgehammer.

Lesson 3 from a year of self-directed learning: give them a stage!

In September 2018, we established a program that enabled a group of MYP students to direct their own learning for a year. In these blog posts I share three key lessons from that year.

Lesson 3: Give students a stage

So far, this series of blog posts might have given the impression that there were more failures than successes in our first year. But that’s definitely not true! I saw some extraordinary things last year. A 13-year old, new to English language and literature, writing, producing and promoting on her own Broadway-style musical. Students overcoming deep-rooted fears of public speaking and math. A debate between a group of 12 to 15 year olds about the merits of liberalism, Marxism and anarchism that wouldn’t have been out of place at a university. 

“You’re Next: The Musical”. One of the most extraordinary student achievements I’ve ever seen.

A common factor in each of these successes is that the students had a stage on which to demonstrate their learning. In the case of the musical, it was literally a stage, but in other projects it was simply running a workshop for peers or sharing learning at a student-led conference. 

A flipside of handing students ownership over their learning is that we teachers also lose a lot of control over the learning process (read: deadlines!). We tried to negotiate mid-point review and final deadlines with the students, but it often happened that when these approached, the students would make the case for extending the deadline; just a little more time for some final research, another day to do the final touches. Anyone who has written a dissertation will know the feeling. 

By giving students an authentic stage, we take away the possibility of extensions. It forces students to reflect on their learning and bring it together in a final product for their audience, be it their peers, parents or wider community. Furthermore, we don’t have to play the bad guy by refusing to give deadline extensions and can instead coach the student through.

For example, early on in the year we had a student working on a project about anatomical drawing. He was interested in Da Vinci and, with our arts and science Learning Guides, was developing his drawing skills and knowledge of muscle groups. For many weeks he sat quietly by the window sketching away, telling the Learning Guides he needed a bit more time to achieve his goals. As time went on we grew concerned about how he was progressing. Was too much time being spent on this project? When would the final product emerge?

We decided to give him a stage by asking him to give a workshop to the group the following week. It certainly caused some anxiety. The sketching became more frantic and on the morning of the workshop the student asked to postpone his session. But it had been advertised on the schedule and there was no backup plan, so he’d need to go ahead! We talked through how the workshop could be delivered and encouraged him onto his stage.

What followed was a session that any teacher would have been proud of. The student was able to teach us those techniques he’d spent hours practicing, all the while talking us through the different muscle groups and cheering everyone up by telling us that we all actually have six packs…somewhere! His knowledge and expertise shone through and was contagious. So much so, the group asked for another workshop the following week to continue their drawings. 

A lesson any teacher would be have been proud of.

Speaking to the student afterwards, he admitted that he’d begun to tread water with his project. He had put so much time into it, he didn’t know how to bring it together and was worried about what he’d do next. The workshop gave him the incentive to face these challenges and critically consider what he’d learned. Furthermore, the “buzz” of being an expert in front of peers was something he wanted to feel again.

We now try to ensure student’s are always given a stage for their learning, be this a one-off performance or exhibition, a workshop for their peers or a student-led conference with their family and friends. It doesn’t mean the end of their learning: just an authentic checkpoint.

Lesson 1: Democracy doesn’t work

Lesson 2: Traditional paradigms of education are difficult to escape

Lesson 2 from a year of self-directed learning: traditional paradigms are difficult to escape

In September 2018, we established a program that enabled a group of MYP students to direct their own learning for a year. In these blog posts I share three key lessons from that year.

Lesson 2: Traditional paradigms of education are difficult to escape

For a long time, one of my favourite things to do was to ask people what their dream school would look like. I was struck by how similar their responses were. Schools should be tailored to individuals, focused on holistic development, connected with the “real world”, they said. When I asked them – especially those working in education – why schools are not already like this, the response was that it’s just not possible with the constraints that schools face; curriculum requirements, restricted lesson time, an aversion to change by key stakeholders. 

A central idea of Pathfinder was to remove as many of these constraints as possible and start with a blank slate. In many ways it worked. We grouped students from different year groups to take advantage of peer learning, collapsed timetables to allow students more flexibility with how to use their time, and stripped the MYP back to its fundamental principles to allow students to design the curriculum. 

However, we couldn’t achieve a completely blank slate and this affected the purity of what we tried to do. For example, we designed an assessment system that would focus on individual progress rather than a numerical achievement level: students would receive a “+” if they’d improved from their last assessment, an “=” if they’d maintained their level and a “-” if they’d slipped back. 

In many ways it worked well. One of my favourite moments of the year was seeing two students high five after both getting a “+” for maths, when I knew they’d got quite different achievement levels. This conversation would usually have left the student with the lower number feeling despondent about their genuine achievement. 

However, this system couldn’t take root because we lacked a means to clearly communicate progress to parents. Existing reporting systems are, understandably, designed around traditional paradigms; students grouped by age, receiving regular numerical grades, everyone doing the same thing at the same time. This meant that we needed to use a myriad of documents to communicate and track progress, which inevitably didn’t work. As such, we’ve had to (temporarily) compromise our ideal assessment system in order to ensure clear communication with students and parents. 

Similarly, we’ve bumped up against the traditional paradigm that exists in the rest of the school. The need to plug into a timetable and registering system that operates on the basis of distinct student groups attending regular classes has caused real headaches. And, most of all, students have felt the discomfort of challenging the norm: it can be disconcerting to know that all of their peers are studying something different, and difficult to connect with friends who experience a very different day to themselves (even when Pathfinder students feel they’ve had a much better day!).

We’ve managed this with a lot of adaptation, good will and frank discussion. But the tentacles of tradition and stickiness of institutions have been difficult to throw off entirely. 

For me there are two lessons here. First, it may well be easier to establish a new paradigm through a completely new school or through whole school transformation. And second, we need a revolution in all areas of education – digital platforms, teacher training, public perception of education – if we are to establish and maintain a different way of learning.

An interesting review of the “school within a school” initiative. Lee and Ready describe the difficulties of attempting to run to paradigms alongside each other in a single school.

Lesson 1: Democracy doesn’t work

Lesson 3: Give students a stage

Lesson 1 from a year of self-directed learning: democracy doesn’t work

In September 2018, as the rest of the school reported to their mentor groups to receive information about the coming year, seventeen intrepid students arrived at room B201 to start an exciting adventure. 

They were the first cohort of the Pathfinder Programme. Pathfinder is the product of a thought experiment that asked “if we had to design a school from scratch, what would be its purpose and how would it work?”.

You can read more about how we answered that question here. In essence, Pathfinder allows MYP students to direct their own learning for a year or more – both in terms of the curriculum followed and how they use their time – and thus to start plotting their own unique path in the world.

Year 1 was a huge learning curve for us. The programme of September 2018 is very different from the one with which we begin September 2019, having been constantly adapted and improved from our experiences. I’d like to share three key lessons from year 1.

Lesson 1: Democracy doesn’t work

Well I don’t really mean that, but it probably got your attention! What I mean by this is that it’s difficult to be truly democratic when there are other ends to be achieved and time is limited. 

We started out with the aim of allowing students to “establish their own learning community, deciding what is learned, how and when”. Basically, deciding everything! In wrestling with decisions usually made by teachers, they would have full ownership over their learning community, be much more motivated for it and learn some invaluable skills along the way. 

What we rather naively overlooked is that this process of making decisions and maintaining a healthy learning community is hugely time consuming. Democratic decisions do not always lead to the best outcomes and they need to be constantly revisited and reconsidered (absolutely no reference to anything going on in northern Europe 😉 

One example of this is of the student’s deliberations about how to layout the room. We’d piled all the furniture in the corner and left the decision to the students. After a day or so of discussion the room was arranged…in the image of a traditional classroom! After a week it became apparent to the students that this didn’t fit their new way of working so another committee was formed to re-think the design with more input from us teachers. Even then nobody was entirely happy and the room remained rather centralised and disconnected. 

The process itself was valuable, but it took a huge amount of time and was just one decision of many that students needed to take if they were to truly own their learning community.  Furthermore it came at the expense of an environment conducive to the collaborative project-based learning that they were undertaking.

Our mistake was to think that democracy is always the best method to achieving the specific objectives set out in an academic curriculum. I think back to a conversation I had with Jim Rietmulder of the Circle School in Pennsylvania who objected when I enthusiastically told him that Pathfinder would be a democratic programme. He pointed out that for democratic schools, democracy IS the curriculum. For us, it was more of a means to achieve the objectives of our curriculum. I now fully appreciate this fundamental difference. We learned that true democracy is not the best method if you have pre-determined objectives to achieve. 

A post-democracy Pathfinder room

Consequently, we now seek to provide a framework in which students can make genuine choices about their learning and community, but limited in range and depth. So when the 2019/2020 cohort stepped into the Pathfinder room for the first time, they found it set-up in a way that we think suits the style of their learning but will have the opportunity to make changes based on their experience (and they already have made changes!).

In this way we hope to secure the benefits of student ownership whilst also enabling them to effectively work towards the objectives of the MYP.  

Lesson 2: Traditional paradigms of education are difficult to escape

Lesson 3: Give students a stage