On-Line Learning: An opportunity to grasp

Bart Wielenga is the Head at Blundell’s School in the United Kingdom. In this post he shares his approach to home learning, and argues that rather than something merely to endure it is an experience to embrace.

Our Spring Term ended abruptly and with it the school lives of our hundred Upper Sixth students. Without any lead in, their school days were over. A hastily arranged final chapel service with a robust rendition of Jerusalem and some final words sent a stunned group of pupils on their way into isolation. 

The end of a school career matters, and we signpost the journey carefully with various occasions. It has been a shockingly sudden end.

While it is hardest on our school leavers, it’s also not easy on the rest who must now grapple with a new type of education, this time off campus. While the ramifications of such a prolonged period of separation between school and students are likely to be profound, I believe we have been presented with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do things differently.

We have a real chance to think deeply about what true education looks like that may, if done well, place our students in a position of strength.  

Breaking with tradition

We could try to hang on and carry on as normal, but beyond 2 or 3 weeks that is simply not sustainable. Schools must be prepared to break with tradition. Under normal circumstances, no parent wants their child to be the one upon which new ideas are tested on. Now we have no choice. We have a real chance to think deeply about what true education looks like that may, if done well, place our students in a position of strength.  

As a staff we recognised very early on that what works educationally at school is perhaps not the optimum way of learning remotely. We abandoned a regular timetable as soon as we were able to. Our first aim was to create a strong routine to replace the traditional school one but with the flexibility to accommodate the various needs of our families and the different learning environments of pupils. Our timetable looks like this:

Monday – Staff prepare ‘lessons’ for pupils. Teachers specialise (i.e. one History teacher prepares the material for all of Year 10) which means they can invest far more time in this preparation than if they were preparing lessons for all their classes. These lessons consist of recorded explanations, experiments, illustrations, PowerPoints, readings, podcasts, etc. Pupils receive the work on Monday and begin to work through their subjects.

Tuesday and Wednesday – Pupils get on with the work they have been set. They are encouraged to work collaboratively using social media apps, but their teachers are available throughout those first three days either by mail or through Microsoft Teams.

Thursday and Friday – Pupils have seminars with each of their subject teachers and with three of their classmates. The groups are small enough to be engaging and the teacher has the time to explore the pupils work and learning whilst also providing an opportunity for pupils to chat to each other.

Engagement and Enrichment

Each pupil has a tutor who oversees their pastoral and academic development and every day begins with a brief meeting with the tutor and your group of 5 or 6 tutees. That is critical for engagement, support and the rigour of a routine. Our tutors are essential. There is no substitute for personal contact and encouragement and for students to be understood by their teachers. This situation is allowing that to emerge in a new way.

An extensive Engagement and Enrichment programme sits alongside the academic provision. This has academic components as well as skills and activity-based ones. Many include the whole family in cooking challenges, online quizzes, Maths challenge of the week or live-streamed Yoga classes.

The reality is that quicker pupils can work in a focused manner before delving into the enrichment work. Less efficient pupils are able to work at their own pace and they feel less rushed than they would be in a normal timetable. We are getting feedback that is most encouraging across the spectrum of academic abilities. Pupils are learning to learn. They are learning about how they learn.

As much as I will rejoice when school reopens, I hope it will not be the same as before!

I’m not ready to go back

We are now into the Summer Term, usually a wonderful time at school. Bouts of glorious weather are thoroughly enjoyed late into our long evenings and we make extensive use of outdoor pizza ovens and BBQ’s throughout the term. The outdoor pool is open and cricket matches happen into the gloom of the night. It is sociable and purposeful and a great deal of fun. We feel like we are missing out.

Despite this, while I want it all back , I am not ready for that yet. We still have too much to learn. Our pupils have to do this for long enough so that when ‘normal’ life resumes the good habits that they will learn over this period will be deeply embedded and carried over into the post-lockdown school.

As much as I will rejoice when school reopens, I hope it will not be the same as before!

Blundell’s School is located in Devon, England. Click here for more details on their Home Learning programme.

Before his time at Blundell’s, Bart Wielenga was a Housemaster at Wellington College and Head of Economics at Michaelhouse in South Africa. You can follow Bart on Twitter @HeadBlundells1

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