There has been much hype in the media about what teachers should do when schools fully open. I have thought about this a lot, both as a Teaching and Learning Adviser for Herts for Learning who has continued to provide support to children and schools over the past few months and also, as a parent, supporting my own children in their learning at home.
In this blog, I want to share my thoughts about what I think will be important as schools return to full opening.
- reconnecting with your children
- re-establishing classroom culture and learning behaviours
- reactivating and assessing prior learning
- responding to needs
- enabling and securing success
Although my reflections have started based on my thoughts about learning in mathematics, there is so much that will be relevant more widely.
Reconnect with your children
Children who have been taught remotely have, by and large, missed their friends and missed their teachers. Conversely, teachers didn’t come into teaching to be remote from their children. Schools are living and breathing communities filled with a tangle of relationships. It is my belief that one of the most important aspects of the return to school must be that reconnection of human beings. It is from this re-building of relationships that pupils are put in the best place to develop both in their living and in their learning.
I think that schools should expect that there will be excitement and should embrace inevitable eager conversations but that is not to say that there should be a “free for all”. Teachers know that structure and consistency provide security for children. So how might schools enable a period of transition that effectively re-connects pupils and their teachers?
I would suggest that during the first few weeks, teachers plan for time when some form of meaningful reconnection can occur. This may be about explicitly making space for talk and could be during high-value maths game activities or moments where children and adults collaborate in noticing, reasoning and problem solving. In one school, books were provided for work completed at home. Spending a little time with a child reviewing this work allows it to be valued and a personal discussion to be enjoyed, as well as allowing the teacher to pick up many clues about progress and next steps for teaching. These activities might be quite focused but still allow time to re-establish relationships. However, beyond that, I have found that children often talk more openly when they are engaged in another seemingly unrelated activity.
Working with one school recently, we talked about planning for some more open activities related to mathematics learning that had been taught remotely. This would allow pupils to collaborate and explore for an extended period but also make space for teachers to have conversations with pupils and begin to informally assess learning. In another school, it was suggested that as design and technology learning had not been explicitly provided for pupils during the period of partial opening, that afternoons were going to be used over a week to provide this teaching and time to develop related skills. This is the ideal opportunity for informal catch-ups with a teacher, not to mention all the practical measuring that is often needed within DT. For me, the key is to reconnect both as humans and as learners.
Some will say, I am going to get straight back into my “normal” routine from the off. Whilst I can see that this comes from a place of establishing security, I know that children have experienced so many traumas during lockdown, including bereavements and feelings of extreme isolation, that I would simply ask that time and space is planned to re-establish relationships. It’s important because this will put pupils in the best place to move forwards in their lives and learning. As teachers, we do not only impart curriculum knowledge and support development of skills, we teach children about humanity, relationships and about being the best versions of ourselves possible. Don’t under-estimate the power that you have as a teacher to show children how to recover from the pressures of the pandemic.
Re-establish classroom culture and learning behaviours
Re-establishing classroom culture is the next element that I think requires particular attention. I think the return to full opening is a time that can be used positively to reset expectations. This may not be obvious to teachers as many have not stopped teaching in their classrooms during this lockdown. But it is important because children will be returning from a variety of different contexts and circumstances. Some children will have received support at home in their learning, some may not. Some children will have been encouraged to develop their independence whilst others may not. The learning cultures at home will have been significantly influenced by the values of parents and also limited by context. It is highly improbable that all children will return to a classroom having received the balance between support and independence that we might desire and with the teaching focus that we might have given to particular skills or knowledge that we might know is most beneficial. So now is an ideal time to re-establish what is important in terms of learning behaviours and what we know is essential in supporting progress within subjects.
In mathematics for example, I have had many conversations with teachers where they express anxiety about children being over-supported to get to the answers. We also know that parents often share their own academic anxieties with their children and that this is particularly prevalent in mathematics. Now is a great time to show that mathematics is much more than arriving at an answer as the destination and instead, the importance of the journey to this point.
Re-establishing that maths requires fluency, reasoning and problem-solving is paramount and taking time to model our thinking and working through problem-solving will not only show that it is valued, but also emphasize some of the teaching that is less likely to have been done well at home. As a teacher - parent, I have on occasion, consciously taken a step back from the learning and supported my child to consider what helped them in working through the problem. A re-emphasized focus on this kind of meta-cognition in the classroom will be particularly beneficial. In addition, I have worked with teachers recently who have been worried about pupils being less precise in their use of mathematical language or producing reasoned responses which are not as developed as they would expect. Re-establishing the classroom culture to show that these are valued and to expect them will be essential and this brings me to my next point.
Reactivate and assess prior learning
Pupils may not have been working in the way that you usually work with them at school, but it doesn’t mean that prior learning is lost. Now is the time to reactivate what has been previously taught. Return to high value learning and reactivate the key models, language and skills that you know are crucial. For followers of the adapted Herts for Learning Back on Track curriculum, this learning was given particular focus in autumn term. As you put in place the structure and expectations to reactivate this prior learning, you will get your class humming along to familiar tunes and nudge learning back into their working memories. The structure you provide to reactivate learning might be through regular fluency sessions and could also include the use of high value maths games. The important thing is that the learning is reactivated so that future learning can be connected meaningfully.
As learning is reactivated, you will also be able to begin to assess where pupils currently are in their development. I would urge teachers to do this in manageable chunks. Assess what is needed to securely build the next sequence of learning upon so that you are able to prioritise and manage the wealth of information that you will be collecting about your children. In order to do this, look ahead at the learning that is coming and consider the pre-requisites. Make time and space to assess this through specifically choosing discussion prompts and questions which will check what is understood. It will be particularly important to present pupils with likely misconceptions so that these can be exposed. The key is to keep this manageable so that what is learnt from the assessment is acted upon.
In discussion with one school, we considered how available diagnostic assessment questions might be used prior to learning as standalone questions and in another school we discussed the timely reuse of discussion prompts, conversation cartoons and assessment activities which they already had available from the Back on Track planning. Now is not the time to assume that because it was taught, it has been learnt. Reactivate and assess before you move forwards.
Respond to needs
Once needs are known, adjustments can be made. Curriculum adjustments may continue to be needed. I know that many schools have already adjusted their curriculums to ensure that mathematics learning builds securely and may also have re-adjusted again to ensure teaching was as effective as possible during remote provision. However, further curriculum adjustments may be needed going forward and these should be based on supporting pupils to develop a secure mathematical understanding rather than to ensure curriculum coverage. In addition, pedagogical changes may be needed to support improved progress. We have already talked about a possible need to refocus on reasoning development and metacognition. Now is the time to build our strongest pedagogy and to secure foundational learning and I would urge teachers not to use metaphorical sticky plasters to move children on without confidence that they have all that they need.
Maths is hierarchical and developmental and without strong foundations, the journey in the future will become much harder. One very practical adaptation to support this, might be to explicitly plan for “buffer zones”. Buffer zones are a concept that ESSENTIALmaths users are already familiar with, and the intention is that you acknowledge that not all children will achieve security at the same pace and therefore regularly plan for time when learning is secured through further practice or teacher input while other pupils are presented with time to deepen their understanding and to “further explore the maths jungle”. My greatest worry is that teachers will feel a pressure to move children on too quickly and will unintentionally reduce the curriculum for some pupils so that maths becomes about replicating processes and will lose sight of the national curriculum aims and entitlement that all children have to teaching for fluency, reasoning and problem solving.
Enable and secure success
I am no Covid catch-up tsar and actually, I am cautious around the notion of ‘catch-up’. I think that we should be considering how we best support children from where they are to continue in their long term development and learning. Don’t let the narrative of “catch-up” panic you into rushing through the curriculum or diminishing your pedagogy. Instead, reconnect with your children and re-establish what is important in their development, reactivate prior learning and reassess their understanding so that you can find the right starting points and respond to their needs. Keep calm and carry on teaching.