For those who have developed detailed, joined up curriculum Covid19 feels particularly badly timed.
The idea knowledge would be progressively and iteratively moved to long term memory and then built upon later has had a hole blown in it.
It’s tempting to conceptualise curriculum as a house of cards with everything collapsing if one is removed from a lower level.
This certainly seems to be what the government think.
The plan appears to be a programme of aggressive intervention to shove the cards back into the gaps, through extended opening hours, tutors and weekend and summer school. The aim, if I haven’t misunderstood, is all pupils catch up on what they have missed so when schools return to normal they can just carry on as if the whole of the last few months were nothing but a bad dream.
It won’t work.
The first error is in believing the curriculum we write is digested evenly and uniformly by the pupils exposed to it.
This isn’t true. Even in the most stable of times pupils, being humans, will have great variability in what they have learned. A child experiencing a severe headache on some random Tuesday will not have learned as much from lessons on that day than a child feeling on top of their game. A teacher who hasn’t slept after a horrible argument with their girlfriend probably won’t have taught their lessons as well as they would have if they’d been serene and well rested. We could go on and on with more examples but the point is the same – curriculum coverage is always uneven and gaps are inevitable.
This is not new. It is something we have always had to work with.
Of course, shutdown has exaggerated this – for many pupils exponentially. Differences in knowledge between different pupils might be greater than it has ever been in modern times. It is highly probable that some children will actually be ahead of where they would have been if they’d been in school every day. The most privileged may have benefited from near one-to-one support from an educated furloughed parent able to provide hours of one-to-one support. Others will have had private tutoring over Zoom. Others who attend schools in which bad behaviour is common may have found the lack of distraction and ability to focus a boon.
Some children will have learned different things to what is on their school’s curriculum. Some will have done work from BBC bitesize or Oak National. Others will have done projects with their parents on things that interest them both. These children may look like they are behind but in some areas will actually be ahead.
All this said there are probably more pupils who’ve learned much less – it is likely many will have done nothing academic at all and will have actually regressed as they naturally forget what they learned in school before they stopped attending.
Pupils who have experienced lockdown very differently attend the same schools and will go back into lessons with each other.
How are their schools and teachers supposed to meet such diverse need?
One option would be a raft of ‘diagnostic’ tests and exams for pupils when they return. The purpose of these would be to forensically ‘find the gaps’ in each individual child’s knowledge. These ‘gaps’ could then be recorded on complicated spreadsheets, which would then be used to develop a series of ‘interventions’ which would – Boris and Gavin approved – run after school, on the weekend or in the holidays.
Systemically we are very used to this approach. We know this old beast well. At its heart it is the scaling up of the same approach many schools have used with Y11 ever since we put performance management on steroids.
We know the damaging effects of this already; exhausted staff, exhausted children, the ritualistic and often heart breaking struggle to compel those furthest behind to do work they’ve spent years avoiding. We also know how addictive this lens becomes – when we look obsessively for gaps pretty soon they are all we see.
Nonetheless this might, might, be all worth it if the final outcome was a great leap forward that – even if some resented it at the time – led to the elimination of the loss of learning experienced by our Covid Kids and headed off worries raised by people like Laura McInereny about grade deflation over the next few years.
If things were as simple as this I think we could teachers on board. People are happy to make sacrifices if they seem worth it. It is tempting to throw ourselves in and swallow the heroic imagery – a year or more of struggle and strife, of data and long hours, of midnight oil and marking tests, then a finally an emergence into the sunny gratitude of a nation whose children we have saved from ignorance.
I would like this fantasy to be true.
But I’d also like a coffee table sized pet triceratops.
You can’t always get what you want.
We already know this approach doesn’t work don’t we? Wanting something is not the same as being able to have it.
We know how hard it is to actually work out what ‘gaps’ a child has from tests that can only ever be samples of vast domains. We know even if we correctly work out what a pupil doesn’t know our ability to do anything about it is limited. It is hard enough to convince our hardest to reach children to come to school at all and we already know any programme of extra intervention usually results in those already ahead putting even greater distances between them and those furthest behind.
All of this is before we even consider how we get past the fact most schools are doing interventions before school, at lunch, after school and at holiday and weekends already for Y11.
Who will staff extra interventions given our staff are doing them already?
So what should we do?
It is interesting to see a curious and perhaps surprising alignment between clever and reflective people who in the past may have considered themselves divided by fundamental educational philosophy. The most sensible view is when pupils do return they will need to come as they are and that it is probably impossible to do much about these pernicious ‘gaps’ until we have children back in classrooms with us.
We will need to check that they are OK. We will need to support them in readjusting to routines and rules and timetables and regular bedtimes. We will need to be firm but gentle and avoid panicked knee-jerk responses that do nothing but declare to our pupils that “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY OH MY WORD YOU KNOW NOTHING OH DEAR OH NO!”
This isn’t to say there is no place for extended hours, weekend or holiday school – I absolutely think these will be important. But when these work best the impact will be to demonstrate to our children we are ready for them and to show them how to be ready for us. Anything grander is impossible – the idea that it is even possible to meaningfully ‘catch up’ on months of expert guided purposeful work in a week in August is just silly.
When our pupils do return we should not overstate or overdramatise the scale of the task before us. Firstly, as I began this post by saying, there always were gaps. We do not work in laboratories and what we have saved to our shared areas was always much greater than what was in our pupils heads. Adjusting probably will involve the winnowing of some curricula, which might well turn out to be a helpful corrective to recent years in which the largely helpful focus on curriculum has also led to overwork and over complication. It’s possible that more attention on less done well as opposed to more covered superficially will actually be a net positive of all this awfulness.
But we must not understate either. There is an issue. Children have missed a lot and ‘catching up’ will not happen in the first half term. It will be slow and uneven, happen in classrooms and won’t be recorded on documents. It may take years. It will mean lots of what Dylan Wiliam and Harry Fletcher-Wood have always called ‘responsive teaching’.
And even if you’ve never heard of Dylan or Harry you probably know how to do that.
So close the spreadsheet. Don’t try to analyse what you really know you can’t.
Let the children come as they are.
This will take a long time but we will manage.