Learning in the time of covid and beyond: a reflection

Image description: a young child with glasses at a desk in a classroom, pencil in hand.
Image by ernestoeslava for pixabay

In summer 2020, I suggested in a Yorkshire Bylines article that the government would be best advised to prepare for the new school year in a way that did not presume that children would be able to attend school in the normal fashion. I was surprised, in the week following publication, that this article became a focus for anger from a small number of teachers on social media, which appeared to emanate from a misunderstanding: that I was criticising their practice, rather than commenting on national policy.

As the 2020/21 school year has unfolded, events have vindicated my prediction. English schools have experienced a great deal of difficulty due to the government’s insistence that children return to schools running on pre-covid conventions: large groups of children in crowded classrooms being lectured by a single teacher. For example, due to the organisation of teaching in secondary schools, some reported having to create ‘bubbles’ of several hundred.

The impacts have been heavy; not only on the children themselves in terms of infection spreading through their families, but also on education staff, for example in Leeds where Covid-19 rates among teachers just before Christmas were calculated to be 333 percent higher than those in the general population.

So, exactly what did I suggest in the summer that so enraged my critics? I called for a suspension of statutory assessments, to instead pursue a project-based model of teaching for children under 14 who were not yet subject to the restrictions of the current GCSE and A-level syllabus. This would have been far more robust in the event that schools needed to close in response to a second/third wave of the pandemic (drawing on the events of the pandemic of 1918–20). And children could more easily have transferred their learning between home and school with online and parental support.

I listed the following benefits:

  • Giving schools the flexibility to create smaller ‘bubbles’ in which the children’s work could be facilitated by teaching assistants under the guidance of the class teacher.
  • The potential to bring some adults into temporary work in schools, particularly those who had been laid off during lockdown – such as actors, chefs and artists who could additionally share their specialist skills in some contexts.
  • Giving children more flexibility to pursue local topics, particularly in the outdoor environment.
  • Online lessons facilitating project work could be more engaging and of shorter duration than teachers going through their usual lessons on webcam.

I suggested that instead of giving £4m to one academy chain to video teachers going through their usual lessons and set up online quizzes, the Department For Education (DfE) could work with experts in online teaching and learning to convert their practices and resources to a programme that would be suitable for children working at home with parental support.

Why would anyone be hostile to such ideas? The answer lies in the quasi-philosophy of education that Michael Gove introduced into schools during his time in the DfE (2010–2014), which has been further perpetuated by his successors.

Gove and Cummings’ revamping of the English national curriculum was rooted in their perspective on the theories of American education academic E D Hirsch. Hirsch’s claim to fame is that he created a list of “what Americans need to know” in the appendix of his book Cultural Literacy (1988) and proposed that this should be used as the basis as the school curriculum in the US. How directly the list is related to what Britons ‘need to know’ is a question that has never had any satisfactory answer, or indeed, if ‘Britons’ can be lumped together under one umbrella in this manner.

Hirsch’s theory received a significant amount of criticism in the US when it was first launched in the late 1980s. The schools minister Nick Gibb connects the strategy to “a society in which we all understand each other better”, but this too is somewhat problematic, given that Hirsch’s list overwhelmingly references traditional Western culture.

The mode of teaching that is intended to inculcate this bank of knowledge in children’s minds is via a memorisation process guided by ‘Cognitive Load Theory’. This was drawn from early psychological experiments on memory processes relating to adults rote learning experimental materials, principally word lists.

The resulting practices are useful to teachers in some circumstances – as a psychologist as well as a teacher, I frequently used them with students in exam revision before it became fashionable to do so. But this is not all there is to teaching and learning. As Brian Cox explains, “the whole point of science is that you have to be prepared – and delighted – to change your mind in the face of new evidence”.

Human minds evolved to learn not only through instruction but also through personal discovery. Experimenting with and researching ideas is what project-based learning is principally about. Unfortunately, this is not the way that Nick Gibb views the situation: “Teachers attempt to inculcate creativity and problem-solving as if these skills transcend domains of knowledge … this view is deeply misguided”.

It is certainly true, as our Victorian ancestors realised, that rote learning via sitting in rows in large groups with one teacher at the front is one of the cheapest ways to provide state education. This strategy produces students who can reliably give accurate answers to narrowly framed questions, during the period that follows sustained practice. Whether they fully understand what they are regurgitating – or whether they later retain that knowledge, or become lifelong enthusiastic, inquisitive learners – is another, very different question.

Our immediate problem, however, is that the DfE’s slavish adherence to this very fixed construction of teaching and learning has led to the fear of children ‘falling behind’ in their preparation for the next fixed response assessment, and thence to an insistence that children must remain in school to the point at which the evidence of schools as a source of infection became so overwhelming that the government was forced to U-turn.

The DFE’s subsequent tactic has been to urge families to reproduce a school ‘face the front and listen’ learning environment in the home, spending “up to five hours” a day (according to the instructions of the current secretary of state for education) watching teachers go through lessons on webcam/video. This has added to the significant stress already impacting on families.

Many parents, co-opted into the role of enforcers and quasi-teaching assistants, have taken to social media to express exasperation.

So where to now? I suspect the time has gone for the government to make any great changes to learning in lockdown. There were certainly many missed opportunities in summer 2020. How the current chaos will impact on the nation’s long-term mental health remains to be seen.

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