School Closures: new knowledge, or revision and consolidation?

Something that has been playing on mind since a day or two after schools closed, is whether it is right to introduce new knowledge to students when we cannot be sure that all are accessing it at all, but are sure that there is no expert in the room with them to guide them through (for the most part, I don’t know of any of my school’s students who are English teachers, for example).

Initial directives to all staff, during meetings prior to the school closures, were to continue with the curriculum currently in place, and to follow our medium term plans. This meant new content for pretty much all year groups: Year 7 and 8 would move onto poetry, Year 9 would move on to Blood Brothers, and Year 10 would be studying Macbeth for the first time. Remotely.

Of course, in these unprecedented times, we followed directives. But the more I recorded my Youtube lessons on Macbeth and its context, the more it didn’t sit right with me to expect students, without the aid of a teacher in the same room, to analyse Shakepeare’s presentation of Macbeth/The Witches/Banquo. How could I be truly sure that they understood the story, first and foremost? Are they definitely not getting Macbeth and Macduff mixed up? Are they able to comprehend that Macdonald was, indeed, a traitor in battle? As a result, I challenged the concept of ‘moving forward with business as usual’ in terms of curriculum and my seniors agreed and approved my decision to not introduce new content from Easter onwards.

What evidence do I have of their understanding of the text, besides five knowledge retrieval answers from about 75% of students in the year group? And even if said insights on Show My Homework indicate that students do understand the plot, how can I be sure- without targeted questioning- that they didn’t just fluke it and take a lucky guess?

The answer is: I don’t and I can’t.

With all of this heavy in my mind, trying to come to a decision about how best to move forward with remote learning in the new term, as the closures look set to continue for the forseeable, I joined a Webinar with Tom Bennett and Daisy Christodolou where one of the questions put to Daisy was ‘Should we be using this time to introduce new content, or to revise and consolidate?’ by Helena Brothwell, a fellow #TeamDret. The relief that somebody whom I respect so highly was asking the same questions as the one in my brain! I was not alone.

To this question, came a very clear and expert answer: that we underestimate the power of revision and repetition when done right and that- in the short term- we must embrace the opportunity to consolidate knowledge from prior learning.

I tweeted, and this sparked a wonderful debate in just 12 hours.

The crux of all of this is that we need to ensure that adjustments are made to the current Year 10, for their exams- all considering. If we don’t teach new content now, and content isn’t cut next year, how can we possibly expect them to learn as much as we need them to? If content is stripped, how will this decision be made when we all teach content in different orders. It all becomes really quite murky. This is why it is imperative, when Ofqual make their announcement regarding the current Y11 cohort and how their grades will be calculated, that they consider the ones with the hardest deal here: Year 5, Year 10 and Year 12. If this announcement doesn’t come soon, then the gap will continue to widen.

Until a decision is made regarding any adaptation of exam content, I have made the decision that my team will address misconceptions, develop prior knowledge, and focus on how best to close gaps from before. In my humble opinion, pretending that we can teach Macbeth for the first time, other than asking them about the plot and characters, was an over-stretch, and I am not afraid to admit that. Whilst expectations will remain high, as Tom and Daisy also discussed in last night’s webinar, what is really important is that we retain realism in these times. These students are not in a classroom, they do not have a teacher, and they may not even be IT literate enough to download an e-booklet that you have set, let alone do the equivalent of raising their hand for support, via email.

It looks like we are in it for the long-run, here. So let’s do this properly and avoid widening the gap further and further.

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