Research School Network: The Curriculum Challenge: Operation Reparation
The Curriculum Challenge: Operation Reparation
by Meols Cop Research School
When the Prime Minister announced the closure of schools following the outbreak of Covid-19, the educational profession was thrown into a chasm of concern and uncertainty. How will we ensure the protection of the most vulnerable students and families? What will happen with examinations and awards? Who will school remain open for and how will it be staffed? Not only did parents and educators have an array of unanswered questions about the academic future of their children, but also concerns about the nation’s efforts to tackle the virus, and the implications that it has had on their lives. This is an unprecedented period of time for the world, where health remains the constant priority, but how can we ensure that Covid-19 does not damage an entire generation’s education?
There has been a responsive transformation of traditional schools into hubs that have provided essential services for their community. Schools have remained open to protect the most vulnerable, support key workers, distribute food and resources to the community, create PPE equipment for local health workers, raise funds to support charities, and many other helpful, thoughtful initiatives.
As an unfortunate result of this incredible conversion, the delivery of the school curriculum as we knew it came grinding to a halt, and not so dissimilar to schools themselves, was forced to adapt without warning. A frustrating time for leaders and teachers, as schools were already tenaciously developing their curriculums following the changes to OFSTED’s inspection framework and the importance placed on finer questions of curriculum – the intent, the implementation, the impact?
In addition, schools had no official guidance, albeit understandably, on how to implement online curriculums, and therefore there is a wide variance in how schools responded to the challenges of their students (and staff) moving to independent, online lessons. Some schools have implemented teacher-led video lessons, while others have provided resources to complete independently, perhaps with some online guidance or feedback. Further compounding this problem, some students will have maintained a rigorous study timetable, while others have disengaged entirely – not always at fault of their own, but by the sheer amount of individual barriers to their learning and well-being. The varied quality of online resources and the varied level of student engagement will inevitably widen the gap between the advantaged, those with support, study space, resources and a sense of independence and aspiration, and the disadvantaged, who have little to none of the benefits that bless their more fortunate peers.
Only an exceptional minority will emerge from lockdown unscathed. The majority will face an overwhelming series of barriers to learning, both academically and pastorally. From a curriculum perspective, subject leaders must adapt once more, by diagnosing the damage on their cohort of students, especially those who became deeply disengaged, lost confidence in their ability, and lost their perception of progress and achievement. What do they know? What are their weaknesses? How will I address this? There will be a new-norm, but schools must work quickly and efficiently if they are to close the gaps that emerged from the absence of school.
There are no clear solutions, certainly none that will work for all schools in all contexts, but there are several strategies that can help to repair the perceived damage of our students’ education. First and foremost, to prevent the gap from widening further, schools need to consider how they are currently endeavouring to boost engagement and motivation. Many schools are providing quality, accessible resources coupled with additional initiatives to support the students during this difficult time. Whilst these resources absolutely must be differentiated for independent completion, are they also memorable and even interactive enough to engage our young people outside of their usual learning environment? Teachers can provide weekly or fortnightly feedback for their students’ online submissions, and parents can be contacted to raise awareness and involvement. Again, there are no clear solutions, but if schools successfully promote engagement and independence, the damage of disengagement is mitigated somewhat.
Beyond a ‘phased manner’, there has not been any further clarification from the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, on when, and how, schools will re-open, and it seems irrelevant now to think about how our school curriculums will operate upon return. However, if the teacher is the driver, then the curriculum is the road of classroom teaching, and without clear direction, the newly-widened gap will not close when schools return to relative normality. Subject leaders have responsibility of a difficult yet important process: adapting the curriculum to best fit the needs of the students. As usual in education, this will differ from school to school, but there are some core principles that must be considered.
1. The need for revision and recall
Revising and recalling previously learned content has always been an important aspect of teaching. Not only do students need to revisit material to strengthen their memories of a topic, but secure schemas of knowledge are required to make further progress and to develop understanding of future content. A vast majority of students will experience a learning (and consequently, a confidence) relapse because they have not frequently revised or recalled prior information – the memory of that knowledge will gradually fade away and therefore, it is imperative to revisit these topics if students are to retain and strengthen their abilities. This leads to more difficult questions: What needs be revised urgently? How am I prioritising the topics? How am I using data and judgements to target specific areas?
Teachers can tackle this in a variety of ways, from a calendared, planned sequence of revision sessions to interleaved lessons with revision and new content being taught independently, perhaps two lessons per week respectively. The calendared sequence requires teachers to prioritise the importance of the topics, taking into consideration the more difficult concepts from online learning, the students’ individual strengths and weaknesses, and the length of time since each topic was studied. Quizzes around the key concepts of the curriculum will allow students to re-visit the core information and this knowledge can be used as a spring-board for further application. Overall, there needs to be a great focus on targeted revision and recall, not just to strengthen memories, but also to rebuild confidence and familiarity.
2. A clear learning continuum
The learning continuum, with a ‘big idea’ construct at its heart, represents the timeline of learning and the interconnection of knowledge that students develop throughout their academic journeys. Constructs are the key concepts. The lesson objectives. The big ideas that are built upon throughout the curriculum, like Lego blocks progressively becoming larger and sturdier, as understanding develops. For example, the understanding and application of metaphorical language within an English lesson, the Treaty of Versailles within a History lesson, the process of electron transfer in ionic bonding within a Science lesson. Constructs are a crucial part of the curriculum, and always have been, but now they are more important than ever.
Every curriculum should have clear constructs, with appropriate precursors that develop preconceptions and background knowledge around the chosen construct. It is difficult to understand metaphorical language without considering the desired purpose of comparison imagery, as it is difficult to understand electron transfer in ionic bonding without first considering the configuration of electrons within an atom. Creating a logical sequence of precursors will enhance understanding of the construct, the lesson objective. Teachers simply need to reflect upon the question: what background knowledge is important to understanding the construct? Once the important precursors have been identified (and perhaps at this time, revised), then they can be sequenced into a scheme of learning.
The successors are the consequences and outcomes of learning, including enhanced background knowledge to support the future capability of learning, an updated knowledge of strengths and weaknesses, successful strategies, and students’ ability to transfer learning from one topic to another. The learning continuum informs a teacher of what a student needs to be successful, both before a learning event and to continue improvement afterwards. It is imperative for teachers to understand how their curriculums utilise the learning continuum. Are there enough precursors to access the construct with clarity? How are the constructs being taught and assessed? What are students able to do with their understanding of the construct? These questions have always been crucial for curriculum design, but they now need careful consideration to ensure that the learning gaps are closed.
3. Desirable difficulties adjusted
‘Desirable difficulties’ are the varying conditions and challenges that teachers deliberately use to strengthen a learner’s understanding of a topic or strategy. Bjork (1994) suggested that the introduction of specific difficulties could improve performance and the long-term retention of knowledge. Usually, teachers will introduce challenges such as timed conditions, in which the students are working towards deadlines, or the absence of a success criteria, in which the students must use their independent perception of success to guide their performance. These chosen difficulties make the task harder for the student, but they are desirable in the sense that they force students to use a considerable amount of effort as they adapt, plan, recall, monitor, and evaluate their work. The combination of knowledge, motivation and strategy is the key to success in any walk of life, and academic performance is no different.
Why might a teacher need to re-evaluate their inclusion of desirable difficulties? Many students will return to school, after a prolonged period of disengagement, with damaged confidence and self-esteem. An ‘adjustment period’ could alleviate some anxieties for students who are emotionally unhappy and believe they have lost all of their prior progress and achievements. Not to suggest that standards should lower necessarily, just that compassion for students is present.
Within this period, the working conditions are relaxed, and a teacher’s priority is to boost the confidence and resilience of their students, enabling them to cope with the ‘normal’ demands of the curriculum at the earliest opportunity. Feedback might be initially more intensive and frequent, with a focus on reassuring students and reducing performance anxiety, but teachers might move to more sporadic, intermittent feedback as their students’ confidence and independence develops. The real challenge for teachers is to deliver lessons with appropriate challenge academically, while continuing to strengthen self-esteem and resilience depending on the changing needs of their class.
To conclude, the impact of Covid-19 on this generation’s education is yet to be fully realised, and schools, as they have since the outbreak, have been forced to adapt quickly to a very dangerous and changing threat. Schools and students will have coped with this in a variety of ways, and this will be no different when schools are re-opened. However, if teachers can prioritise: the revision and application of key constructs; an effective learning continuum; an initial adjustment to desirable difficulties based on confidence and resilience, and the use of assessment tools to inform decisions and target gaps, then the students that have been most severely affected, both emotionally and academically, can close their personal learning gaps and catch their more privileged peers.
Meols Cop High School
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