For those of us with school-aged children, lockdown has provided some insight into teaching and the demands placed on teachers every day, as we try to support our children’s learning at home. In addition to this, it has allowed us to explore the benefits of learning that take place beyond the boundaries of the ‘taught’ curriculum.
As well as working through the remote learning materials, linked to the National Curriculum, which schools are providing, some parents – and children – are discovering the richness of the learning opportunities that present themselves when we go ‘off-piste’. Outside the school timetable of subject-based tasks, there is much educational value in activities such as gardening, cooking, baking, crafts, and time spent in Nature, when this is possible.
What this experience of learning at home is showing us is that there is so much to be gained from a creative and flexible approach to learning and from tuning into what is going on in the natural world around us. What is more, although children may not be sitting regular spelling tests or end-of-half-term assessments, their education will not necessarily be suffering as a result.
So, when schools do finally reopen, what will we take from these observations of learning during lockdown?
Towards a more resilient recovery
Earlier this month, Lord Deben, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, wrote to the British Prime Minister and Scottish First Minister to highlight the role that action on climate change could – and should – play in the economic recovery of the UK post-Covid-19. Rather than returning to ‘business as usual’, the letter sets out opportunities to adopt measures to tackle climate change as the UK rebuilds – measures that will contribute to a more resilient recovery.
It seems that, in education, we are currently faced with a similar choice. Do we revert to education as we knew it before the coronavirus pandemic? Or, do we take what we have learnt during lockdown and build something better: an education that helps our children and young people to really understand the world in which they live?
Time for change
We have all learnt recently, to our cost, how incredibly interconnected our world is. The Covid-19 virus has spread so rapidly across the world without being noticed and with devastating consequences. Our responses, too, have highlighted how we have worked as a collective whole to help us recover from this crisis by relating our actions constantly to the idea of interdependence and what we need to do to keep the virus at bay. We have taken great care not to spread the disease further through social distancing, self-isolation, staying at home and washing our hands as thoroughly as possible. This time of the coronavirus has made us aware like never before of how interconnected our lives are.
We need only look to the natural world to see that this interdependence exists everywhere. It is one of the key principles that underpins all life on Earth.
And yet, we do not structure the learning of our young people in a way that encourages them to see the world, to see themselves, as part of a deeply interconnected and interdependent whole.
Our curriculum is still taught through the acquisition of subject separate skills and knowledge. The National Curriculum itself is broken down into subject specific programmes of study. This way of learning teaches us to see the world through a lens of separateness. We really could not have done a better job of disconnecting learning by teaching in such a way.
This approach to teaching and learning, which compartmentalises educational content with little opportunity to make links between subjects, is exemplified in the DfE’s recently created Oak Academy resources. Within this bank of online materials, which includes educational content for all year groups, each lesson is presented as a separate entity, exploring a specific aspect of subject-based learning.
We know the value of having a secure grasp of core skills and knowledge, but this approach seems to be part of the problem; the content is taught separately and all too often nothing links to anything else.
Three point plan
Separating subjects through silo-ed learning does very little to give us a critical understanding of the systemic nature of life. When we consider the role that education can play in our collective recovery post-Covid-19, and when we consider what education could look like, we need, firstly, to link learning together around relevant projects or themes.
When learning is structured around an overarching project or theme, there is an opportunity to teach things holistically. A theme could focus on how the parts of the human body work together, the connection between mind and body, the interdependence of species in an ecosystem such as an ocean or a rainforest or a local woodland, or the impact of our ways of life on these inherently healthy systems.
Issues of sustainability can be woven through all these enquiry-based projects. This is what our children and young people want. They want to see the relevance of their learning to their future. A recent study by the Green Schools Project and the National Union of Students found that 68% of young people want to learn more about environmental issues.
Understanding the systemic nature of life and appreciating more fully the factors that affect our health and well-being are essential elements of learning if we are to live in a more sustainable, resilient way. This is where learning should be focused.
Secondly, we need to explore learning less through a specific taught curriculum and more through a culture of questioning and investigation. If we can reframe learning around enquiry-based projects that are linked to the world around us, and then map subject-specific content to the learning, it will all make so much more sense to our students and children.
According to UK Student Climate Network, this is what young people are asking us to do. They want curriculum reform so that a much more integrated way of learning can be developed.
This shift in practice to a different way of learning will need time to get right, but if we stick with business as usual, we are going to keep separating out learning in the most disconnected of ways and learning is never as effective when it is presented like this.
It doesn’t teach us how interconnected life is and this must be our goal in education if we are to properly address the challenges of living in such an interdependent world.
Considering where our food comes from and the systems that produce it is an excellent example of how we might frame an enquiry-based project of learning with all the links to health and nutrition.
Finally, we need to rethink how we assess the outcomes of learning. It may be that formal assessments and grades continue to have a role to play in monitoring progress. But surely education needs to be more than just a series of grades?
If students knew that their integrated learning was taking them on a journey and that this journey was going to be celebrated somehow at the end of the half-term or at the conclusion of a unit of learning, how much more engaged and motivated would they be?
By introducing what we might call end-of-project ‘Great Works’, there is an immediate shift in how teachers and students see the outcomes of learning. These Great Works can be presented and shared in a rich variety of ways within and beyond the school or education setting.
Learning would really come alive! And students would start to see themselves as leaders of learning, not just recipients of learning.
So where do we go from here?
Maybe not straight away, but, in time, we can restructure the way we teach and learn to ensure the education we offer our young people is fit for purpose in a post-Covid-19 world.
This clear and achievable approach to education can dramatically transform learning for the better. It needs careful planning, but it can be done. The question now is how we start a conversation around the next steps that will allow education to embrace this kind of approach.
The current model is old and out of date. We need discussions at the highest level to work out how we can best shift our practices to something much more meaningful and relevant – something that can be applied to real life.
This approach will enable our young people to understand better the interconnectedness of all life. It will also provide them with opportunities to lead work that ensures we live more in harmony with the natural systems that support us every day.
Only then will we create a healthier, more resilient and more sustainable way of life.
Sticking with the education status quo simply won’t do. We have a chance now to adapt our education practices to the interdependent world in which we live. We can do this by joining learning together, by making it make sense, by giving it relevance to the challenges and opportunities of our time. This is what our young people are asking us to do. Will we hear their call?