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The Missing Months – exciting lessons from lockdown.
For many schools, the missing months from Easter to the summer holidays will be a mystery in terms of what our children learned, certainly until they can run assessments in autumn.
The ‘unknown’ can breed fear and certainly our news cycles focus on the negative aspects of shutdown. And yet when you speak to some senior leaders their attitude is positive – enthused even.
“I feel quite excited in a funny kind of way because I think there’s many things we can move forward with, I feel we can really get some good gains here - what I describe as accelerators.”
- James Greenwood, headteacher, Manor Leas Junior
This optimism is supported by data gathered by online teaching and learning resource Learning by Questions (LbQ) who received over 32 million pupil responses during this period and their sister site LbQ@Home which was free for parents and carers also had more than 120,000 users.
Whilst not all children will have used the resource, the numbers are significant enough across the UK to give insights into these missing months and some of the key trends in learning that teachers are excited about.
1. The landscape shifted from revision to mastery.
In the first few weeks of school shutdowns, teachers stuck to their schemes of learning. Understandably, these were abandoned fairly quickly. The consensus was not to try to move children’s learning on from afar and in a highly anxious climate, but to consolidate previous learning and practise.
The data reflects that given the time and space to go deeper, teachers were able to cover more than ‘surface’ content. They could develop those deeper cognitive skills that are the cornerstones of mastery.
Shifting focus from revision and preparation for exams including SATs before lockdown to a more even balance between practice and mastery may raise questions about what learning is achievable in the current academic timeframe - and how much of it ends up being more superficial than educators would like?
It is also interesting to note that teachers feel that they can still develop mastery skills from a distance using online resources.
The top 3 Question Sets for English pre lockdown were:
- Revision of Yr5/6 Grammar and Terminology
- Revision of Yr 1 – 6 Grammar & Terminology
- Year 6 National Curriculum Test Practice (SATs): Set 1 English Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling
After lockdown, the Question Sets selected by teachers were less ‘assessment based’:
- Revision of compound and complex sentences.
- The difference between plural and possessive s.
- Use relative clauses.
What we learn from this information is that remote learning does not preclude mastery learning and can, in fact, allow time and space perhaps for deeper investigation and understanding than the current academic structure and accountability assessments may not allow for.
2. The landscape is less mathematics orientated and English is on the rise.
Perhaps the most seismic shift we have seen has been in subject area. Before lockdown mathematics dominated the learning landscape. 62% of our Question Set usage for KS2 was in mathematics and only 31% English, 7% science – a fairly new addition to the LbQ resource library.
But this changed.
Mathematics and English are now much closer in popularity with teachers setting work. In fact English (47%) now beats mathematics (41%). The number of times an English Question Set was chosen has jettisoned from 7,757 (1st Jan – 22nd Mar 2020) to 19,064 (23rd Mar – 12th Jun 2020).
Within the subject area, focus has also moved. Pre lockdown, over half of the top ten English Question Sets were grammar objectives. This has now changed, and Punctuation leads the charge.
Reasons for this may be a paucity in trusted and proven resources for English, that more teachers are discovering LbQ English resources or that KS2 teachers believe their learners need greater support in this area.
3. The landscape has shifted from distinct subject areas to a more cross curricular approach.
Whilst grammar, spelling and punctuation retained its dominance as the most practised area of the English syllabus (58%), reading has undergone a change.
Fiction has always been popular and perhaps it is no surprise than during lockdown the country has leaned into comedy and fables for brevity. On the LbQ platform “Daft Dog'' and “Larry and Dribbles” have been firm favourites amongst the KS2 audience and stories that deal specifically with the Covid crisis have been introduced to help children process some of what is happening around them.
“Education should be about learning now. Our experience of the world is cross-curricular. Good cross-curricular or pedagogy should be relevant. Relevance involves the teachers increasing interaction with the world of their children.”
– Jonathan Barnes, author of ‘Cross Curricular Learning 3 – 14’
Another strong case for cross-curricular success during lockdown has been in the genre of historical non-fiction. Selected 9% of the time by teachers before the lockdown, this has now shot up to 23%. The genre has now been selected over 2,000 times and titles such as ‘Britain in the Blitz’ have been popular reads.
Offering non-fiction reading broadens learners' exposure and interests into other areas of the curriculum and the introduction of texts for well being may also signpost a move towards increased blurring subject areas eg: English and PSHE, science and geography. Distinct subject areas are possibly even more outdated and inefficient ways of sharing learning than they were before lockdown.
4 Parents support a cross curricular dynamic at home but push for more science.
The same cross-curricular approach could be seen on the LbQ@Home site built for parents, home users and teachers who perhaps did not have access to LbQ itself. Fiction remained popular at 14% and comedy high in the rankings. Non-fiction history matched that at 14% and interestingly non-fiction science also reached parity at 13%.
Whereas teachers had not increased their interest in science (relegated to 10 or 11% of the usage), the subject took on great popularity within the home. Not only within English non-fiction Question Sets such as the one on Tim Peake, but also pure science Question Sets.
Science was accessed twice as much by parents than by teachers.
Maths was used 39%, English 40% and science 21%
This could indicate that science was a more engaging subject for children at home who were reluctant to do other schoolwork. It may be that parents saw science as more accessible or aspirational.
Both teachers and parents selected similar Question Sets – ‘Earth, Moon and Sun’ being the number one science Question Set before and during lockdown on both sites. Clearly, we are a nation with a passion for space. But with perhaps greater pressure on SATs catch up than ever before, will this popular lockdown subject take an even firmer back seat at school?
“Sadly, I think there may be some areas that get 'less-focused' on at first. This is because children need to be able to read and write to be able to access a lot of the curriculum and lower down the school some of these skills will be weak. I would expect that by Christmas it will be more balanced and coherent. I think every cohort and context will be different here.”
– Andy Done, Masefield Primary
Did children learn whilst on lockdown? Certainly, some schools were able to produce huge amounts of learning with some classes answering 50,000 questions in a single week. But the disparity will be great and there will be children who have not had the structure, support, or facilities to countenance any learning over these last few months. Each school will have to work out where their children are, where they need to be and chart the best course to get there – but that is nothing new to educators.
There are indications in this lockdown data that suggest education is moving into a new modernity - a new normal. The success of remote learning through technology. The break- down of the traditional subject hierarchy and topic barriers into a more fluid and engaging curriculum. The stronger partnership with parents. These are all findings that schools can harness to build a positive legacy.
“I know that if staff are feeling confident, up for it, enthusiastic – as soon as they work with those children, it mirrors with the children. I think this positivity is what we need to be working on rather than saying it’s going to be a mental health issue. I feel that moving forward we can really get hold of home learning too so that we can empower parents to join us on that journey.”
- James Greenwood, headteacher, Manor Leas Junior
It is ironic to think that perhaps one of the educational landscape shifts during school shutdowns is that perhaps the classroom has actually got bigger. The self-direction element of learning has been realised through a growth in curiosity. The spectrum of resources accessed on LbQ has never been so wide.
Perhaps the real fear we should have isn’t what has happened during these missing months, but that we do not learn from lockdown and build a better future for our schools from it.
“I have felt reassured talking to some senior leaders - how secure and confident they are. The pragmatic, practical nature of primary education will see us through. This confidence about getting on with it and doing it in an interesting and different way is brilliant!”
- Sir Kevan Collins, executive vice chairman of Learning by Questions, former chair of the EEF.