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How you learn - not what you learn - means everything in a global crisis

Posted on: 06 Apr 2020

Charlotte Weatherley, assistant head at Knighton House School, discusses how her school has adapted pupils' learning to fit the changing circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Every dystopian novel is not predicated on the main character’s ability to lecture on the comma splice or their mathematical know-how. The main characters of the genre live by engaging in a dynamic relationship with their own nature; the attitude and beliefs with which they encounter and adapt to difficult circumstances. From the characters in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Martian Chronicles’ adapting to the new reality of life on Mars, to the harsh challenges to self-belief and optimism faced by Meg and Charles Wallace in Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, what they know is that how you learn means as much, and in a crisis a great deal more, than what you learn.


The lockdown state of the globe has put school, by which I mean the physical space inhabited day to day by teachers and pupils, into pause mode. Reassuring parents with the cry of ‘distance learning’ as our new normal, teachers have been hard at work mastering online platforms and signing up to free online resources in order to make the transition from school to no school seem like no biggie. But while teachers have responded with extraordinary speed to seismic changes in their working life - demonstrating again why no one is in teaching for the cash, only ever for the children - we must accept that it is helping our children to a knowledge of themselves and the way they learn which will get them safely and positively through this crisis. And, if we are lucky, emerging with such wonderful self-knowledge that they might keep the rest of humanity from the oblivion towards which it has been so casually heading.


In our little community, pupils are already familiar with the vocabulary of how they learn; optimism, independence, and self-evaluation are terms with which they are very comfortable. All our learning is predicated on concepts (the learning dispositions) providing the strong foundations on which to tackle your times tables or your knowledge of how the semi-colon engages the reader. The COVID-19 outbreak has not changed that. What the crisis has done is reinforce their importance at such a time and reinforce what we do not want the period of lockdown to be: the period of lockdown will not be spent solely in front of a screen; the period of lockdown will not be spent competing with Mum and Dad for a device; the period of lockdown will not be spent trying to connect and finding you cannot and the period of lockdown will not be a permanent blight on all their future attitudes to learning.


So, what will our learning be? It will be a series of tasks clearly linked to how they learn and set against real life assessment; our learning will involve children self-evaluating and parents evaluating too; and our learning will be a little bit competitive – ‘cos that’s fun and motivating. All the tasks are practical and reassuring at a time when no school means gone the routine of daily contact with teachers and friends and the stability of lessons and playtime; however much it may sometimes frustrate and enrage, these challenges remind pupils of all that they love about where they learn.


Our pupils’ days will be divided into challenges, some skills-based, but many which are not. We also have a You Tube channel (fondly called KH TV) which we will be populating with how-to clips over the holidays, in time for family viewing in the summer term. We are encouraging pupils to keep a record of all their challenges (more opportunities for points and prizes there) and we are setting up a weekly session on Teams for tutors to chat about progress and what’s next. Pupils will receive the information about challenges, assessment and self-evaluation in booklet form, carefully organised into what would be the normal weeks of our summer term calendar. The assessment criteria has four levels, from Stage 1 level up to Jackpot (level 4) and we hope to engage children and parents in evaluating the progress of each challenge they attempt; in folders which each child has available to keep a record of their work, teachers will be able to view all their data online.


The assessment criteria for Co-operation at Level 1 recognises that a pupil will ask for help but will not recognise the synergy innate in a co-operative relationship; the Jackpot (Level 4) reads ‘develops and works with a household member on a joint challenge, allocating tasks and taking the challenge forward.’ Challenges encourage children to go back to their learning and even to have another go at a challenge; the challenges are expressed in language with which they are familiar and show our incredible knowledge of the concerns, passions and talents of our pupils. We cannot know what education will look like after the virus has run its course, but we can know that our cohort of children will have a set of learning dispositions (or dispositions in the making) which will adapt them to whatever is our new normal.


A selection of our challenges is listed below:


Empathy and Personal Organisation Write to someone every day for the period of the school closure; this could be a different person or the same person. Use a really sharp pencil/ink pen, focusing carefully on your handwriting, particularly the joins of your letters.
Co-operation and Collaboration For the period of the school closure, work with someone in your family on a shared project – keep a diary together or make a scrapbook of this unusual moment in the world’s history; find something to investigate – take photos or draw, the changes in your garden or the surrounding countryside. Talk to each other about what each of you will do and how you will organise the project.
Responsibility Self-evaluation From home, do something for your community; for example, ask if you can put messages on your local/village website or put up posters in the village hall, encouraging people to be positive. Think about the skills you learned this term about posters and how to have maximum impact.
Independence and Method Ask Mummy or Daddy if you can have a section of the garden and plant seeds – do the research yourself on what you should plant and how; ask for seeds from plants you already have in the garden or packets from last year. Think about the classification of your plants and vegetables; design a leaflet that puts them into their correct families and gives the important information about them. The Royal Horticultural Society website might be helpful here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/grow-your-own/vegetables
Experimentation Responsibility Build something out of cardboard – keep loo rolls and make fun animals or make something more complicated. Teach someone else – think about what sort of teacher you are; do you need to improve your instructions?
Experimentation Openness and Resilience Train your dog some new moves; train yourself to give doggy massages and learn for fun with these training tips: https://tug-e-nuff.co.uk/blogs/news?page=1 https://tug-e-nuff.co.uk/blogs/news/six-reasons-to-give-your-dog-a-massage Go back to the training and try to improve it – don’t expect it to be perfect – accept small wins and build on them.
Responsibility and Independence Take on a new responsibility at home – for example, become the person who plans the menus for the family meals; ask Mummy and Daddy what responsibility you can take on to help all the family. Think about your strengths and weaknesses and how you can effectively realise this new responsibility; push yourself when you think you are flagging and want to give up.
Personal Organisation, Resilience and Responsibility Learn spellings for our Owl Spelling Challenge - Bronze, Silver or Gold. Use the Look, Cover, Write and Check method or try teaching the spellings to someone else so you learn as they do. Sit the challenge online next term; dates coming soon.
Independence, Evaluation and Personal Organisation Learn the times tables you still find hard; write out the tables on sticky notes and stick them around the house – say them aloud whenever you see them. Test yourself and go back to the beginning if you make a mistake.
Independence, Evaluation and Personal Organisation Use Atom Learning at least once a week; look at your scores and try to improve on them. Your tutor will also be looking at your scores and encouraging you to go back over the areas where you did not score so well. Try to set targets for yourself.

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About Charlotte Weatherley

Charlotte Weatherley is assistant head at Knighton House School in Dorset.