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The last ten weeks of school closures are full of lessons and reminders. It has been a time when schools have had to shift from compliance to innovation. The discomfort of many has been apparent, not least with technology.
It is well established that technology can greatly assist teachers and learners, but only when the implementation has been well led. It is equally well known that if you simply use digital to imitate analogue pedagogy you are doomed to failure.
We have been reminded of both during this pandemic crisis.
Our school system rewards school leaders who comply with the rules, the standard plans, and generate the right data. No wonder some ‘outstanding’ schools have floundered when asked to find their own innovative ways to continue to educate isolated and vulnerable children.
The world in isolation has been forced online. So too have schools. The response is so varied that it is small wonder that some are using the result to confirm their pre-existing bias against technology.
But I have seen wonderful practice.
First, as the Prime Minister is discovering, in a crisis communication is king. If you need to build and maintain trust then be transparent. Be clear what you know and don’t know, and what your plans are to deal with the risks and major issues. Communicate with your whole community constantly.
One headteacher I have spoken to has been recording a video every day for her whole school community. She hates it, but knows how effective it has been in nurturing a strong community. Inside that community parents, pupils and staff feel safe and confident.
Wellbeing has been a preoccupation for many of us.
Some have followed advice that teachers should not have live video chat with pupils for safeguarding reasons. Others have understood the concerns and worked around them to improve wellbeing. My friend Rachel’s school has a daily chat for each class on Microsoft Meetings each morning, and live story time at the end of every school day.
These are obvious examples of using communication technology to reduce isolation, and increase community. Other good uses of technology include using timetabling software to plan a very different school after re-opening, and seating plan software to manage social distancing.
But what of the actual learning?
At the start of this crisis I was hugely concerned that those already behind in learning would fall even further back. These are more likely to be in households with limited access to suitable devices and connectivity.
The Sutton Trust study has shown these fears are well founded. The advantage gap is being magnified by the digital divide, and the government ‘s efforts on this have been too little, too late. If they had not cancelled the Home Access scheme ten years ago we would not be in this place.
Given where we are, I advocate for a focus on those children who are being hardest hit. If social distancing means we can’t bring all pupils back, then bring back those who most need school and a professional teacher. The rest of us will have to manage with online lessons and intelligent technology.
At home, our eight-year-old has enjoyed her English, maths and science on Century, an AI learning platform. It knows how to scaffold her knowledge, fill in the gaps and give the feedback she needs to keep her motivated. It is only an hour a day but it covers the basics.
Others have used platforms like Google Classroom to continue to run a timetable and deliver lessons. This is not exclusive to private schools and need not be a retreat into didactic lecturing.
I have been most inspired by Shonogh Pilgrim, whose Somerset school has been using technology for some years to build the capability of pupils to take more control of their own learning. This investment over four years meant they were well equipped for lockdown. The structure of a timetable is welcomed, the vast majority join line lessons but they are not-compulsory. Their assessment is that they have lost very little learning during lockdown.
As our schools grapple with the uncertainty of social distancing, technology has to be part of the future of teaching and learning.
Technology isn’t a silver bullet but it offers a solution that I hope will endure. It is flexible, it can be individual, it can capture insights for teachers and it can harness the power of parents. We now need a focus on how to support school leaders and teachers to use it effectively and in balancing teaching time in schools. Then we can continue to have a great schooling service for children empowered at home and with teachers and parents working in alliance.
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