Can we make school more like university?

Some years ago I went into a school as a lead practitioner in maths. Finding a very shaky grasp of the essentials among year 11s a few months before GCSE, I devised large lectures for the bulk of the year-group. These were short but contained what, in my opinion, were the absolute fundamentals.  They identified key methods and set out a common language so that the rest of the department could follow up consistently with their classes. As lead, I had to deliver my lecture first, but rapidly brought the others along to do their sessions, which they were keen to do. The pressure is great – when talking to 100+ people, which mainstream teachers rarely do, your messaging needs to be spot on. It might take several hours to prepare a short lesson segment….but then this is scaled up as you do several people’s work simultaneously when you deliver.

At University, my lectures were packed with 400 budding engineers. This large group size did not hinder learning as the talented Dr Young explained the intricacies of mechanical structures. Some years later as a VSO teacher in East Africa, I was faced with classes of 80, learning pretty well. At the other end of the scale, I have led tiny classes of further maths and done my share of private tutoring, one-to-one.

So why are school classes 30?

I guess this just evolved over the years, driven by economics and politics to be the smallest we could reasonably afford. This is unlikely to change without a radical rebuilding programme.

A while back, I worked with a group designing a free school. Rather than rooms for 30, we created flexible spaces – partition walls which could be added or removed to create classrooms for 5, 150 or anything in between.  It was a luxury to be able to design in such flexibility and one which most school, leaders never have.  Those partitions are incredibly expensive!

Then came the lockdown.

COVID has created real hardship and misery and immense pressure on the education system. My school, Canary Wharf College, has always enjoyed a huge range of trips and activities, many of which were sadly postponed or cancelled.

However, out of the requirement to teach remotely comes incredible opportunity. 

During the autumn term, our year 4 and 5 classes needed to isolate for a period of weeks and I worked with those teachers with the aim of creating the “gold standard” of remote learning. This was distilled into the remote learning policy, adopted across our MAT and which, in the nick of time, was ready for the January lockdown.

The morning kicks off with a whole-class live session, with safety routines in place. The activity is explained with a chance to ask questions; these sessions are really too big for much interaction, but it sets the scene. 

Differentiated work is then published – we have found Seesaw to be most effective – and children work on this for some hours.  

There may be further live introductory sessions later in the day for other subjects, or maybe recorded video or links to a website.

Each piece of work has a submission deadline, at which point teaching assistants download it for marking.  We have directional marking – personalised comments explaining what went well and what will need to happen next. The child is then directed to a short tutorial session – a small group, set up as an online meeting, led by a teacher or teaching assistant. Within each session, pupils have similar needs, allowing staff to target the learning and prevent anyone from hiding. When devising this method, in my mind was, again, the highly effective university model.

The final ingredient of the mix is the helpdesk. Particularly in maths, the helpdesk is an online open meeting, run by staff, where pupils can drop in individually or in pairs if they get stuck. 

This model has worked really well, both in the autumn term isolations and throughout the first half of spring. As a school leader, I can drop in on lessons or tutorials, inspect pupils’ submitted work and quickly conference with teachers.  On several occasions, I have advised one-to-one sessions for a student struggling with understanding, organisation or motivation. The unique thing about this model is its great flexibility.

So where do we go from her? What would be great is if every child attended school with a tablet computer and headphones so they could experience a similarly flexible and individualised approach to their learning. If you must have 30 in the same room, they really don’t all have to be doing the same thing. 

The lecture or webinar model is really powerful.  It is a highly efficient way to teach, so long as it is followed up in smaller groups later. Why not combine all the classes in a year-group for these sessions? If you are in MAT or LEA, let the lead teachers, the best teachers, teach hundreds of pupils at a time…building in succession planning so that others get a turn at delivering.  These can be showcases for teacher training.  Experts do not need to be based in a single school – they can be anywhere….in the world.

For the first time, the unthinkable has happened. Teachers and pupils do not need to be in the same physical space. The significance of this cannot be over-emphasised.

The question now is whether school leaders are brave enough to grab these valuable practices learned in the lockdown to really shift the paradigm in education.

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