Delivering ‘more, but faster’ is not what the evidence advises about improving learning, writes Tim Oates
The development of a national approach to “learning after interruption” has been controversial.
There are plenty of headline grabbing suggestions about what we might do, but it’s tricky to all at once hold in our heads everything we need to do.
It’s one of those intimidating “hyper-problems”.
Simply extending learning hours and doing more of the same is not going to address the scale or nature of the problem.
‘Reduce teacher load’
To start with, we need to acknowledge that teachers have been affected just as much as learners. Surveys tell us that staff are exhausted.
They have had to undertake one of the most pressured transformations of learning ever seen in peacetime.
So we need to aim at approaches which are manageable and ultimately reduce teacher load, not increase it.
The next thing is controversial. We need to attend to learners’ workloads to reduce the burden on teachers.
Learning happens in the changed knowledge, skills and behaviours of each young person. It is their learning. To achieve this, they will need to work in a focussed and effective way.
And we know that this learning consists of four things: high quality contact time, social learning, quiet reflection, and self-study.
In other words, we need to focus not just on what colleges and schools need to do, but on what students need to do too.
‘Start with learning habits not content’
So…what does research tell us about the action we should take?
John Hattie did a fascinating analysis of education in New Zealand after the interruption to learning following the Christchurch earthquake in 2011.
It shows how dedicated action managed to elevate educational standards above where they would have stood had the interruption to education not occurred.
Research has also looked at approaches in Louisiana (after Hurricane Katrina) and those supported by the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but our starting point should not be content gaps: we know that even high attaining students tend to focus on subjects which they enjoy or are committed to.
Initial action should attend to decay in learning habits and changes in learning dispositions. And we must identify any welfare and safeguarding matters and address them.
Yes, tests can be stressful, but with good support they can be extremely helpful.
Accurately determining problems by using dependable tests of reading age, mathematics and by examining samples of writing can inform swift and effective action.
Monitoring learning and acting immediately on misconceptions is also essential.
My long-held view is that we need to flood the system with high quality questions and use them throughout contact time and self-study.
‘Target core concepts’
Failure to master core concepts in subjects can cause accumulated confusion and a lack of wider understanding of the subject. And that in turn ramps up teacher workload.
Experienced teachers are highly skilled at developing accessible and exciting approaches to learning these core elements. It’s what they excel at.
‘Use complex language and good textbooks’
The work of the late neuroscientist Jane Mellanby shows that complex language (such as “…what would happen if that were not the case…”) encourages development of reasoning and analysis, accelerating learning across the whole of the curriculum.
Some young people are never exposed to such language outside college or school – so it’s essential that it is present in education.
Here at Cambridge Assessment we are surveying research on textbooks and it’s clear from the evidence from high performing systems that they still have a valuable role.
Teachers can refer students to a key section or a defined task to be done. Students can go back over things or look forward. Textbooks are not to be underestimated.
‘Aim to improve, not just recover’
All of this moves us away from doing “the same, only faster” or “the same, but for a longer day”.
It is all heavily evidence-driven and geared towards a leaner, more focussed workload for teachers.
And it holds the potential for something special. Not just helping those most affected by interrupted learning, but actually improving both equity and attainment.