One of the questions schools asked themselves during lockdown was: what would time away from school do to independent learning? ‘Independent learning’ has been something of a Holy Grail of schools for over a decade, and there was one school of thought which said that despite all the terrible disadvantages of children not being in school through the summer months, one tiny sliver of a silver lining was that they were bound to get better at independent learning.
Another much-publicised aspect of mass home learning during the summer months was how many parents across the country (probably across the world) came to realise how challenging the business of education is, how much time there is in a child’s day which needs to be filled. And many schools were criticised for the lack of active learning opportunities, something that we of course did our utmost to provide.
Back now in the classroom in numbers, not just at Whitgift but across the country, how are children responding? Well on the one hand there's been a huge thirst for traditional teaching and learning. Teachers have been saying how wonderful they find it to be back in the energy and buzz of a classroom. Pupils are clearly enjoying being part of the social business of learning, not left to their own devices. On the other hand, during lockdown some fascinating individual projects were pursued by Whitgiftians. Just one amongst many was some extraordinary research into Coleridge done by a third former and which I was privileged to read a few days ago.
But of course a new concept (new at least to most parents I guess) approaches too: ‘blended learning’ - as students across the country are required to self-isolate, often in small numbers, and are being taught live at home what their peers are taught live in school. And this ‘blended’ learning (the blend being of real school and virtual school) presents issues – naturally - to teachers, though I must say that ours are brilliantly adaptable as always, and are where necessary doing just this blend.
What is interesting though, is how both the blended learning and the full lockdown lead us to reflect on the question: how active do teacher and pupil need to be in a good, or better still a great lesson? I learned recently that one well known independent school has installed webcams in all classrooms so that the teachers teaching can be broadcast all the time to anybody at home, but that seems to me to imply something which I don't think to be true.
You see, a camera in the classroom implies a performance: the teacher as actor, as centre of attention, and that the observers are watching a performance, and even that their (passive) watching is all that's needed for it to be a great lesson. Our approach (where possible) is to make enough of the lesson available live for the pupils both at home and in school to be guided in their learning, but for them to do most of the work.
Years ago I was told by a very wise colleague that the best lessons weren't necessarily the ones in which the teacher worked hardest, but the ones in which the pupils did. It's ok for the pupils to get on with something independent, individually, helped by a teacher, guided by each other, supported by the group learning, but working hard themselves. Real ‘blended learning’ should be the blend of teacher input – inspiration, high energy and high challenge - and pupil work: stretching himself to the limit, pushing himself, active not passive.