You had to be there

School (as we know it) is the best way we have come up with so far for the mass education of the nation’s youth, given the level of resource we choose to allocate to it. However, it is far from perfect. There are significant constraints that arise from the logistics of having children all in the same place for days on end. It is important to recognise the imperfections of our model for educating children, particularly when you are thrown into a period of school closure and you suddenly have to try to keep ‘school’ going, but without being at school. An ‘at-home’ schooling model will be inferior, but we might be able to avoid some of the sub-optimal things that have to happen when children are physically present.

Many schools, given twenty-four hours to react to the school closure notice, started by setting work according to the school timetable. This made absolute sense: it is a pattern by which you can quickly ensure teachers and students know what work will be set, and when. However, school timetables are severely constrained by having to place students  in group sizes which are economically viable, fit in the available classrooms and can be feasibly taught by one teacher. The length of the lesson is only standard because you need all the children doing something for the same amount of time, before moving around the school to another lesson. These lessons fall one after the other, so that the time in school can be kept to a minimum and so children aren’t hanging around for too long. Some schools will have more flexibility – staggered start and finish times, extended days, split lunches, single and double lessons, free periods for older students – but these are proof that the school timetable is a bit of a pain.

Why would we assume that five, one-hour lessons delivered to groups of 25-30 children is a model we would adopt if we didn’t have to?

Imagine what a more optimal arrangement might be for just one subject, if the physical constraints were no longer a barrier. A maths teacher might say that 30 minutes a day on maths was preferable to one hour lessons a few times a week. They might typically need to model a mathematical approach (this may take 10 minutes), whereby they need to talk very clearly and show their working. During this time they want students to just sit and listen. It doesn’t matter whether it is five or one hundred students (or the entire nation’s children for that matter), because this part of the lesson is delivering, not interacting. Perhaps the teacher might even not be the best person to deliver this micro-teaching episode – it may be an inexperienced teacher thrown into teaching Further Maths at A Level, and they might be better watching a more experienced colleague deliver this part of the lesson. Next, students need to practice the technique. They are likely to get stuck, so now the optimal model changes: the teacher will need to share their time between students to work out what they are struggling to understand. This will require a higher teacher:student ratio, so we would draft in lots more teachers for this part of the lesson.

Of course, none of the above is possible, because we have to allocate a teacher to a room with a fixed group of children for a universal period of time. Lessons are an imperfect solution to the problem of how to teach the curriculum.

The above example also hints at other desirable possibilities which are constrained by our model of schooling. The first constraint is a limit to the division of labour. Teachers specialise in their jobs to an extent, particularly in secondary schools. We have our subject specialism and age-groups we are more experienced at teaching. We can set up a school to an extent to gain the benefits of specialisation: we minimise the amount of non-specialist teaching, and think carefully about which teachers we might place with which group of students. However, in another way, teachers are required to be generalists. They must all be able to ‘teach a lesson’. But teaching a lesson requires a broad range of skills: choosing or designing teaching materials, sequencing the curriculum, structuring the lesson, choosing or designing tasks for students, assessing work, behaviour management or addressing special educational needs, to name a few. Generalists, unsurprisingly, are not as effective as specialists simply because they do not spend as much time practicing specific things. We try to gain some of the benefits of specialisation and expertise by providing the teacher with a well-designed scheme of work and access to shared resources, but these are work-arounds. What benefits might we gain if we could split the job of ‘teaching a lesson’ down further so we could target our most expert teachers to address the different aspects of the lesson. What economies of scale might be possible? What might we actually out-source to an organisation outside of the school?

Imagining how we might do things differently if the limitations imposed by our physical presence in a school were removed is difficult because the model of schooling we subscribe to is so ingrained in us. However, before we suggest that the best model for schooling during the lock-down is to mimic as closely as possible the way schools operate when they are open, we should acknowledge and consider what aspects of schooling are only there because they have to be.

It is worth re-iterating at this point that I am not arguing that trying to school children whilst we are not in the same location is desirable. Despite all the constraints above, the benefits of ‘school’ as we know it are worth the sacrifices and sub-optimal methods we find ourselves implementing. To get anywhere near good quality schooling, you have to be there.

When I hear arguments for live, online teaching of the timetable that students would have been slave to had they been in school, it sounds absurd to me. These ‘lessons’ would not be able to replace many of the features of a real classroom environment, whilst they would replicate all the undesirable constraints under which we normally operate. We should be clever in how we do this, but to be clever we need time to think. This is why I believe that the schools who have kept it simple by setting tasks for students to complete, rather than rushing to live-stream their usual lessons, might end up delivering a better quality of education in the long term, should this dreadful situation persist.

How might we benefit from some of the things which are denied us by logistical constraints of school?

Rather than every teacher in the country deliver an explanation of how to solve simultaneous equations, tell the story of the Battle of Berlin, or demonstrate water-colour painting techniques, why doesn’t just one teacher do this really well? It would be far more efficient, and the delivery could be practised, re-recorded and edited. Rather than deliver this live, why don’t we have this available on-demand, to watch and re-watch at the time it is needed? This is the logic behind the Oak Academy who have rapidly mobilised expert teachers to deliver teaching episodes.

Even within a school, the benefits of specialisation and the division of labour can be gained. We might have one teacher set the work for an entire year group or one teacher create the on-line assessment task. Why don’t we play around with class size? For A Level groups, it may be preferable to have one ‘lecture’ a week for 80 Biology students, followed by a task and online tutorials in smaller groups. The benefits of such alternative models is we can tailor them to our staffing profile and personal circumstances. If you have one teacher with great broadband connection and no kids of their own to look after, target them to create and upload mini-teaching episodes, whilst their colleague who can only work a few hours in the evening might design some assessment tasks, and another who relates well to particular students might create a support group. Unconstrained by the one teacher – one room – 30 kids model, there may be better ways of dividing work and groups of children.

I have no idea whether the above ideas would work. What I do know is that the preferred model will be different, subtly or significantly, between contexts. These solutions need to be agreed locally, according to the school context and the circumstances each department find themselves in. There is no optimal model – no perfect solution – just ways that might work better given the challenges we face. I also know that making this the best it can be will take time. Schools need to evolve towards a model of schooling during lock-down, not design and implement, or have one forced on them from above. The measure of our success will be whether we make these changes sensitively and without too much collateral damage, not according to how quickly we ‘copied and pasted’ normal school routines and structures.

Why are some commentators getting this so wrong? One might assume it is a failure of imagination, or lazy thinking: assuming a carbon copy of what they imagine schools do is preferable, and that the speed at which schools have implemented this is a measure of their success. However, I believe it is a failure of knowledge. Those making this mistake don’t understand the complex dynamics of schooling as well as they think they do. I can forgive a parent falling into this trap, but I find it difficult to be so tolerant when it is someone who should know better (say, an ex-Schools Minister), particularly when they demean and attack the profession for this perceived failure. I always try to remember that if peoples’ intentions are good, I should not be too critical if I disagree with them over method. However, in this case I doubt pure intentions, and the assumptions about schools’ ineptitude and laziness are very unpleasant.

Anyway, if you’ve missed this storm then don’t worry about it. You had to be there.

One thought on “You had to be there

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