GCSEs and Leaky Buckets

Sometimes, expressing what you believe to be true to someone who holds an entirely different mental model for the territory in question is… frustrating. You want to say ‘But I don’t think it works like that’, but the matter in hand is so dependent on your personal perspective that it would be necessary to explore every assumption – track back every argument to its source – just to begin to make what feels to you to be an intuitively correct observation. From their perspective, I imagine the frustration is reciprocated: ‘What on earth are you talking about, man?’

This is how I find things when it comes to the question of how to help Year 10 students bounce back from being away from school. I choose my words carefully in even describing the topic of conversation. I cannot bring myself to say ‘catch up’: this is the language used by others – the ‘new bucket brigade’, as I will call them. They call for summer school, extended school days, one to one tuition and revision programmes. They see anything else as complacency. How might I understand their demands, and begin to convey a coherent reply?

Metaphor may be the shortcut to understanding our divergence of views. Let’s see.

If learning is like the simple filling of a pail, then the Year 10 bucket needs plenty of water poured in. In this view, we have curtailed the flow of knowledge over lockdown, leaving the bucket far less full than it should have been. We might imagine markings on the side of the bucket, labelled 9 to 1. By next summer, this bucket must be as full as it can be – get pouring!

But what if learning is more like a leaky bucket? As it fills, not all knowledge is retained – it spills, forgotten, onto the ground. Again, as we pour less into the bucket, the level drops. But as we once again return to ‘full flow’, the bucket begins to fill again; but now – behold – less of that knowledge leaks away and the bucket begins to fill more rapidly than before.

There is good reason to believe that, upon returning to school, many students’ buckets will be less leaky. Perhaps they will have become more appreciative of how much easier it is to be taught than to be left to study with limited instruction? They are likely to value the time they have left before their exams more, and understand how precious this time is. Many will have learnt to be more independent and resourceful, more skilled at working it out for themselves. Some might just feel a little more pressured, and ‘get serious’ just that little bit sooner in Year 11.

Teachers will also likely get much better at plugging leaks. With what shall I plug them (dear Liza, dear Liza), I hear you sing. With plenty of retrieval practice and focused teaching of key content, I would respond. And there is plenty of extraneous detail, superfluous flourish and tangential story telling which could be trimmed along the way.

Lest we also forget that the markings on the side of the bucket are also likely to be moved downwards, as a result of assessment requirements being curtailed and the inevitable adjustment of grade boundaries given that everyone’s buckets will be slightly less full.

None of this is to say that a bit of extra input isn’t a good thing, and those who have struggled most in lockdown will need it particularly. But the new bucket brigade’s call to pour, pour, pour might just force the cracks wide open. Our message to students should be ‘make every second count’, not ‘fill every moment with work’.

If we fail to think this through, we might make this situation far more unpleasant than it already is for those nearing examinations. That would be beyond the pail.

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