Leadership series: Adapting our curriculum delivery during school closures
In the latest addition to our leadership series, Advantage Schools’ Director of Education Sallie Stanton lays out how she uses different types of knowledge to adapt her schools’ curriculum, and prepare for remote provision.
20 March 2020 is a date unlikely to be forgotten by anyone working in a school. The weeks leading up to it were the strangest and most challenging I have experienced: the rising anxiety; the efforts to reassure children; the increasing rates of absence; the growing awareness that school closures were inevitable.
By the following Monday, I found myself at home trying to work out how we would continue to educate hundreds of children whilst our schools were closed.
Much was said about what leaders needed to be. Motivated. Optimistic. Compassionate. All worthy qualities indeed, but just deciding to be something wouldn’t enable me to do what was needed.
I wanted guidance. I wrote a blog about the difficulty of making decisions in a situation that was completely new, and felt that I needed a handbook – but that nobody had written one yet.
I remember the sense of vertigo that led me to feel this way, but now – despite the still shifting sands – I and many others have found we are navigating our way through. Here, I will consider the role that formal, informal and impressionistic knowledge (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993) played in guiding my leadership of curriculum delivery across our trust at the time of school closures.
The interplay between formal, informal and impressionistic knowledge in solving a persistent problem
Here are some beliefs I share with colleagues across our schools(1):
- An effective curriculum is well sequenced and coherent with new content building on prior learning.
- Procedural knowledge needs to be broken down into its constituent parts. Teacher explanations, modelling and scaffolding, partnered with a strong feedback loop, whereby the teacher assesses and responds to pupil understanding, are crucial when introducing new knowledge.
Helen Timperley’s 'Work' (2011) identified that effective school leaders were able to help teachers translate this type of formal knowledge about teaching and learning into practice. In the context of the pandemic, I would need to help teachers translate our shared understanding of effective practice into the new context of teaching remotely.
We agreed our teachers would not deviate too far from the planned curriculum without careful thought for the consequences, as this would mess up the sequencing and decision-making that had already gone into long-term planning. However, forging ahead with the curriculum by simply sending resources home and setting the same tasks we may have planned for in school wouldn’t work either.
If we could expect pupils to master new material without the expert help of their teacher, we wouldn’t need schools in the first place.
I directed teachers to review their curriculum plans and resources with these issues in mind. Because our professional learning curriculum has nurtured this shared body of knowledge, our education staff at all levels understood why this direction mattered. They could draw on their informal knowledge to consider what adaptations were needed to help children learn from home.
I suggested they approach their review in two stages, taking a ‘now’ and ‘later’ approach. The ‘now’ stage considered the kind of learning that could take place at home, and we quickly concluded this was most likely review, retrieval practice and practical application of previously taught knowledge and skills. If introducing any new content, teachers considered how misconceptions or gaps would be pre-empted, identified and addressed.
The ‘later’ phase focused on preparing for re-opening. We considered the implications of our revised curriculum on pupils’ return to school, deciding how to prioritise and sequence the remaining content that needed teaching.
The role of impressionistic knowledge
Alongside this, I needed to consider how staff and pupils would respond to remote learning. Our schools have a good response rate to homework and a platform in place through which pupils and parents were used to communicating, so these became our defaults on which to set and gather work.
Our schools are set up to anticipate and reduce the impact of any disadvantage pupils may face, so we avoid setting homework that relies on IT access, our view being this could exclude some pupils. A consequence is that the teaching and learning in our schools does not require much IT knowledge – something that was not ordinarily a problem, but in the context of completing and submitting work online, could become so.
My impressionistic knowledge of our schools and staff led me to the opinion that, as an organisation, we lacked technical expertise, but that our staff would try their best to bridge the gap between themselves and their pupils. I worried this would lead to teachers using an array of platforms leaving pupils confused, cognitively overloaded and alienated. If we were to manage this successfully, our community would need some guidance.
I organised a voluntary working group of teachers to investigate technology that could help us and develop guidance for pupils and staff on how this would work. The result was a list of tried-and-tested platforms, and advice on how to use them and for which aspect of teaching each platform would be most useful.
It is only now that I look back that I can analyse what guided our actions. Yes, we were highly motivated to make it work. We were optimistic about what we could achieve. I like to think we showed compassion to staff and pupils in how we went about it. But essentially, our knowledge of education, our organisation and our people meant we managed to write the handbook I needed.
We had good engagement from our pupils through lockdown with 85-90% of pupils across our trust submitting work online, the remaining being contacted regularly by the school with paper-based learning provided.
The real challenge was to measure the quality and variability of learning taking place at home. Our curriculum review and approach to teaching responsively, with formative assessment embedded in every lesson, has meant pupils have been able to return to learning quickly without losing more time to baselining assessments.
We have also built on our experiences over lockdown by providing additional training on remote teaching. As a result, staff in both schools were well prepared from re-opening to switch to individual, partial or complete remote provision. Pupils have been taught what to do if they are learning from home and have practised online lessons in their classrooms with the guidance of their teacher.
Whilst I don’t think it is possible to fully pandemic-proof our provision, there is a shared confidence that we are as ready as we can be for the challenges that lie ahead.
Documents that further outline this process, including our Remote Learning Handbook, can be found here.
(1) Our understanding of curriculum is influenced by the work of a number of people, in this case most especially E.D. Hirsch, Jr and Christine Counsell. Our shared understanding of teaching and learning draws on a range of sources including the work of Dan Willingham, Dylan Wiliam, Daisy Christodoulou, Harry Fletcher Wood and The Learning Scientists.
Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M., (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago, IL: Open Court
Timperley, Helen (2011) Knowledge and the Leadership of Learning, Leadership and Policy in Schools, 10:2, 145-170, DOI: 10.1080/15700763.2011.557519
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