Beyond "recovery": Moving forward with secondary teaching and learning

Neil Jones, NACE Associate

In the context of “recovering” teaching and learning at secondary level, I want to suggest that the principles of working with the most able learners remain the same. The crisis – as crises do – has provoked polarised responses: Tiggerish optimism about opportunities to change the way education works on the one hand; Eeyorish despair on the other, doubting whether anything can be recovered during or after this hiatus.

There is no doubt that this crisis has brought disasters with it for young people and their secondary education. But crises reveal, in a sharp and heightened way, what is already the case. It remains the case that schools need:

  1. To include the most able students explicitly in their thinking, for those students’ benefit and the benefit of all;
  2. To use current technology (the word “new” gives away how slow we can be), intelligently and responsively, to enable excellent work from the most able students, independently and collaboratively;
  3. To remember that teaching and learning, with the most able and with all students, is fundamentally a human relationship, not a consumer transaction.

Below are some suggestions that you may already be considering as you gear up to get back into the secondary classroom.

1. Take “accelerated learning” seriously – but don’t use it as “cramming”.

Tony Breslin, in the draft preface of his forthcoming book Lessons from Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 (Routledge, to be published end of 2020 / beginning of 2021), writes:

from a societal and educational standpoint, post-virus rehabilitation is not about how quickly we can get back to where we were. Nor is it about reconstituting our schools in the image of ‘crammer’ colleges, obsessed by catch-up and curriculum recovery, as if all the last few months have left us with is a shortcoming in knowledge and a loss of coverage.

This is an important point, worth serious reflection. Teachers and most parents will understandably be anxious to make up for lost time and lost learning, particularly those whose children and students are at the pinch points of transition between key stages. Breslin continues:

Rather, it is about how far we can travel in light of our shared experience, and the different educational and training needs that will surely manifest themselves in the years ahead. It is also about acknowledging those longstanding shortcomings at the heart of our schooling and education systems, around persistent inequalities of outcome, around the need to build inclusion and attainment alongside each other rather than posing them as different and sometimes conflicting opposites, and around attending to the wellbeing of children, their families and all who support their learning – as if we could build a sustainable education system without doing this.

Most teachers would agree, surely, with the wisdom here. “Cramming” or force-feeding our students course content as if we were fattening geese, would be horribly stressful, and pedagogically ineffective in the long term. Yet there is an opportunity for us, instead of “cramming”, to take accelerated learning very seriously indeed.

In his article exploring current priorities and opportunities for primary schools, NACE Associate Dr Keith Watson highlights Mary Myatt’s insistence on professionals paring back course content to the essentials. He is, of course, right to point out the dangers of narrowing the curriculum even further. As an English teacher, I understand why the GCSE exam boards have elected to remove poetry from the exams, but it chills my blood to think of the lost potential for thought, feeling and understanding that this represents – particularly for our more able students.

I do wonder, though, whether we now have an opportunity to introduce just a little more urgency – but not panic – into teaching and learning. Accelerated learning strategies aim to achieve both inclusion and attainment in learning, in the ways that NACE has advocated for so many years: help your most able students to go as far as they can; teach to the top, support from the bottom, and so on. This approach should still be used; we will just have to use it on less material. Don’t over-rehearse, i.e. don’t plan to teach new Year 10 students six months of missed Year 9 course content first. Do over-learn, with regular, no-stakes tests to embed knowledge and build confidence and mastery. Crucially, teach what needs to be taught now and scaffold knowledge and skills “just in time.”

A document that has garnered interest, originating from the US, is the Learning Acceleration Guide published by TNTP. Like anything, you’ll not want to swallow it wholesale, but it does give a range of sensible suggestions, including those set out above. The main thrust is that we should not panic about teaching new material, as if the students will never be ready for it. Instead, teaching new and necessary material, if scaffolded, can prompt memory of previous learning and help students “catch up” by stealth, rather than by “remedial action” that brings their learning up to speed to where they should have been, rather than where they could be now. This is clearly a leading attribute of the challenging classroom at any time in history, pre- or post-COVID.

2. Be bold with remote learning – “homework” could be transformed.

You may have found yourself cursing Zoom, Loom, Vidyard, Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom at several stages over lockdown; or you may have been excited to learn how to use them, because you had to. Most likely, like me, you felt both. But I can’t complain any longer that I don’t have time to learn about “flipped learning”. For those students with access to a laptop, we should continue to experiment with how far we can enable students to work independently and with each other. Again, this is an opportunity for us to make a virtue of necessity.

At our school, and I’m sure at yours, our departments have put in place planning and resources that can be both taught in the classroom and remotely. A lot of labour has been put into producing packs of work. For the more able students, however, we mustn’t stop offering exciting invitations to push their interest further.

For the last two years, I’ve been able to group the most able students by subject and year cohort and set them up to research and write up their own projects, guided by their interest. I have been impressed and inspired by how well I could trust students to be “entrepreneurial” in their independent work, supported pretty minimally by caring subject specialists, but a lot by each other. We use Microsoft Teams to enable this, and I would point you to Amy Clark's blog post on this topic for further possibilities in using Teams. See too, the recorded NACE webinar on using technological platforms to develop independence (member login required).

Our students, in these times and in all times, should be putting in at least as much creative labour as their teachers. A remarkable result of more enforced student independence is how much more we can trust them to adapt, re-combine and invent new responses to the information and tasks we give them. Many students, at all key stages, are adept at using technology in a way that most of their teachers haven’t been.

Consider, too, how you can use technology to gather student voice so that you know how your most able students are faring; and even better, garner suggestions from them of how they would like to extend the curriculum, so that they feel they have a say in the direction of educational travel. As always, these students’ insights into their experiences of teaching and learning bring us priceless information on what’s going well and what’s not. Online platforms make this process so much easier now.

3. “Humanity first” – but that doesn’t necessarily mean “teaching second”.

Barry Carpenter’s work on the very notion of a “recovery curriculum” has received widespread coverage among school leaders and teachers. At one stage in his talk for the Chartered College of Teaching, Carpenter urged teachers to “walk in with your humanity first, and your teaching skills second.” In the context of the therapeutic, wellbeing-centred vision for recovery from the shocks and anxieties of the last year, this clearly makes sense. With more able students in mind, however, and especially the exceptionally able students we teach, we must remember that study is an intrinsic part of their humanity: they are one and the same thing.

Again, then, crisis reveals what is already present. Our more able students will still need to know, in their relationships with their teachers and with supportive peers, that it is cool to be clever, interesting to be interested, exciting to be excited by the discoveries involved in learning. They do not need to be glum, or despair that they have stopped learning, because we can be confident that we are always learning if we have a mind to, and seek – as Dr Matthew Williams advocates – to turn work into study.

Those interesting questions that we pose; that palpable delight in our own subject interest; those personalised phrases of praise; the hints and foretastes of exciting future study and work – all those confident connection-points with our more able students are always vital, and continue to be so as we all move forward into an uncertain “first term back”. I found at the end of the summer term, teaching small bubble-groups of sixth formers, that they were desperate to talk and explore what was going on. So was I! This is clearly no surprise. The teaching skill required here will be to move between the personal and the abstract, as it always is in pedagogy worth the name.

Our most able students often think and feel things at a greater intensity. Managing this intensity with the general intensity of the overall experience of socially distanced schooling will take skill and humanity – but we as teachers are not in uncharted waters here: it is what we do under normal circumstances, too.

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