Another lockdown and scrapped exams help drive the post-COVID-19 Open Schools (R)evolution

Most families have now experienced the joys and frustrations and frustrations of on-line learning and are longing for a return to “normal”. But schools have been closed again and GSCEs and A levels look set to be replaced by Teacher Supervised On-line assessments. Despite the stresses placed on teachers, parents and pupils/students the genie is out of the bottle. The experience of university lockdown means the latter will have to compete globally, not just via UCAS, for their 2021 intake.

Last August I carried a guest blog from Professor Adrian Oldknow, the thinker behind the STEM learning hubs on the way forward.

Below I am delighted to cover some thoughts on Open Schooling from Edward Vine.

Like Adrian, Edward has enjoyed over a half a century of teaching. His experience derives from being a member of a SLT, a Head of a Faculty of Science, Maths and Technology, Head of Physics, PRU lead in science and tec, Home-hospital tutor, “integrated STEaMplus” lead at an International College and a 2020 winner of NESTA Changemakers Award.

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The Drum beats driving the move towards Open On-line Schools

COVID has exposed our failure to bring education into the 21st century. The Open School idea is an ideal way of facilitating the best of both (online and face to face) as blended learning. However, it needs to be part of a wider change that encompasses youth provision and as part of creating an entirely Open Education system around the principle that learning is a lifetime quest and accessible to all.

Why is now the time for change to a different approach and pattern of thinking?

With the progress of IT, Education Technology/Software and the potential of AI and learning through Gaming we have the tools at a time when the world of work has woken up to the potential gains of blended working. We need the hardware, connectivity and Open Education frameworks to ensure support and secure delivery.

The effect of COVID on business, office work, meetings, webinars brought the issue of working remotely to the fore.

Online platforms responded at a rate of knots. People, software and organisations adapted and continue to adapt faster than ever before.

Children are probably more adaptable than most adults, it was once “how do you program your VHS recorder” and now it’s how to use the new classroom screen computer tec or run Khoot?

Ask an 8-year-old.

Before COVID, much of the capability of the software was already there previously but the ability of people to adapt was underestimated and organisations set in their ways.

Can you believe before COVID, people wasted 1, 2, 3 hours a day on commuting and days travelling internationally around the world?

Business has led the way, society and education can follow. Expectations and thinking have changed. Workers/ people have changed. Not commuting for 2 or 3 days a week is now an expectation and learning new skills to be as productive, if not more so, is now a norm in the adult world and hence the exodus from London.

Online is now almost a norm for many: it is part of the National DNA being handed down to children. Therefore, just as blended working is part of the everyday, so blended learning could be a natural progression. The one reinforces the other.

The Caveat is that schools also need to become community learning hubs, with the addition of much needed expansion of youth clubs in the daytime and evening, clubs that employ professional youth workers because:

  • Children need such exposure. They need sport, creative and social activities in settings that aren’t delivered as the typical taught lesson but in a different social environment delivered by people with life experiences that are wider and come from directions that are rich and varied
  • Our professionally constrained teachers are not equipped to deliver all that is needed
  • We need our children to be minded to allow mums and dads to work, period.
  • The absence of youth provision particularly in disadvantaged areas, with parents working in the gig economy, some single parents working two of three jobs or unemployed leaves a vacuum where crime and antisocial behaviours flourish.

There would be much to be gained from extending the Open School concept to include FE and HE and life-long learning as parts of an Open Education System. The recent moves to allocate funding and develop centres that support life-long learning might help the process.

The Open Education System:

The idea for a creation of school equivalent of the Open University with support hubs and a return to education as a collaborative activity between all institutions and teachers came before COVID: It evolved from our work on our iSTEAMplus projects, from meeting with teachers from a BT sponsored school in Birmingham where there were fewer formal classrooms, much on line and many hub areas, visiting the Bicester School Space Academy where the KS4 curriculum was shaped around integrated project based learning, the pupil/teacher response to Yacapaca in the UK and the way  Whitebox Learning is used to facilitate collaboration between schools and deliver quality online materials for use at home and in the classroom across the USA.

After COVID hit, it became clear that The Open School had the potential to facilitate blended learning and be able to step up rapidly in total lock down situations in this or any future pandemics.

Lockdown has revealed the potential pitfalls of purely working online, especially if teachers and resource sources haven’t the time or scope or frameworks to cope with the fact that children learn in ways that are different online than face to face: some better some worse depending upon the mode of delivery.  What it has also revealed is that there’s a vast untapped army of potential online tutors, retired teachers and those teachers who may have family or caring responsibilities that have meant they have had to drop out of in-school teaching.

Flexible Interdisciplinary and integrated project-based learning worked really well online, parts of lessons could be live, parts working in and with small groups, parts for independent learning. What stood out in whatever the mode of teaching style, integrated or not, was that students who normally held back questions in normal lessons started asking questions and engaging. They asked the questions that in front of peers in the classroom, they were too embarrassed to ask for fear that the questions were too simple or obvious, and probably the questions that many of them didn’t ask for the same reason.

Teachers are expert at covering these bases in lessons but what came out of this was that it became far easier to tailor materials and learning to the needs of individual students. ‘Normal’ in school lesson were also holding some students back.

What was clear was that the investment students make to their projects gave to many, ownership, raised motivation and flipped the learning. Students demanding to be informed to improve their project rather than teachers saying “I think you ought to learn X, y or z”.

Looking at the programme for this coming term at Hockerill, I can see that it is going to be really tough.

There is mass testing and COVID restrictions and quality online learning takes a great deal of time to prepare, especially as it’s a relatively new experience. It is not simply a matter of continuing to teach as normal in front of a camera or live “Teams”.

There is a tsunami of material we could use, that daily arrives in teachers’ inboxes so much so that they become as spam. There is just not enough time to filter and test. We need the Open School processes to do this and provide access to high quality courses and resources. Currently across the UK, we have thousands of teachers preparing much the same online lessons and assessments, a great duplication of energy, might it better to have a collaboration from all teachers with a team of core authors at The Open School dedicated to producing a range of adaptable accessible courses and materials?

There are problems with current educational training and teaching practices.

There are pedagogical issues that arise from our system and the training teachers. The Victorian batch production system doesn’t change and I’d venture to say that it’s because most teachers are products of the system that over the last 40 years that tends to produce subject siloed cloned approaches to learning, dictated the subject matter, lesson structure and style, discouraging creativity, lateral thinking & collaboration, whilst forcing competition and compliance.  We also have educationally dubious targets and a return from 1862 – 1897 of the imposed “payment by results” system of which Mr Gradgrind would no doubt be proud.

Taken together the secondary school system only caters for a limited range of learning styles and environments. It does not have the capacity to cope with the many different ways in which children learn and still less to develop integrated and lateral thinking to enable children to join the dots.

Teachers at KS3 haven’t the time and are nervous about even just looking over the fence into the next silo e.g., science to maths or DT.

We also could learn much from our KS2 teachers. Curiosity, creativity and time to reflect and revisit seem to have been squeezed out of the secondary system. The result is sterile courses, much repetition, little enthusiasm, too much grind and too few exciting, inspirational creative integrated courses. Learning should be fun or put another way, why shouldn’t learning be fun?

We have a situation where English teaching is more scientific in approach (evidence-based testing hypothesis) than science teaching, where there’s no time to investigate results and those that don’t fit are wrong.

We might do well to look at the IB and other ways to help develop soft skills (ref Keiran Ward LinkedIn “The 5% Club”), re Danish schooling best practice and SHRMs report 2019 State of the UK Workplace that highlights key skills like problem solving, innovation, creativity, communication that are developed via integrated learning projects and that are lacking in UK job candidates.

The other big issue is getting teachers, especially secondary school teachers to realise that students are far more capable of working independently and in teams on interdisciplinary projects than the secondary school traditions and assumptions allow. The result is, the Year 7 check in progress which may be the cause of rebellious year 9s, many of whom may also have their hormones to contend with.

As a previous governor in two primary schools, from I have seen in those schools and looking at the great results Georgina Mulhall and colleagues in Gosport have achieved and from what I have observed of my own 5 children at KS2 and KS3; I’d suggest there’s much to learn from the best KS2 practice. However, it seems that KS3 teachers have little opportunity to learn from their KS2 colleagues.

Other issues arise from government going OTT about rigor. Too much rigor = rigor mortis. OFSTED is turning senior teachers into inspectors rather than hands on, inspirational and involved team members.

The Open school movement could provide the opportunity to change this inspectorial stick model of education: more carrot and collaboration are needed.

We need to change the school environment and ways of learning and an environment where classroom teachers are more trusted and that allows secondary teachers to be more creative. Remember, one of the arguments put forward to justify the introduction of The National Curriculum and OFSTED was that teachers could not be trusted. Have the National Curriculum and OFSTED succeeded?  Do we have the skilled workforce we need, why are so many schools identified by OFSTED as failing and why are we still seeing questions about the prospects of children that come under the same title as the Newsom Report, “Half our Future”? 1963.

A ‘new’ approach with new tools:

Integrated multidisciplinary learning projects are not new, indeed there were many that arose when the school leaving age rose from 15 to 16 that went under the name of ROSLA projects and courses, some, like the one I was closely involved with in North London, were set up so that schools could work in partnership with local technical colleges.

What was striking then was that many students who weren’t previously tuned into school & exams and couldn’t wait to get into the world of work, often into family trades and small businesses, turned into star students. What turned them on, well for some building and racing go karts and motor vehicle engineering more than switched them, after all Lewis Hamilton, (not that he was a ROSLA student) didn’t do so bad with karts.

My point is that given the right project, new approaches to learning can transform motivation and what students can achieve: it’s remarkable how much science, maths, tec, environmental and social science can be brought into karting and motor vehicles studies projects, however, back then we did not have the IT capacity to further enhance the learning experience we have today.

My more recent work on integrated interdisciplinary learning projects began at Hockerill Anglo European College (Herts) in 2012 with Mission X: a project on Space backed by NASA, the UK Space Agency and which included The NASA International Arts project Youth in Space.

With their help and support from a wide range of people, particularly from Heather MacRae, now of The Ideas Foundation, and significant companies like Airbus, the project grew to extend the work of the stem subjects and to include, sport science and The Arts.

Over eight years we created a course that has embedded integrated stem learning into the normal taught curriculum: stem ceased to be regarded only as an after-school activity. Each year we also have whole day enrichment project activity days, again variously supported by engineers from Air Bus and year by year extended to include Polar Explorers, astronomers from Cambridge and leading research scientists from GSK and Universities such as Kings and Brunel universities.   The projects bring in other parts of the curriculum, e.g. PE, Geography and MFL and issues about well-being where relevant.

The most extensive project day was actually delivered online to a whole year group using Teams last June, during lockdown when we partnered with the International Space Habitats SciArtexchange project and Whitebox Learning to deliver our own iSTEAMplus course “Humans in Space” Enrichment day for year 7.

Hockerill is an International Baccalaureate school and the idea of interdisciplinary learning is part of the IB DNA so there are other integrated learning courses running, had it not been for COVID there was the prospect of delivering 5 days’ worth, 25 hours of “isteamplus” enrichment day projects this year to year 7 alone.

Now we are in lockdown again how many children or parents will survive 5 lessons a day, ‘live’ in many cases for some and just worksheets for others?

We have virtual headsets, videos and game formats available or waiting to be developed. The Open School is an opportunity to bring schools into the 21st Century with ed tec and AI.

We can have the one-to-one and small group subject tutorials whilst other students pursue their projects and we have the army of retired teachers who could be personal tutors helping students 24 x 7. There’s much we could do, let’s not limit the scope of our imagination and creativity nor the students’ imagination. Upward and onward, to infinity and beyond.



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