Top down education? Or should we listen to our children?

Gavin Williamson thinks we should go back to teaching children in rows. That is all well and good but will it help with their learning?

During lockdown, I wrote a blog celebrating the creative approach that many pupils have adopted outside the familiar school structure. Despite having limited guidance from their teachers and working in very different conditions, they have managed to cope and often thrive, gaining greater independence and control over what they choose to study.

Towards the end of June, many of these children returned to their classrooms for a few weeks and I was keen to find out what the Rode Heath contingent had gained from their experience of learning at home. The vast majority had been absent for over three months from full time education and would have had plenty of chance to reflect on the positives and negatives of not being at school.

What is the best learning environment?

As educators we have a responsibility to provide the best learning environment for our pupils so we should take the opportunity to listen to what they have to say on that topic.

To try and find out more, I put together a brief survey, which asked four basic questions:

  • Can you tell me 3 things that you liked about being able to learn at home and 3 things that you didn’t like?
  • Can you tell me 3 things that made learning at home different from learning at school?
  • If there was work that you found difficult, how did you find out the answer without a teacher being there to help?
  • Do you think that the way in which you learn something can help you to remember it better? If so, what is the best way for you to learn?

As all children hadn’t returned to school, the survey was set as a Home Learning task, which pupils either completed in school or at home. Altogether, it was done independently by 62 KS2 pupils out of a potential cohort of 116 – 32 of the respondents were girls and 30 were boys. There were also a handful of Y2 children who answered the questions in class – (7 boys and 4 girls).

As the questions were qualitative in nature, there was a broad range of answers; however, there were several themes that kept reoccurring. As ‘sticky knowledge’ is such a hot topic nowadays, I was particularly interested to discover whether children were able to reflect on whether learning from home had positively impacted their memory. If so, then replicating their experiences in the classroom would surely be worth doing.

The need for a quiet atmosphere

Most children, particularly girls, appeared to like working in a peaceful environment. Although they certainly missed their friends, being able to concentrate was thought to be a good thing.

A flexible way of working

We know that children have different needs and one rule does not fit all. The survey painted a clear picture of children welcoming the new flexibility that the home learning offered. They particularly appreciated being able to take their time over subjects that interested them and found it much more useful being able to choose the order in which to carry out their tasks. This view applied equally to girl and boy respondents. Many children enjoyed being able to make decisions about how they recorded their work too, which was clearly evident in the wealth of creativity that was displayed, particularly in science.

Teachers are essential to learning

The good news is that although parents were overwhelmingly the source of help during lockdown – with Alexa only being mentioned once – children felt that having a teacher to guide and explain things was definitely the best option.

Unfortunately, opinions as to the best methods of retaining learning were more sketchily drawn. This may have been due to not understanding the question properly, or simply that the children found it difficult to be reflective. There were some interesting individual comments however, with these elements considered important:

  • getting things wrong
  • doing hands-on activities
  • keeping notes
  • persevering and having more time to digest
  • keeping things simple
  • collaborating with others

One Year 6 pupil even stated that the fact that he had learned in such strange circumstances – i.e. lockdown – would make it much easier to remember everything. Probably rather dramatic as a strategy though!

One tic-tac or two?

The younger children – Year 2 – enjoyed having breaks when they liked and seemed particularly motivated by reward systems, with one child bemoaning the fact that there were no prizes as his mum was unaware of the star and pebble system, whilst another was satisfied with the occasional tic-tac.

All in all, the responses made very interesting reading – certainly food for thought going forward.

2020 has definitely been an unprecedented year and it is still unclear as to what will happen in the near future. Many schools will be running catch-up programmes from September and there will be a heavy focus on Literacy and Numeracy. But let us not forget that to learn effectively, children need to be inspired – not drilled. We need to encourage their curiosity and make them eager learners. Children tend to invest more time and energy in topics that motivate and interest them so we should provide a rich and varied curriculum that is relevant to their needs.


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