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Getting things back on track – How to negotiate those post-COVID knowledge gaps

Michael Chiles considers how schools’ experiences under lockdown could usefully inform their efforts at closing knowledge gaps, and lead to some welcome long-term changes...

  • Getting things back on track – How to negotiate those post-COVID knowledge gaps

The implications of 2020’s partial schools closure will be most profound for our Y10 and Y12 students. It’s their knowledge gaps that will be the most crucial to address, because of the important academic years they’re entering.

Schools will need to set up robust forms of communication between parents, teachers and the students themselves, and engage in open dialogue through different channels. These might involve telephone conversations or regular email communications; I know of some schools that set up remote ‘tutor group classrooms’ during lockdown to assist vulnerable students and help them engage more effectively with their online curriculums – there may a compelling case for continuing these well into the new school year.

The 80/20 approach

Among the more effective schools I’ve come across these last few months there’s been an acknowledgement that trying to teach students new concepts and processes at this unprecedented time was always going to be difficult. A pragmatic strategy that some used to tackle this and prevent the later onset of knowledge gaps was the ‘80/20 approach’ – wherein 80% of what schools got pupils to engage with was material that had already been covered, and only 20% was new.

It’s an approach that prioritises building on concepts and processes and providing opportunities to review those, alongside retrieval and spaced practice. The 20% part of the ratio involves teachers introducing smaller nuggets of new concepts and processes within subjects, so as to not overburden pupils and lead them to switch off.

Throughout lockdown, many schools established systems of online staff communication through which they were able to distribute online CPD, forums through which colleagues could discuss the approaches they were using and different means of sharing strategies for specific subjects and student groups.

I was encouraged by the many schools I saw that weren’t just checking in with staff via Zoom for departmental meetings, CPD sessions and routine updates, but also making a point of addressing their wellbeing, and finding out how they were coping with such dramatic changes.

During those first couple of weeks back at school there will be a need to gauge where students are and the true extent of their knowledge gaps. However, school leaders have to acknowledge that they can’t go straight into restoring pre-lockdown teacher accountability systems, because doing so will likely lead to even greater problems.

Giving people time

There needs to be a common understanding between teachers and school leaders that the nature of students’ knowledge gaps will vary across a scale, from large to perhaps minimal, depending not just on pupils’ prior attainment and abilities, but also the geographical location of the school itself. Schools in predominantly disadvantaged areas will likely find themselves at the ‘wider’ end of this scale.

Some schools might want to consider continuing the aforementioned 80/20 teaching approach for the first couple of months – combining reviews of prior knowledge with the embedding of retrieval and spaced practice across the curriculum, so that students – and indeed teachers – are given space to readjust.

Some schools may opt to put in place extensive after school activities, extra revision sessions or interventions, but I believe that’s likely to have more of a detrimental effect. An effective ‘whole school catch-up strategy’ – or something close to it, at least – should be aimed, first and foremost, at giving everyone in the classroom time. Teachers will need a chance to discern precisely where those knowledge gaps are and work out how to reduce them, while at the same time interleaving and introducing some new concepts and processes.

Those schools that start September with an attitude of ‘Right, let’s just get on with the curriculum, let’s start the new content’ will, I think, cause their pupils to really struggle.

‘Of’ versus ‘for’

It’s been interesting to see how many people are now seeing rank order assessments and comparative judgement as things that schools could perhaps invest more into when they return.

What there needs to be in the months ahead is an understanding of why we actually assess pupils. There’s often been a misunderstanding between assessment of learning and assessment for learning. Particularly now, it’s the latter that we should be looking to do on a daily basis, whether that be online or in classrooms. The role performed by assessment of learning is usually – or at least certainly should be – minimal, typically taking place at the conclusion of a GCSE course or at the end of KS2.

Schools should focus their efforts on devising an assessment approach that exists to help teachers identify knowledge gaps and put in place strategies to close them. That’s far preferable to simply inputting data into a school system and declaring, ‘I’ve got x pupils in my class that I think are going to get a grade 4 at GCSE.’

One potential benefit of schools’ recent experiences with online provision could be the impact it has on their approach to feedback. In the best case scenario, we might see the utilisation of structured online feedback between teachers and students that can save considerable time and reduce teachers’ workloads. For a number of of months, we’ve seen teachers provide students with feedback via Google Classroom and a range of similar services, to the extent that many schools will now be viewing their feedback processes in a completely new way.

Pragmatic feedback

One would hope that those schools mandating student feedback via online means will have done so for pragmatic reasons, and that this results in far less emphasis on written feedback in future. I would venture that a number of schools will have discovered that much of the time spent producing written feedback wasn’t necessarily having the impact they originally thought, and is unlikely to make much difference when it comes to closing students’ knowledge gaps.

We’ve seen a whole range of online platforms really come into their own this year. Seneca Learning (senecalearning.com), for instance, is an excellent platform, developed by a team that’s done phenomenal work in supporting teachers and pupils, and identifying and proactively trying to close knowledge gaps. It’s particularly powerful in the way it can rapidly acquire data and inform teachers about students’ progress and performance.

If schools, leaders and teachers are able to utilise Seneca Learning and other such systems upon the return of all students to school, it could have a lasting, positive impact on both teacher workloads and the way we assess and give student feedback for years to come.

Michael Chiles is a teacher of geography and head of department, and the author of The CRAFT of Assessment (John Catt, £14); follow him at @m_chiles

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