Planning for disrupted learning: Go long; provide the tools

Imagine you have embarked on an adult learning programme – perhaps a part-time degree, a masters, a professional qualification. In addition to the regular demands of the course itself, imagine you have a complicated life and need to engage in a flexible manner, attending as often as you can but knowing you will need to be able to keep up-to-date even if some in-person sessions are missed. With all this in mind, what would you want at your disposal?

I’d suggest it might include the following?

  • A course overview. A sense of the entirety of the course: the units, the assessments.
  • A reading list including core reading and suggested wider reading.
  • Detailed unit guidance from online resources and core texts, setting out all the key knowledge you’re supposed to gain, with summaries for self-review and progress checking.
  • A timeline: the approximate deadlines for key assessments; a calendar of lectures and compulsory in-person attendance elements.
  • Access to recordings of key expert inputs that could be accessed flexibly.
  • Access to previous assessments to use as practice.

When I started teaching at Winstanley College in the late 80s, this is more or less what we gave our students in Physics for A Level – (all except the online elements which didn’t yet exist!). They had comprehensive unit guides, textbooks, lists of core practicals, practice questions and assessment timelines. As a student you could almost teach yourself and that was the point. We placed our emphasis in class on all the things students couldn’t do outside the class but our expectations for what they did between lessons were extremely high.

After Winstanley, whenever I had a new examination class in every school I worked in, we would begin the course with this kind of approach: Look at the big picture of the course, set out a rough timeframe with milestones and train students how to use the textbook, the syllabus spec, past papers and other key resources. Why? Because in doing this it was building students’ agency; their sense of ownership; their self-regulation and personal responsibility. It was tooling them up to engage with a big, heavy programme of learning, come what may. At various points, students might be ill, miss lessons for other activities and trips – but they needed to be able to know how to keep up and catch up independently. That was the expectation. It worked extremely well.

I have many examples of this approach paying off – like when Soo Min badgered me about when we’d be covering Colloids, or when Taran made his awesome plan:

Taran's Plan. The Y11 course outline produced by one of the students.
Taran’s plan. He made in Y11. We used it in full.

In the current circumstances, with so much turmoil and more to come, I’m convinced that all secondary students could benefit from this approach. If we give them the tools to see the overview of what they need to learn and the resources to get on with it, then they can maintain a sense of purpose that has continuity even if the school-based provision doesn’t.

What might this look like? I’d suggest something like half-termly Unit Guides with certain common elements:

  • Unit specifications: The knowledge requirements in detail – ideally by referencing existing high quality resources like textbooks, not writing it all out again!.
  • Details of experiences and activities that students need to engage with in order to complete the unit
  • Reading material: all provided, with comprehension activities to check for understanding and engagement.
  • A list of core tasks students must complete and the products they should produce, including exemplars of what to aim at where helpful.
  • Practice assessments with self-checking resources as appropriate to the subject.
  • Curated links to all the online tutorial material students should access either on a planned basis (ie they are built into the unit) or on a catch-up basis for when lessons are missed. (This could be videos made by the teachers or freely available material such as the Oak National Academy which serves this precise purpose.)

Imagine having that kind of guide for every unit of study? You’d know where you were going; you’d know what you’d done and what was still to come. You’d know how to push ahead where possible. Imagine teaching knowing that all your students had access to this information upfront. You could plan to focus on certain key inputs in the in-person taught sessions you have whilst planning follow-ups for the aspects more likely to be covered remotely. It would give you peace of mind knowing that students could get on with things if they were locked down for a bit and even if you were absent for a bit. Plus it would provide the real-life training for them to be the independent learners that are described in your vision statements! So, even if everything goes back to normal, it might be a process you keep hold of long term.

I have seen this in places. Some students really are tooled up and really do know how to get on with learning independently because the resources at their disposal are so good. The summer lockdown has fuelled some fabulous creativity in this area, moving students away from total dependence on their teachers’ instructional guidance at every turn. The trick now is to build this into the curriculum planning process; to get ahead so that this material can be assembled in advance, only tweaked and adjusted along the way. It requires confidence and stability in the long-term curriculum plan, so that the week to week fluctuations don’t blow people from side to side … they can keep focused and keep on learning.

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