School based or remote learning: the learner needs to drive it

Students who thrive at this time see themselves as the drivers of their learning not the ‘spoon-fed’ passengers

Mick Waters

Professor and Author

The lock down has caused a lot of concern about youngsters missing out on teaching and ‘getting behind’ along with the worries about the effect on children’s mental health. Now the worry has shifted to managing teaching in times of potential intermittent attendance and short- term closures. How do we teach well in the constraining conditions of ‘bubbles’ with front facing, equally spread, antiseptic smelling, masked pupils? 

Generalisations are always a problem. Much virtual learning has been good and the ‘blended’ nature of learning has taken a step forward, but not all of it is good. Many children struggled through the lockdown, but not all. There is no doubt that some children suffered significantly. For some, though, an extended period at home with parents in what was, for a long while, lovely weather and having extended conversations and taking exercise together was a reduced pressure compared with normal family life. 


The youngsters that would seem to have coped more positively with the experience of the last months would seem to be those who have learnt some of the messages about self-regulation that schools have been offering in recent years. The lessons, assemblies and displays about resilience and growth mindset seem to have been applied by some children in the way that they have coped. For others, those displays and lessons have seemed to make little impact along with the ubiquitous posters with slogans, prompts, reminders, mnemonics and maxims that adorn in the laminate world of their classrooms and impress inspectors. 

The early indicators are that the more resilient youngster seems to have come through this crisis by being active for themselves in their well-being and learning. They have been decisive, knowing when to focus, how to be productive, when to have a break, when to concentrate and when to call it quits for a while. The resilient youngsters have been able to manage themselves, be inventive and resourceful, cope with periods of boredom and spur themselves into activity with purpose. Human contact has been important, both real or virtual, and those who have coped best seem to have had a link to school and ‘someone special who cares’, however rationed.

Spoon feeding stifles a ‘having a go’ attitude

In essence, the ones that have coped better have not needed to be spoon fed. There are lots of examples of children setting themselves targets, perhaps in physical activity in limited space or learning a new skill in art or music domains. Though it will be unlikely to be researched, there are lots of examples of children finding interesting, absorbing and challenging learning from the website offerings of other schools and of children ‘having a go’ at learning provided for year groups well in advance of their own. 

These examples of children taking the initiative and driving their own learning receive little attention alongside the reasonable concern about those who have suffered. Yet there might be an indication here of the way we could think about the coming period of potentially disrupted schooling. The learner needs to see themselves as the driver of their learning rather than the passenger. 

When we were worrying about older secondary year groups ‘missing out’ on chunks of learning, did we not feel a little embarrassed about them seemingly needing to be constantly with a teacher in order to learn or students saying that they didn’t know what to do without their teacher? After so many years at school, should our youngsters have not been expected, almost delighted to read and study with periodic interaction with a teacher? Should we not feel a little awkward with the impression that the learner would have no idea what to do until the teacher maps out the next hour. Did our learners have no more inkling of their course of study than the next exercise? If we call them students, we should expect them to study.

Harness children’s sense of purpose

So, perhaps the way to think about the coming phase with all its uncertainties of organisation is to use some of the best experiences of lockdown learning. Instead of over-constraining schools and pupils with regimentation to keep them safe, perhaps the answer is to constrain with flexibility. Maybe we should invest in the children’s sense of purpose and try to get them to see themselves more as agents in the process of their own learning so that they will be more able to manage themselves, especially if they might be in lockdown again. 

That means less rather than more strict routine in the way we run our teaching. It means more learning where the children drive the agenda with the teacher being the intermittent planned questioner, critic, challenger, prompter, guide, assessor or problem-solver. It might mean setting objectives and challenges for youngsters that last more than the hour so that they have to organise and manage their time and make decisions about hitting deadlines. It might mean mapping out learning intentions and courses of study to put more emphasis on the learner doing the organising and taking significant responsibility and working on extensive projects. It might mean them seeing themselves as being busy with a range of learning tasks and managing episodic time with teachers; finding ways to help them to manage study, ideas, productivity, breaks, physical activity and food in a more spontaneous way. 

It might seem odd to be suggesting that part of the solution to the challenge of increased tension and tightened systems is to teach young people to learn to live with flexibility and to manage looser constraints. Elsewhere on this website is a lovely blog by Annemarie Williams on ‘leadership and paradox’; managing dissonance, where living with apparently contradictory ideas can be productive.

We know the current challenge offers us a chance to rethink the way we run our schools in the short term and beyond. As well as thinking about how we orchestrate the input of teaching in ‘blended’ ways, might we also consider how the young people we help to grow might be encouraged to manage their learning and themselves? 

Keep doing good things.

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