School should have taught us to be unreasonable

Do you remember schooldays, sitting doing work with the assistance of those around you? What does that mean? How did you get that answer? Why is my total different from yours? Spell that word for me. How do you say it?

The teacher who had set the work would hover. Checking progress. Offering advice. Suggesting ways of doing things. Asking how answers were reached.

It was a way of teaching to which we were used, even fifty years ago. Teachers had moved from standing at the front talking to us for entire lessons to helping us learn for ourselves.

During teacher training, I learned that the term for students interacting with each other to learn lessons while the teacher provided support, or “scaffolding,” was called “social constructivism.” It seemed odd that something we would have assumed was just the way things were done should have needed a name.

The Department for Education has declared that, because of Covid-19, a way of teaching with which we would have been familiar in High Ham Primary School two generations ago must no longer be the way in which teaching is done.

The teacher must stand at the front at all times, avoiding any proximity with the students. Lessons must be taught from a distance.

Students must no longer face each other in groups of four or six, instead they must sit in rows and face the front. It is considered that sitting in lines as though it were the Nineteenth Century is the way to reduce the spread of the virus. It is advice that seems undermined by aerosol spread of the viral material and its survival on hard surfaces for up to seventy-two hours. Students facing each other with the width of two desks between them seems a less hazardous prospect than them sitting in rows with people on both sides.

The people who will most suffer from the Department For Education’s proposals are those in the classroom who may be the most vulnerable.

Before the Department for Education issued their instructions, there was the possibility of going to talk to individuals and small groups of students, questioning them on their understanding and providing appropriate scaffolding where necessary. In a situation where the teacher has to remain at the front such possibilities are reduced, if not eliminated altogether.

Questioning from the front may focus on individuals, but for students who have struggled with material, to be questioned from the front can be an intimidating experience, yet without the opportunity to look over shoulders and without the opportunity to have discussions, questioning is the only tool left for teachers to gauge progress.

Many children have suffered considerably during the lockdown, many are already under stress and feeling vulnerable, and now school is to be turned into an intimidating environment.

Of course, it is unreasonable to question the government’s logic, but memories of schooldays should have taught everyone what does and what doesn’t work. When it comes to the advice, school should have taught us that it is reasonable to be unreasonable.

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