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Is catching up catching on? #2

Picking up on the idea of students’ reactions to lockdown and how some have found them much more difficult than others….

I talked recently with an ex-colleague who works in a large, successful comprehensive school in the Midlands, and mused that students might fall into 6 broad ‘sustaining learning’ categories. During the lockdowns, some students:

  1. Enthusiastically threw themselves into their studies, and continue to do so, maybe even independently initiating new learning of their own in addition to the school’s offer. These students do everything asked of them with enthusiasm, and at the same time teach themselves Latin / chess / the oboe;
  2. Were initially enthusiastic, but interest and commitment waned after a while. These students were initially 1’s, but were unable to sustain it over the extended lockdown periods;
  3. Engaged with the learning that the school offered but only because their parents insisted. These students appear to have kept up with work on offer, but need parental support, encouragement, bribery, cajoling. They may have been similarly needy and dependent / compliant prior to lockdown;
  4. Initially engaged but subsequently became disengaged. Initially 3’s, these students became increasingly disengaged as the lockdowns wore on, unable to sustain engagement as the distance from formal schooling widened;
  5. Did not begin to engage with the work on offer. These students have effectively enjoyed an extended holiday, maybe because they don’t, for whatever reason, see the relevance of learning to their lives.
  6. There is, of course, a sixth group, defined not by their engagement levels, but by their inability to engage due to ICT connectivity issues. How they would have responded, given adequate ICT access from the outset, is unknown. There is every reason to think that they would have behaved much as their peers in groups 1 to 5 above. But we can be sure that, whatever their engagement levels might have been, they are now some considerable way adrift of where they would have been without the enforced absence from school.

My ex-colleague’s response was interesting. She recognised students in all six of these categories, and thought that the majority of her learners fell somewhere in the middle, with around 20% in categories 1 and 2. We went on to explore the difficulties of re-engaging each ‘category’ of learner, and concluded:

Students in category 1 would remain committed and engaged with their studies. Students in category 2, although they’ve become a bit disengaged,  their initial commitment will carry the day making these students relatively easy to re-engage.

  • What proportion of your students do you estimate fall into these 2 categories?
  • And how could you maintain the enthusiasm and commitment of these learners during a period of catch-up – which some may not actually need?

But what of categories 3, 4 and 5? In all categories, students show a lack of enthusiasm and commitment. Those that do engage do so as an act of compliance, and students in category 5 will not even do that. Students in category 6 are simply an unknown quantity whose enforced dislocation from learning is more likely to have harmed rather than enhanced their enthusiasm for learning.

  • How easily do you think it will be to re-energise these students when schools fully re-open?
  • What would be the point of offering disengaged students any type of catch-up before re-engaging them with their learning?

And even if it were possible to coerce these students to re-engage, how could schools help those students, subsequently, to move from compliance to commitment? For it is only then that a catch-up programme might prove worthwhile.

What do committed learners do?

What is it that those committed learners in categories 1 and 2 do that compliant learners don’t do? What skills do committed learners have that compliant learner’s lack?

How about… committed, engaged learners:

  • are able to approach their (school) learning independently;  knowing when it’s appropriate to learn on their own or, via Zoom calls, with others;
  • see school learning goals as their own goals and are therefore more likely to pursue those goals with tenacity;
  • recognise and reduce distractions; knowing when to walk away and refresh themselves and how to create their own best environment for learning;
  • are brave about not knowing something and have strategies not only to overcome being stuck or making mistakes but to learn from them;
  • are excited by the prospect of triumphing over challenge by recognising risk and planning to avoid obstacles. 
  • have the wherewithal to overcome difficulties; keeping going in the face of difficulties; channelling the energy of frustration productively; knowing what a slow and uncertain process learning often is.
  • know themselves as a learner — how they learn best; how to think and talk about the learning process. They are self-regulated learners. 

Without attending to these aspects of learning on returning to school, the very students most in need of catch-up may continue to lack the inclination, skills and attitudes necessary to access it.

Let’s promote a focus on learners becoming ‘learning fit’ rather than level loss or ‘catching up’, with a clear determination on coaching students to become better learners rather than focusing exclusively on level attainment or recovering lost ground.

Find out more about rebuilding your students emotional capacity for learning…


By Steve Watson – Principal Consultant

Steve Watson works as Principal Consultant for TLO. He is former Deputy Headteacher of Alderbrook School (Secondary) and co-owner of The Learning Nursery pre-school. Steve’s commitment to radically challenging teaching and learning in a comprehensive school context has made him focus schools on the development of their own language for learning based on Building Learning Power. His strategic yet hands-on approach wins respect and ensures that the vision is realised in practice.

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