Is Covid blocking new ideas in the classroom?

With the focus on keeping classrooms safe, are new teaching ideas getting lost in the woods, asks Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty

Coronavirus: Are new teaching ideas being lost in schools?

For a while, it was a blissful autumn scene. I was walking through a forest of beech trees and the blaze of yellow, crimson and orange leaf could never have looked more magnificent. Such a welcome half-term escape from all that confronts us at school right now

The only drawback was that the foliage underfoot was even more impressively dense and colourful than the canopy above. The path soon vanished, and I spent at least half an hour heading hopefully but hopelessly in the wrong direction. I eventually sat down in despair, lost somewhere in the middle of the wood. 

Two figures then emerged from behind a thicket and strode rather aggressively towards me. “Hello! Are you on a learning walk? In which case, I’m not quite sure whether you belong here or not.”

It seemed an odd greeting. Had I fallen down some rabbit hole? 

Old and forgotten teaching ideas

It turned out that they were both retired teachers, and that one of them was once a leading local light in the Critical Friends initiative in schools. Remember Critical Friends? They were quite big in schools in the 1990s, as were the Spice Girls and Furbies. All have since attempted some kind of comeback, but… 

Given that this couple seemed perfectly happy to stay lost in the woods forever, I began to wonder whether they might actually live there. Wondered, indeed, whether other leaders of old and often forgotten teaching ideas might now be living together in a supportive community somewhere just behind that thicket. 

So, when they turned back, I stealthily followed. Other voices then confirmed my suspicions. 

“Anyone want to join me in the Brain Gym?” asked one.

“Chill idea,” said another. “Then we’ll have some blue-sky thinking time about triple marking and four-part lessons."

Which learning style are you? 

Curiouser and curiouser, I walked closer still, passing a series of strange, makeshift, topsy-turvy homes: a ramshackle mix of learning walls and flipped classrooms

There was a communal fire, complete with surrounding carved seats ready for the daily circle time ritual. I spotted some guru from the world of active learning sharing a joke with an old champion of accelerated learning. All the old rivalries and jealousies are now forgotten, it seems. 

Suddenly, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. I turned to see a huge face beaming down at me, one I vaguely recognised from an Inset day about 20 years ago. “Now, tell me, before you join us, which learning style are you: visual, kinaesthetic, auditory or verbal? Then we can personalise your learning accordingly.”

“OMG”, I muttered to myself. “The old learning styles missionaries are here, too.” I had just assumed that they’d all been quietly locked away in some disused wine cellar underneath the Institute of Education.

It was an astonishing discovery. Where was Panorama or Sir David Attenborough, to make one of those historic documentaries?

Coronavirus: Brilliant ideas that won't see the light of day

Well, all right, not all of this may be entirely true. Maybe I only met someone once connected with Critical Friends, and that the rest is complete fantasy. Probably. 

The point is that many past teaching initiatives do indeed belong in the land of fairy tales, with only the best and most sustainable ideas being plucked out and gratefully plundered. But I wonder if that natural filtering process is proving quite as discerning during the Covid crisis

For the foreseeable (and frankly rather grim) future, we are going to be focused on trying to make classrooms as safe a place as possible. It will inevitably mean less experimentation, with a greater reliance on more traditional teaching from the front. The only real area of teaching development will be the continuing necessity to improve our online teaching skills and provision. 

This surely means that many genuinely brilliant new classroom ideas may never see the light of day – and a fair number of useless ones too, admittedly.

The sad thing is that all new ideas for classroom teaching may now end up vanishing into that forest, perhaps never to be seen or heard again. 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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