It is April 2020. The UK is in lockdown and schools are closed.
I’ve been riding a giddy, internal rollercoaster in relation to the effects the closure may have. At times there are those wide-angle, vertiginous vantage points at the peak before a drop. This is happening to all children – it’s tough but it’s universal. Then the stomach-churning dip and the dark nausea that admits this enforced context is hitting some children much harder than others. Temporary blip or lasting damage? At times the lift and the rush of dopamine lets the optimism in for just a moment. Perhaps this time away from classrooms will make us more conscious of what makes learning in school, face to face and together both precious and irreplaceable.
In response to school closure, my wonderful Let’s Think colleague, Michael Walsh has set up a Let’s Think ‘lite’ website with open access ‘lessons’ each week. A rich, provocative stimulus (film, poem, painting) and a series of questions lead to an open access blog where primary and secondary pupils can enter and exchange their thoughts. Three weeks in we have had over 250 entries. It is open to all students and schools here
I’ll admit that focusing on this kind of immediate, palpable and engaging content has been an antidote to big picture, abstract speculation.
Talking of what used to be immediate and palpable – How are my family? What’s the best way to stay connected with them? How can 3 families with teenagers and their (lively and witty) Aged Ps have a meaningful dialogue via conference call technology? Won’t the kids drift off and want their own chats in their own private, easy argot? Then came a quiet pang of responsibility. My siblings and their partners are educated, resourceful, have great relationships with their kids, but none are school teachers. Should I be helping them with home-schooling? Not because they can’t do it – but because I know from bringing up my own two – now older teens – that getting even occasional help with homework from Mum and Dad can be at best necessary at worst excruciating. They would rather not. School is a world where they are becoming someone else. Someone who isn’t monitored by you and doesn’t belong to you. Stay out of it. Gulp.
So I reached out with a proposal.
“It’s really okay if you don’t want to do this…I just thought…the kids will all be getting work sent home from school. I don’t want to get in the way of that. But the likelihood is most of it will be silent and lonely. How about a moment of social learning each week? I do this Let’s Think thing. Each family group can be a team. You’ll do some reading and thinking together first, then we’ll come online, share our thoughts and go a little deeper. It could be a nice way to structure a shared conversation. A way to connect as a family.”
The positive response was swift and universal. Perhaps driven more by a desire to have a date in the diary and see the family on screen than anything else, but there it is.
The engine running behind Let’s Think in English lessons is the social construction of understanding. Together, with trust, authentic dialogue and disciplined enquiry, we can go further. The open climate needed to draft, construct and reconstruct ideas aloud, through dialogue is built as much, perhaps, on eye-contact, body-language and seating arrangements as it is on the reciprocity of talk. It takes a commitment to make oneself understood, to understand the thoughts of others and to be prepared to adapt one’s thinking as the session progresses. So there were going to be a whole range of cues it was going to be harder to pick up on as we shared thoughts via a video link.
Just as I would in the classroom – I shared some session guidelines for perusal. These are the early stage, more tangible process goals in the Let’s Think classroom. We are going to be developing a different way of talking together that helps us to think.
What could be tricky is that we are used to being playful together for playful’s sake – to make each other laugh, to connect. There’s nothing wrong in that. I’m hoping this will feel like fun, working through some questions and problems together, but the idea is not to say the funniest thing or to win an argument. It may be helpful to talk through these guidelines together:
When you work in your family group:
- Everyone should have the chance to contribute
- Explain your ideas, rather than just state them
- Listen to the ideas of others and share what you think about them
- Respect and consider differences – they are often useful
- Try to work towards a family group response that you will share with the whole group when we come back together
Sharing guidelines doesn’t mean they are achieved – but we are deliberately setting out to create a different kind of space in which to interact.
Then there are the deeper goals of Let’s Think: to change the way learners think. The Piagetian design of the programme aims to support students through the struggle of restructuring their understanding from concrete, simple logic towards more agile, complex abstractions. The Vygotskian method is to pitch the learning at the shared mediated capacity (or Zone of Proximal Development) of a mixed prior attainment group. My nephews and nieces range from age 10-14, so the KS3 lessons were the best fit. Would this leave our 10 year old feeling excluded or perhaps worse – anxious? My own kids are older teens who shift more quickly into abstract ideas and interpretations. I was – privately – open with them that I would not ask them to contribute early in the session – but would need them to come in later and respond to several ideas already shared, perhaps finding a way to link them. And then I’m managing a group of articulate adults with higher degrees, a university Professor, a CBE for services to Science. Zoooweeee. It would take some care for the pitch not to catch a pace and spiral out of bounds for our younger contingent.
Can I admit – before the sessions started – I had no idea whether this would catch, and no intent to share the experience through a blog. At time of posting we are 7 sessions in and there’s something happening that seems worth sharing.
So here begins Let’s Think in Lockdown…
Read about Lesson 1: The Bridge in the next blog…