Let’s focus on what children have learned this year, rather than what they’ve missed

James Hempsall
Monday, February 15, 2021

With recent reports DfE officials are considering plans to extend the school day so children catch-up with lost learning, can we not consider what children have gained or need instead?

Let’s stop and think for a moment about what could be in the Covid-19 curriculum. What are the things we should all acknowledge, applaud, and accredit, before we return to bad habits?

There is an opportunity to put recent wellbeing and mental health rhetoric into practice; and truly support this generation to make sense of the year and be supported to recover appropriately.  We should not cause even more harm through our own poor choices. 

At the best times, children’s education can feel like an unstoppable treadmill. One full of pressure, urgency and the inevitable build up to exams. This year, much of the public and political focus has been on a deficit model; the things that haven’t happened in children’s learning. But I argue the past 12 months have been a rich learning environment – good and bad. We should be awarding GCSEs for all the learning Covid-19 has brought.

  • Children and young people have learned about politics. How it connects to day-to-day life and legislates for our individual liberties.  The year has shown how imperfect, controversial and beneficial politics can be, as different people react to it, have conflicting opinions, and respectfully debate it – or not. There’s a chance we could motivate social interest or public service here. 

  • They’ve learned about viruses, infections and risk; the importance of personal hygiene, health and safety and handwashing. The role of the NHS, scientists, testing and vaccinations in tackling the pandemic. Have we opened up the world of science for many more children this year?

  • They’ve learned the world can be a dangerous, difficult and unpredictable place.  And how various behaviours are thought to help keep people safe. They have observed how people can get ill, sometimes seriously, and there has been death.  Either directly through family and friends, or in the news; perhaps through high-profile people like Captain Tom. Skills like compassion, processing loss, and experiencing grief are all vital life skills.

  • They’ve learned economics, income and employment can change in the world, the community and their family household. Perhaps understanding how to take new opportunities, or the importance of savings and/or adapting lifestyles and budgets, or the burden, uncertainty and worry of debt. This may have forged new attitudes to work and money.

  • They’ve learned more about what their parents do at work, perhaps by observing their parents more, or listening in on conversations, work phone calls or Zoom meetings. It may have given a deeper appreciation and understanding of what their parents actually do for a living. New careers could have been imagined.

  • They’ve learned more about personal relationships at home – the positives and the negatives. They may have witnessed or participated in new relationships forming; or those under strain, going through the processes of reconciliation or endings. Domestic abuse may have affected them like never before. Have we seen the development of feelings and emotions, of a sense of right and wrong, the techniques of negotiation, protection or other interpersonal skills?  These are chances to hone skills of resilience and positive connections, love and relationships. 

  • They’ve learned the advantages and drawbacks of studying at home. Skills and abilities to be a self-starter, to be self-sufficient, to be alone, or to be a self-directed learner have been required.  Home schooling may have brought closer relationships with parents or carers, put them under strain, or grown greater appreciation of school, college or teachers.

  • They’ve had time to learn new practical skills; anything including cooking, gardening, growing, baking, writing, drawing, hairdressing, or exercise. They might have learned to be their own or the household’s IT department; supporting friends and family to be online, use new hardware and software. And social skills like patience, gratitude, conversation perhaps. Even the ability to just stop, be more mindful or mindless.  A slower, smaller life - and not one filled with meaningless activity, the distraction of busyness, thoughtless consumption and waste, and directionless rushing around could have huge impacts on future behaviour choices. 

  • They’ve learned who in their social and family circle is important to them, and how deep connections and sharing feelings help everyone’s mental health and well-being. All these rich experiences need processing to make sense of, and some to recover from, without an imposed sense they somehow lack something that 2020 took away. 

All of this, and perhaps much more, is what we should be recognising and rewarding now - and certainly when things start to feel normal again. We should not rush into an ill-judged and unthinking post pandemic pedagogy. Children and young people deserve more than that, as their lifelong learning journeys continue. We must learn from them how this unique experience can be used to positively shape what happens next for them physically, socially and emotionally as well.

James Hempsall is director at Hempsalls Consultancy

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