As school leaders plan the return to school following the global pandemic, it is crucial that their educational decisions are informed by research into the everyday realities of enforced home learning for children. Much research attention until now has focussed, importantly, on lost learning and widening inequalities (for example Andrew et al., 2020; Green, 2020). However, an over-emphasis on children ‘catching up’ may lead to increased testing and test-oriented teaching. It is necessary, then, to look beyond children’s performance in the narrow range of skills and knowledge measurable through standardised testing, and learn from what children did – how they thrived, survived and struggled – as they adapted to lockdown home learning (Breslin, 2020).
We researched with six children aged 8 to 10 over three months during the lockdown in England. The children came from ethnically and socioeconomically diverse families, and attended different schools in both urban and rural locations. In simple daily pages, through writing, sketches, digital designs and emojis, they reflected on their feelings and activities – the ‘good’ and ‘not-so-good’. Parents’ written reflections deepened our insight and provided further context. The children’s pages provide an important glimpse into their day-to-day realities during lockdown.
‘Being misbrally bored’
This image was created by a 10-year-old who spent two months working through revision booklets for end-of-primary-school national curriculum (SATs) tests. The blank facial expression reflects the single word – ‘bored’ – he wrote almost daily in his page. That his teacher assigned test revision to his entire class despite the examinations being cancelled points to the ubiquity of teaching to high-stakes tests in English primary schools (Hutchings, 2015). Our fear is that increased scrutiny of children’s test results following the pandemic may lead to even more test-driven teaching and an impoverished, corner-cutting curriculum.
‘Our fear is that increased scrutiny of children’s test results following the pandemic may lead to even more test-driven teaching and an impoverished, corner-cutting curriculum.’
Apart from one child who described filming herself for a school project, other children rarely mentioned school-assigned work, beyond comments such as ‘Maths is hard’ or ‘I had three worksheets to do’. Most of our participants had no online teaching or even contact with teachers during the lockdown, and found completing worksheets without teacher input difficult, monotonous and demotivating – a finding supported by the parent diaries. It is crucial, then, that teachers find creative ways of reigniting pupils’ enthusiasm when direct teaching resumes.
‘I liked going to the pond and seeing the tadpoles’
Contrasting with their apathy towards worksheet-based learning, most of the children’s daily pages brim with accounts of being outdoors and active. Growing vegetables; sketching landscapes; cycling; den-building; keeping caterpillars and observing metamorphosis; cooking during Ramadan: all were potentially rich learning activities, albeit learning that cannot easily be measured and might therefore be disregarded. We suggest, then, that teachers find ways of recognising and validating the learning that did happen during lockdown, and, importantly, avoiding stigmatising children who fail to complete school-assigned tasks. Outdoor learning could play a valuable role as teachers seek to re-engage children with formal education – particularly for the many children who lacked access to safe outdoor spaces during the pandemic.
‘I cried because I missed my friends’
Another key theme in the children’s pages was loneliness. Some children had no face-to-face contact with friends for more than four months. While some relished extra time with family, isolation from friends was a source of considerable distress, and contributed to pandemic-related anxiety – as the image above starkly portrays. Teachers will need, then, to consider carefully how to support children’s emotional wellbeing, help them make sense of their lockdown experiences, and promote hope for the future. And not all children will simply pick up where they left off socially. For some, the prospect of the school playground and classroom group-work will be daunting. Children will require support with social aspects of returning to school, especially as most will be changing classes, teachers or even schools.
Our final point is a simple one: these extra challenges will require teachers’ creativity, expertise and patience. The last thing teachers need now is extra pressure to drive up test scores. Instead they must be trusted to teach in ways that reignite children’s enthusiasm for learning and support their emotional and social wellbeing.
Andrew, A., Cattan, S., Costa-Dias, M., Farquharson, C., Kraftman, L., Krutikova, S., Phiminster, A., & Sevilla, A. (2020). Learning during the lockdown: Real-time data on children’s experiences during home learning. London: Institute for Fiscal Studies. Retrieved from https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14848
Breslin, T. (2020, May 19). Time for educational researchers to take their place in the sun? [Blog post]. London: British Educational Research Association. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/time-for-educational-researchers-to-take-their-place-in-the-sun
Green, F. (2020). Schoolwork in lockdown: New evidence on the epidemic of educational poverty (LLAKES Report No. 67). London: Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies, UCL Institute of Education. Retrieved from https://www.llakes.ac.uk/sites/default/files/LLAKES%20Working%20Paper%2067_0.pdf
Hutchings, M. (2015). Exam factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people. London: National Union of Teachers. Retrieved from https://www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/basw_112157-4_0.pdf
Acknowledgement: This work was supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, University of Bristol, with funding from QR SPF (Quality-Related Strategic Priorities Fund), UKRI Research England.