Lockdown posed many challenges, not least how to engage and extend the Year 13 cohort of students. The GDST’s answer was Limitless Learning, 160 academic enrichment and life-skill courses delivered to students by teachers and volunteers from across the GDST family. By Yvonne Williams, Head of English and Drama, Portsmouth High School
What was Limitless Learning?
Limitless Learning was the name given to a four-week programme for Year 13 GDST students during lockdown. It was the brainchild of Emma Pattison, Headmistress at Croydon High School, who conceived and organised this forward-thinking response to the challenges faced by Upper Sixth students when faced with the cancellation of their public exams because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Much more than simply ‘blue-sky thinking’, Limitless Learning quickly developed into a collaboration involving Croydon High’s sister schools in the GDST (Girls’ Day School Trust) and grew to 160 courses on anything from Animation to Zoology. The courses were not just about the academic leap into the next life stage but also included modules on life skills themselves.
For the first time ever, a whole cohort of Year 13 students across the Trust was divided into small seminar groups of between four to eight students with a subject-specialist teacher they may well have never encountered before. 110 staff across the schools took up the challenge of delivering this new education initiative.
Aims from the outset
As we readied ourselves for Limitless Learning, we had some very clear aims of what we wanted to achieve. These included:
- to increase students’ independence so that they could step up to the demands of university reading lists and student workload week on week.
- to enable students to step confidently into a seminar discussion – as we face the possibility that many universities will place much of their teaching online, this programme will be excellent preparation
- to widen students’ and teachers’ acquaintance with similar-minded people across the Trust
- to recognise new freedoms in studying and to find ways to break out of the inhibitions of the assessment-led curriculum and the sometimes skewing of learning to fit into the framework for examination questions. In one word – liberation!
Staff perspectives at the outset
As the call for volunteers went out, many teachers put themselves forward. There were no set courses to tap into. Course leaders could select more up-to-date material to modernise their own knowledge and pedagogy.
As Amy Hostler, Psychology teacher at Portsmouth High, said:
“It was good for me to be pushed out of my comfort zone and to research things I otherwise wouldn’t have taught them.”
Katie Wood, also from Portsmouth, said this:
“I was excited about rising to the challenge of forming relationships with pupils/teachers you have never met before, when your contact is solely online.”
From the outset it was clear that teachers who volunteered were by nature collaborative, experimental, and eager to explore the potential for online working in an unprecedented situation. They were also, in the best tradition of the GDST, focused on the welfare of all our students.
What we focused on
What was particularly noticeable about the whole initiative was how closely the content and methodology of many of the courses often tuned into the pressures society was currently facing, whether it be climate change or (in our reading of Oedipus Rex) the narrative of a society overwhelmed by a plague. The geographers certainly applied technology to research and presentation of findings.
Richard Symes, Teacher of German at Croydon High, and his opposite number Ms Gutman from Shrewsbury High, took up the challenge of delivering an impressively wide-ranging German course:
“The course combined elements of lectures and tutorials, along with presentations of the research conducted by the students themselves. GDST students from Norwich, Cardiff, Northampton, Newcastle and Shrewsbury were involved. Topics we studied included: The Bauhaus Movement; The contribution of Cinema to the Culture of the Weimar Republic; The Development of Dance in 1920s Germany as a Cultural Medium; The Art of the Period and Jewish Life in 1920s Germany.”
Leading an English Course
Freed from the strictures of the assessment-led curriculum, we were able to be more creative in our approaches. For example, my own experience leading one of the English groups was overwhelmingly positive. We embarked on a Detective Fiction unit, beginning with Oedipus Rex in a possibly controversial move to shift a reading of the play from tragic genre to crime fiction.
The whole experience was very rewarding and made students evaluate their readings. This final sentence on a student’s blog notes, for example, made it all worthwhile:
“We like reading crime genre because it brings a sense of order to our chaotic and unfair world, yet after reading Oedipus, we are likely to feel more uncertain and scared about the world and its possibility of suffering after watching the play than we felt before.”
Other teachers reported similarly positive experiences such as:
- learning to run groups online – and extending intellectual discussion to a level beyond the last point of examination revision
- writing lectures: deciding on an approach, conducting research, shaping a lecture and producing a helpful PowerPoint
- delivering an hour’s lecture without a break and sustaining an argument
- shaping learning when there are no pre-written objectives
- probing the meanings of a text more thoroughly rather than mechanistically analysing narrative structures
- making the texts relevant conceptually and emotionally to students in Lockdown
- liberating students’ thinking and emotions from the present situation
The response from students and teachers
Staff and students were overwhelmingly positive at the end of the four-week period.
One Psychology student said:
“I enjoyed learning about the specific topics that could be brought up in university which is very helpful, such as discrimination or what makes people better leaders. I felt that the programme was a useful beginning before going to university. The lesson where we learnt about the different occupations we could do after our psychology degree was very helpful and gave plenty of new information for me to think about.”
German students were equally positive with a student commenting:
“I have really enjoyed our sessions on the Weimar Republic and I’m so pleased to have been able to connect with other girls and teachers outside of Northampton High. I’m unsure as to why the GDST has never done it before! Maybe it is something that can be continued in the future”
Lucy Scovell, Head of Humanities at Portsmouth High School, summed up the teacher experience very well:
“I learnt a lot from the preparation and delivery of the sessions online and helped to build on skills with Teams etc. Format could be useful in the future to address current issues that are in university courses but that we haven’t had time to address in the A level programme. Also useful to chat to the girls from the other schools about their plans for university, particularly in the current climate. From a personal point of view, our sessions have helped me to try new things, see our fabulous subject from different perspectives and I have felt energised by the whole experience.”
Mark Pickering, Senior Teacher at Croydon High, echoed those sentiments:
“It was delightful working with such a group of talented geographers from across the country. Their willingness to learn was as impressive as was their obvious delight and excitement at the prospect of embarking upon their undergraduate careers.”
A limitless future?
As we now face a future of further disruptions in our learning environment, there is much to applaud about our progress so far. We have shown that it is more than possible to cater for the needs of our Year 13 students – in direct and timely contradiction of the negative coverage teaching has been receiving in the media. Students and staff have embraced the new structures and context: students are finding their voices and taking on a new style of learning. If we regard this incredibly forward-thinking programme as a bridge between school and university learning, then it prepares students not just for the traditional lecture room of the past but the more fluid technological approach of a future constantly in a state of flux.
The final word must go Croydon High School’s Headmistress, Emma Pattison, who said:
“Creative problem solving has come to define what we are trying to instil in our pupils, and I am therefore so thrilled we demonstrated it so effectively as an organisation when we really needed it.
If this experience has taught us anything, it is that we can adapt, we can think differently, we can overcome incredible challenges especially when we use creativity to solve problems that no one saw coming.”