Our coding Journey with Bit and Byte (our school robots)

Isabelle, Lauren, Olivia and Homare (the WHS Social Robots team) describe how they are working on using the school’s social robots Bit and Byte as reading buddies in the Junior School, and update us on the progress made so far. 

We are the Social Robots team, and we would love to present our project, which is robot reading buddies, to you. This club started in 2018 and we work with the 2 robots which we have at school. Since then, we have taken part in competitions (such as the Institut de Francais’ Night of Ideas competition[1] – which we won!) and other projects and challenges within the school. Currently, we have been working on how we could use these robots in the Junior School to help encourage reading practise.

What we want to achieve and how

At Wimbledon High School we are lucky enough to have two Miro-E robots. They are social robots meaning they can react to touch, noise and other actions due to the sensors and cameras that they have. We can then code the robots into changing colours, wagging its tail, pricking up its ears and many other possibilities! The Miro-E robots are designed to mimic a pet.  But we are not the only one’s coding Miro-E robots for a social cause: they are also used for the elderly to combat loneliness.[2] We hope they will have a similar calming effect on children.

We all know how important it is to learn how to read since it broadens knowledge and vocabulary, as well as opening doors for future learning; therefore, we want to include the Miro-E robots in the Junior School as reading buddies. In addition, reading improves presentation skills and develops confidence and independence. Enjoying reading from an early age will help to support these skills.

To encourage this crucial development in the child’s life, we believe that it is vital to make those learning to read feel comfortable and stimulated. As a social robotics team, we realised that one way to achieve this was by creating a robot reading buddy that helps young children at school to practise reading whilst also being motivated by a cute robot dog (cat, kangaroo, cow, bunny, or whatever animals you think the robots resemble)! If we can compel children to read with our social robots, as well as to teachers or parents, this might change the amount they read or the difficulty of the books they attempt; therefore increasing the speed of reading development, as it is encouraging in a non-judgmental environment.

Our research about reading buddies

Research has shown that it is beneficial for children who are learning to read to have a companion who just listens, rather than correcting them, as we know that reading can be a challenging and sometimes daunting experience for some students. Of course, it is equally important for a teacher to help the child when reading and correcting them so that they can learn and improve. But we also think it is crucial for children to enjoy the reading experience, so that they have the motivation to keep learning.

Therefore, Miro-E robots are perfect for this job as they can help find the balance between learning to read, and practising to read. Also, we can code the robot to adapt to the situation and make the reading experience the best it can be. As we have 2 of these robots at the school, it will also enable the Junior Staff to have multiple reading sessions at once. Finally, as we mentioned, the robots can react with sounds, movement, and lights which we are hoping will engage the students and keep the experience enjoyable. 

While researching, we did also find many studies and papers regarding the effects of animals such as dogs on learning. However, we found little about robotics and coding to achieve the task we set out to complete, making it no mean feat. As school-aged children ourselves, what we are trying to do is pioneering and exciting but also has its challenges. We look forward to introducing Bit and Byte to the Junior pupils and inspiring them to get involved, not only with reading but also to get them excited about robotics and coding! 

Our progress so far

We have been working on this project since the start of 2021, and we have been focussing on research, as well as some coding. At first, we had a discussion with some Junior School pupils, and we sent a survey to parents to see what their top priorities would be for the reading buddy and what their opinions were. We find it really important that the users of the robot reading buddy can contribute their ideas and opinions so that the reading buddies are as beneficial for them as possible. 

An example of these results is that both the students and the parents wanted the robot to guide the child through nodding. Because of this, we set up 5 key stages of the reading process, with different coding programs (and therefore different emotions and actions shown in the robot) for each. We have coded these 5 key stages separately already. These stages are: 

  1. Starting to read, so when the students have just started their reading session or when they continue after a break. We have coded this to have an excited emotion, through tilting the head up towards the child, for example.
  2. While reading, so while the robot can detect someone speaking through the microphone. We have coded this to have a motivational emotion, through slow nods and opening the angle of the ears.
  3. A pause in reading, so when the robot is unable to detect someone reading for a fixed amount of time (for example, 10 seconds). We have coded this to have a questioning emotion, such as with a tilting head position. 
  4. Session finish, which is when the teacher says that the reading session is over. This could be a fixed time (for example, after exactly 10 minutes) or a different action which the robot could sense. We have coded this to have a celebrating emotion, such as moving in a circle.
  5. Early finish, which is when the student decides to stop their reading session before the finishing time. We are still thinking about how the robot could sense this: either if no sound has been heard for over a minute, for example, or if the student does a specific action, such as clapping three times. We have coded this to have a sad emotion, with the robot looking down and the tail not wagging any more. Here is the example code of this:

Social Robots as Reading Buddies sample code

Throughout all these stages, we have also made use of the lights on the robots to portray what stage the students are on.  This will allow the teachers to see the same.

We have learnt a lot in the project so far. For example, through the opportunity to talk with the younger students, we practised gathering data interactively, and how we can use this information. We also learnt a lot of new skills through our research, such as how we can receive papers from the writers and how we can use these effectively. Finally, we have experimented lots through coding by finding out how we can use the new functions in the miro2 library, as well as how we could use different libraries to overcome challenges such as not having a function to sense consistent sound, such as someone reading.

Our next steps

Our next steps for next year and beyond are to successfully complete the coding of this project and run a test with students in the Junior School, before finalising the code to make the robot reading buddy as effective as it can be. There are still a lot of problems that we need to solve for us to code the program successfully.

A key problem that we are facing now is that our robot currently cannot distinguish between a human voice (which can be constant) and a machine whirring away in the background. This is because the robot can only “hear” the difference between fluctuating noises and constant noises. There are many factors that contribute to this problem that we still need to test. Is it because the microphone is not good enough? Is it simply that the communication between the laptop, robot and lights is too slow for the robot to reflect what it is hearing? And how could we adapt our code to work with this? 

It is problems like these which slow down the coding process. For example, there were times where the program would not send to the robot, which we struggled to fix for weeks. Or smaller problems, such as when I thought the program was not running but it was simply that the movements on the simulator that I had coded were not big enough for me to notice the impact of my code.

When all our coding works for each of the 5 stages, we are going to link this all into one bigger program, which will decide which stage the reader is at. For example, if no reading has been detected for x seconds, then the robot may go into the “pause” phase. We will need to experiment to see what timings suit these decisions best. While we continue to develop the coding, we will also need to constantly test and receive more feedback to improve. For example, how could we find the balance between distractions and interactions? 

As you can tell, we have made progress, but we also have lots to do. We will continue to try to find effective solutions to the problems that we may encounter.

Reflection

We have all thoroughly enjoyed this project, and we also think that it has, and will continue to, help us build up several skills. For example, we have learnt to collaborate well as a team, being able to work both independently and with others. However, as previously mentioned we have encountered many challenges, and in these cases perseverance is key. Finally, we appreciate the project because it has been really rewarding and lots of fun to work with the robot and see our progress visually. 


However, we cannot do this project alone. As mentioned, we know it is vital that we receive feedback and act on it. This is why we would also really appreciate any feedback or suggestions that you may have for us! Feel free to complete this form with any comments: https://forms.office.com/r/3yNJZEHBfy. Thank you so much!


[1] Our video entry for Night of Ideas 2020: https://youtu.be/RlbzqTKAOTc

[2] Details about using Miro-E robots to combat loneliness for the elderly: https://www.miro-e.com/blog/2020/4/14/the-isolation-pandemic

21st Century Design for Life

Rachel Evans, Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, considers the impact of this year’s CPD on 21st Century Learning Design, evaluates the Social Robots project against the rubric and reflects on the value of this approach for teachers and students.

During the last term of this unprecedented school year, groups of teachers have been lifting their gaze beyond the challenge of the pandemic to reflect on the way we teach and learn. Since April, colleagues from the Junior and Senior Schools have been considering 21st Century Learning Design.(1) An academic research programme funded by Microsoft in 2010, the Innovative Teaching & Learning Research Project described and defined this pedagogical approach. Collaborative research was carried out across ten countries, with the Institute of Education in London as one of the partners. The outcome formed the basis of a framework for evaluating and designing schemes of work, and subsequently a programme of study for teachers.(2)


The six components of 21st Century Learning Design (21CLD)

21CLD is a lens through which we can view the planning and delivery of the curriculum – as broadly as across a whole topic, or down to the level of an activity within an individual lesson. The rubric-based approach across the six topic areas prompts teachers to think about how to effectively build skills which are not necessarily well understood or embedded by other pedagogical approaches. Whilst we may not accept the popular discourse about the necessity of ‘21st century skills’, the framework addresses the need for students to beopen to new ideas and voices, direct and be accountable for their own work, and conduct effective and meaningful collaboration: all skills which are valuable in a swiftly changing world.

A collaborative professional development opportunity

Teachers were assigned a module of the course to work through independently, and then came together in study groups to discuss the concepts and teach each other the module they had studied. This has proved an exciting way to learn about 21CLD and apply it to our own classroom practice. Mixed group discussions outside the silos of departments and key stages revealed how this pedagogy is applicable across different subject areas and age groups, and identified where there are connections with existing approaches, such as Kagan structures or Harkness method for communication and cooperation, and our STEAM+ interdisciplinary work.

The discursive approach allowed teachers to be candid about their experience. Delving into the detail of the rubrics brought self-reflection: one teacher saying “I thought we’d be brilliant at collaboration, but actually we often co-work rather than collaborate.” Teachers evaluated existing activities against the rubrics and considered how they could adjust their lesson plans and projects to create deeper engagement and more agency for their pupils, and substantive and meaningful work as a result. New plans for a science project about pollution and the revision of a history research topic are among the outcomes of this period of study. Junior School teachers investigated how different levels of the rubric might appropriate at different Key Stages: they plan to create examples of suitable activities to inform the planning of lessons which will develop skills over the pupil’s time in the infant and junior years.

The process was not uncritical, with much debate in both parts of the school around the knowledge construction module: balancing innovative approaches with the needs of the examination system and our own belief in the value of scholarship made for interesting conversations.

A real-life example of real-world problem-solving

As I studied the course myself and designed the programme for teachers, I evaluated one of my own projects.

The Social Robots Club, which the Head of Computer Science and I began two years ago, is an excellent example of real-world problem solving and collaboration within the 21CLD framework, which has arisen organically through the interests of a group of Year 10 students. You can read about their work in this week’s WimTeach[link], where the girls have written about their project and experiences.

The purpose of the club was to experiment with our Miro-E robots (3), in order to plan their inclusion in the curriculum. It is the students who have driven the project forward. From our early brainstorming about uses for the robots, they chose a goal, defined their project and set to work. How does this activity measure up as an example of 21st century learning?

Collaboration

Students work as a team, assigning roles for each task, and making their own decisions about the process and product. The work is interdependent – for instance, dividing up the writing of code into segments which will be later combined.

Skilled communication

Students have produced presentations for Junior school staff, a lesson plan for Year 5 pupils, surveys and a leaflet for parents and an assembly for the school community. They carried out academic research including writing to the authors of papers with further queries.

Knowledge construction

We had never used such sophisticated robotics at school previously, but the group are already competent coders, so are applying their knowledge. Research for the project has covered psychology, pedagogy and computer science – certainly interdisciplinary.

Self-regulation

This group of students have worked on this project for a year and are clear about their aims, and what success will look like. They plan their own work – in fact, Mr Richardson and I joke that we are superfluous! – but we are there, of course, to offer feedback and guidance to help the team make progress when the project stalls.

Real-world problem-solving and innovation

The project is problem solving on a macro and micro level. The real-world problem is about improving reading progress for primary age children, but every week is micro problem-solving as we navigate a new and unfamiliar coding interface and sophisticated but temperamental robots. The project will have a real-world implementation when the robots are used by Year 1 next year.

Use of ICT for Learning

Technology is crucial to the project, obviously, but most significantly, we will create a product for authentic users – a robot creature who will respond with encouragement to a child reading – a great deal of code will lie behind those simulated behaviours!

The benefits of 21st Century Learning Design

On a practical level, 21CLD offers teachers tools for creating learning activities which promote skills that we would all agree are essential for study, work and life – to communicate clearly, collaborate well and solve problems. When combined with our emphasis on scholarship and our interdisciplinary STEAM+ philosophy, I find three further important outcomes:

Building knowledge and appreciating complexity

In a fast-paced world, the experience of going deeply into a topic or project for a sustained period will develop sound knowledge and critical thinking skills. Grappling with complexity brings an appreciation that not all problems are solved or ideas best expressed with a sound-bite response. All fields of study are rich with nuance once we go beyond the superficial.

Identifying unknowns, living with uncertainty and resilience

The deeper students go into complexity, detail and a wealth of knowledge, the more aware they become of what is unknown, either to themselves or to others. In a year which has been filled with uncertainty, an awareness that what we understand of the world is not fixed or fully known is, at first, unsettling. Sitting with that uncertainty – whether academic or otherwise – can build resilience. As the students write in WimLearn this week, persevering through difficulty brings its own joys.

Curiosity and exploration

Having appreciated complexity and experienced uncertainty, where do we go next? We have the answer enshrined within our school aims: Nurturing curiosity, scholarship and a sense of wonder. To achieve sufficient mastery of an area of study that we can begin to push at the boundaries is where exploration and innovation happens; or, as we wrote at the start of this year (4), in the spaces and connections between traditional subject areas with our STEAM+ philosophy. Depth of study, knowledge and skill is a firm foundation for exploration.

In conclusion, the exploration of this course on 21st century learning design has been incredibly valuable. At a time when we have been caught in the weeds of logistics and change, the programme of study and our collaborative approach has opened up big ideas and new conversations between teachers, which we will continue to explore next year. This feels like the start of a new conversation about the way we use technology in the classroom.


References

(1) 21st Century Learning Design, Microsoft Educator Center, https://education.microsoft.com/en-us/learningPath/e9a3beec

(2) You can read the original research papers and other references here, within the Microsoft CPD course. https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=91F4E618548FC604%21300&authkey=%21AOE-MnST_ZCMc1Q&page=View&wd=target%28Embedding%2021CLD%20in%20practice.one%7C2989f197-22e1-42a9-b2d5-2a71628825c1%2F21CLD%20Readings%7Ce58d3c47-38fa-47da-9077-18571f525580%2F%29

(3) Miro-E are programmable social robots designed for us in schools. http://consequentialrobotics.com/miroe

(4) Bristow & Pett, STEAM+, http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/steam-2/, September 2020

Cross-Curricular Education: fostering links between English and PE through cricket

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” – CLR James

“I understand cricket – what’s going on, the scoring – but I can’t understand why.” – Bill Bryson

Mr James Courtenay-Clack, English Teacher and Head of Year 9 at WHS, looks at the possible links between English and PE.

You may have noticed that the idea of ‘cross-curricular’ education is having a bit of a moment. Making links between disciplines and across subjects is undoubtedly rewarding and helps pupils to move beyond a straightjacketed approach that keeps everyone and everything in their own place. There are some subjects that fit together so naturally it hardly seems worthy of mention.

As an English teacher, it is rare to plan a unit of work that doesn’t in some way cross over with both the arts and humanities subjects. To pick one example, the current Year 13 students have been writing a coursework essay that compares Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with the poetry of TS Eliot. In this unit they studied the philosophy of Albert Camus and Soren Kierkegaard, post-WW1 European history and the climate emergencies of the 21st Century. They also explored the fragmented voices of Eliot’s poetry alongside Picasso and jazz. All of this I (and hopefully they) would argue, helped to enrich their experience of the literary texts they were studying.

There have also been links made with other subjects that are not usually seen as having much to do with literature. We have had a STEAM lesson that explored the science of nerve gas alongside Wilfred Owen’s poetry and I know that the Maths department produced some wonderful number-based poetry. What I would like to draw attention to in this article, however, is the links between English and another part of the curriculum that have for too long gone unnoticed.

Now, it might be thought that English and PE are not natural bedfellows. In the staff rooms of our cultural imagination, you could not ask for two more diametrically opposed tribes. The stereotype of the PE teacher, head to toe in school stash, whistle at the ready and exuding the aura of good health that comes only from breathing in the sweet, sweet fresh air of Nursery Road, does not fit well with that of the bookish, tweedy English teacher. Of course, all of this, as stereotypes so often are, is complete rubbish. Mr Daws seems to have run more marathons than had hot dinners and if I wanted a book recommendation I could do far worse than turn to Ms Cutteridge.  

Now this article is far too short to be able to tackle the many links between English and all of the sports played at WHS, so I am going to focus on just one, cricket.

WHS Cricket

You may roll your eyes at this, but I believe that cricket can tell us as much about the messy business of being a human being as any other cultural practice. This is something that has been explored by a surprising number of writers and so I would like to take a look at just four examples where cricket and literature combine in illuminating ways.

The Pickwick Papers – Charles Dickens

Whilst Dickens doesn’t actually appear to understand the laws of the game, the cricket match between All-Muggleton and Dingley Dell in his wonderful novel does reveal an important truth about cricket and life: friendship and conviviality are far more important than material success. Also, that exercise is more fun when followed by a substantial multi-course feast.

‘Vitai Lampada’ – Henry Newbolt

This almost impossibly Victorian poem begins in the final moments of a school cricket match – ‘ten to make and the match to win’ – before moving to a soldier dying on a battlefield in an unnamed part of the British Empire. Newbolt’s refrain ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’ gives us insight to a worldview that is almost entirely alien in 2021, but that goes someway in helping us to understand our own history.

The Legend of Pradeep Mathew – Shehan Karunatilaka

I love this novel. Karunatilaka uses cricket – or a dying sports journalist’s futile attempts to track down the greatest bowler of all time – to explore the political and social history of postcolonial Sri Lanka. If that all sounds a bit dry, please don’t be put off. It is rambunctious, hilarious and well aware of both its own and cricket’s ridiculousness.

Beyond a Boundary – CLR James

This is widely argued to be the best book about sport ever written. James, a Marxist intellectual, traces his own interest in the game alongside Trinidad’s journey towards independence. He reflects on how both cricket and English literature were introduced to the Caribbean as ways of enforcing British supremacy and sees in both the potential for anti-colonial rebellion.

I hope this whistle stop tour goes some way to showing that the cultural practices of cricket and literature both help to illuminate what it means to be a human being and that the symbiotic benefits that arise from studying English and playing cricket together are just as valid as those that arise from any other subject.

The two epigraphs I have chosen sum this up beautifully. I deliberately misread Bill Bryon’s puzzlement as to the point of cricket and imagine that he too wants to know all about its cultural value. More seriously, CLR James paraphrases Kipling by asking ‘what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ and urges us to look beyond the boundary at the world around us. This is the best metaphor for cross-curricular education that I can think of and for that reason I am proposing a mighty union between the English and PE departments. Perhaps we could even build our own version of the STEAM Tower…

Is technology advancement really eating away at your future job?

Charlotte, Year 10, looks into the impact advancements in technology will have on future job opportunities.

Will technology only aggravate inequality, or provide healthier societies?

The technology driven globe that we live in is one full of thrilling and stimulating possibilities for our future. However, it is sure to pose countless challenges whilst advancing in this adventure.

Space tourism, people reincarnation through AI, edible water blobs (the most exciting of them all!) and self-driving cars are some of the many developments aiming to be produced in the future. But with all these startling products being created there are inevitably some challenges posed.

A major concern is jobs. Our jobs. The thing we will be relying on for income and a more comfortable lifestyle, the thing our whole education is aimed around, the thing the economy relies on from the collection of taxes. Careers play a huge role in everyone’s lives and the economy, but how on earth could this amazing technology that is advancing us so much, have a negative impact on the economy and your future?

I’m sure you have heard this many times before, and the biggest answer is simply: automation. Here are some figures to demonstrate how much will change – 9 out of 10 jobs will require digital skills, in 10 years’ time 50% of jobs will be changed by automation, and in 2025, humans will account for only 58% of total task hours, meaning the machines’ share will rise to 42% from the current 29%[1]. These staggering figures could be perceived as a negative attribute to the technology advancement, with it consuming all of our jobs and picking away at our futures. However you have perceived those numbers, let me assure you that all of the foreboding figures can easily be overridden with the fascinating possibilities of what is to come.

Examples include the following:

  • Unexpected industries will boom, not just the predicted boom of the IT industry; these include healthcare, veterinary science, social assistance, engineering, geology and history;
  • The share of women in the workforce is projected to reach 47.2% in 2024, and the number of men in the workforce is expected to slightly decrease to 52.8% in 2024;[2]
  • 85& of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet.[3]

Personally, the last opinion excites me the most with the possibilities that are to come and will impact us. What jobs will be invented? How will they be invented? Who will invent them?

So, no matter how many articles and reports you see in the future about this topic, there are many positives that willoverride things reported as potential negatives. Change might be coming, as we have seen with the development of the internet over the last 40 years, but that does not mean that people will lose the ability to train, learn and adapt to use these new technologies in their day-to-day work. Creativity, critical thinking and complex problem solving – all things that automation currently finds challenging – have been identified as the top soft skills required by companies in 2020, and it is these areas which we need to promote in our learning.[4]

If you take one thing out of this brief article, let it be that creativity and your limitless imagination are the passport to the future.


[1] See https://www.weforum.org/press/2018/09/machines-will-do-more-tasks-than-humans-by-2025-but-robot-revolution-will-still-create-58-million-net-new-jobs-in-next-five-years/

[2] See https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/85140562.pdf

[3] See https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/85-jobs-exist-2030-havent-been-invented-yet-leo-salemi#:~:text=According%20to%20a%20report%20published,t%20even%20been%20invented%20yet.

[4] See https://www.prca.org.uk/Creativity-is-the-number-one-skill-2020#:~:text=Creativity%20was%20identified%20by%20LinkedIn,’Future%20of%20Jobs’%20study.

Je suis tout ouïe – being all ears: the importance of listening when learning to speak another language

Suzanne Stone, French teacher at WHS, considers the importance of listening in the language classroom and asks how we can make pupils more confident, and ultimately better, listeners.

Who hasn’t experienced first-hand, in the good old days of international travel, the frustration of not being able to understand the language we can hear around us; where seemingly basic, everyday interactions can sound like a fast stream of unintelligible phrases that can leave us feeling all at sea?

Within a school setting, the classroom can evoke similar frustrations as students try to make sense of the language spoken by their teacher or heard through audio files. Consequently, groans, sighs and puzzled brows are not an uncommon sight for MFL teachers at the front of the room, nor are comments such as ‘Why is listening so hard?’ particularly when progressing from KS3 to GCSE, and then on through to A Level.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that several studies have documented that students can approach listening tasks with a sense of anxiety (Graham 2017). Indeed for some, it can be the skill that is enjoyed the least and feared the most. Some students see listening tasks as a test or measure against which they assess their understanding and ability. A more challenging exercise can dent existing confidence, or ‘self-efficacy’ (Graham 2007), in other words the feeling that you are good at something, so undermining motivation and possibly the desire to continue with that subject later on.

So, why can listening in the classroom conjure up anxieties such as this?

‘Our brain needs to perform in real time in order to extract meaning from any utterance we hear’ (Conti and Smith 2019)

It goes without saying that listening to an audio file on OneNote is not exactly the same as listening to a real-life person who is looking at you, whose interactions, intonations and gestures can help you decipher mood and meaning. When listening, we are making many demands on our memory. We have to master holding on to all the incoming information at varying speeds whilst being able to ‘sift’ this information as we hear it, breaking it down into its component parts of words, phrases and grammar. All these processes present a challenge, particularly as any new information can often erase the previous one, especially in time-pressurised situations (Field 2008).

So, why does it matter?

‘Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak’

Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher

Surely listening is just one of many skills involved in learning a language? I would argue that it is the most important skill, as it is the precursor to speaking and inextricably linked to responding. How can you ever hope to master speaking if you are a poor listener?

Listening is not the ‘passive’ skill it was once said to be. We acquire our first language through listening to several thousand hours of being spoken to before we begin to speak intelligibly, so our brains are hard-wired to work out meaning from what we hear around us (Graham et al 2010). Julian Walker (2021), a linguistic historian, describes the ‘Tommy French’ that arose from the interactions of English-speaking troops with civilians during WW1. Their experience in France during the war led to the special language they invented in order to cope with their situation. ‘San fairy ann’, ‘toot sweet’ are anglicized French phrases (Ça ne fait rien, tout de suite) that came into use on the Western Front during the First World War as British troops struggled to communicate in French. Fortunately for us, we have a greater understanding in education of the processes of how we listen and have moved away from this rather limiting, sink or swim approach.

How can we help students become better listeners?

In learning a language, we can develop our students’ ability to listen. We can reduce anxiety and build confidence by incorporating strategies in our MFL teaching which hone the skills needed to process and respond to information we hear. It is not only the exercises we use in lessons such as dictation, dictagloss, gap-fills and games that make listening fun, but it is also the work on phonics, reading aloud and oral practice in our classroom interactions which, in turn, enable students to become better listeners.

Dictationsimprove our ability to respond to what we hear, so helping us become more authentic speakers of the language too.

How can students improve their MFL listening skills?

  • Try different approaches

Some of our Year 11 and Year 12 French students have been trying out different listening strategies to gain an understanding of different ways to cope with harder texts.

Y12 Review of preferred listening strategies       
Y11 Post Spring Listening Assessment Review

Sharing our thinking and working through strategies together in this way will hopefully promote independence and confidence and reduce anxiety in the process.

  • Build up your vocabulary!

Having a broad vocabulary is key to learning and understanding another language. Try making Quizlet flashcards and use the audio file to practise pronunciation. Alternatively, listen to a podcast such as Coffee break French, or a foreign language film or series with the subtitles in French or in English – Lupin on Netflix is a popular choice here!

Final thoughts

Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly.

Plutarch, Greek biographer

So, how can we become better listeners? As discussed in a previous blog by our Director of Sport, in mastering a skill, repetition is crucial and listening is no different. In short, you get better at what you practise and by improving our listening, we can hope to become better speakers too.

Sources and further reading:

Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith, Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen, 2019

Steve Smith – A process approach to listening – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQhh6b6BTJI&list=PL_FfkTb7PcMG7V_KE-N9r9NMmB1-GrF0c

John Field, Listening in the Language Classroom, 2009

Julian Walker, Tommy French: How British First World War Soldiers Turned French into Slang, 2021

Graham S, Learner strategies and self-efficacy: making the connection, 2007

Graham S, Research into practice: listening strategies in an instructed classroom setting, 2017

Graham S, Santos, D, & Vanderplank, R, Strategy clusters and sources of knowledge in French L2 listening comprehension, 2010

Coffee Break French https://coffeebreaklanguages.com/category/coffee-break-french/

What progress has been made this year towards creating a diverse curriculum at WHS?

WHS Classroom

Miss Emily Anderson, Head of History at WHS, evaluates the progress of the diversity in the curriculum working party since September, and reflects on our next steps.

It has been both a challenge and a privilege to have been leading the working party examining diversity in the curriculum since the Autumn Term. Ensuring that our curriculum is fit for purpose in both empowering our students to be active citizens of the world in which they live, and reflecting both their identities and those they will live and work alongside in their local, national and global communities could not be a more vital part of our work as teachers, individually, in departments and as part of the whole school. Such a curriculum would simultaneously support our students and ensure they feel that they belong in the WHS community, and would empower them to understand and champion diversity in their lives beyond school. The curriculum is not a fixed entity, and the constant re-evaluation of it is one of, to my mind, the most challenging and important parts of our professional lives as teachers.

As members of the school community will be aware from his letters and assemblies, in the autumn Deputy Head Pastoral Ben Turner asked staff, as part of our commitment to systemic change, to scrutinise three different areas of our work as a school in order to better inform our future direction. Alongside our scrutiny of the curriculum, colleagues have been looking at our recruitment of students and staff and how we reach out to a broader and more diverse range of communities, and at our work with our students beyond the curriculum, in our pastoral, super-curricular and extra-curricular contexts.

WHS Partnerships

Examining the curriculum were staff from the arts, sciences and humanities, bringing a variety of perspectives. I wanted to make an ambitious but absolutely necessary distinction from the outset – that we cannot approach the curriculum by diversifying what is already there, but need to create a curriculum that is inherently diverse. We discussed the need to broaden our collective understanding of different identities (the GDST’s Undivided work has been very valuable in this regard), and to model open, honest and often difficult dialogue. The difficulties of the process of change were also considered, especially the transition from an old to a new curriculum, and the fear of being labelled knee-jerk or tokenistic until it became embedded and normal. This is, however, no excuse for not trying. Doing nothing is not an option. Three areas for evaluation emerged for us to take to departments:

  1. The day-to day – teachers’ understanding about different types of diversity, our use of language and resources in the classroom, encouraging more challenging and reflective discussions in the classroom.
  2. The medium term – creating a diverse curriculum at WHS – looking again at KS3, and evaluating our choices at KS4 and KS5 to identify more diverse lines of enquiry or exemplars in existing specifications, or opportunities to move to other boards.
  3. The bigger picture – joining the growing national conversation with exam boards to make changes to GCSEs and A Levels to better reflect diverse identities, critically evaluating the cultural assumptions and frameworks through which our knowledge is formed and which privilege certain identities over others, to problematise and ultimately change these in our teaching.

The reflections that came back from discussions at department level showed that much carefully considered planning is being undertaken across departments, in terms of the individuals whose voices are heard through study of their work, the enquiries that are planned to broaden our students’ horizons and the pedagogical implications of how we create an environment in which diverse identities can be recognised and understood.  

My own department (History) are completely reconceiving our curriculum. My colleague, Holly Beckwith, wrote a beautiful rationale for this in WimTeach last year which I would highly recommend reading.[1] We have been preparing for major curriculum change for a number of years, firstly through trialling experimental enquiries to pave the way, such as a new Y9 enquiry on different experiences of the First World War. Our choosing of a unit on the British Empire c1857-1967 at A Level – a unit whose framework could, if taught uncritically, be problematic in terms of what it privileges, but which enables us to at least explore, understand and challenge such power structures and give voice to some of the people it oppressed through the study of historical scholarship – also helps facilitate changes further down the school as it demands significant contextual knowledge about societies across the world before the age of European imperialism.[2] Now, we are in a position to put in place major and increasingly urgently needed changes for September 2021 at Year 7 and Year 10, which will lead to a transformed KS3 and KS4 curriculum over the next three years.

To pivot back to the whole-school context, I also met with student leaders from each year group who had collated ideas from their peers to feed back. These were wonderfully articulately and thoughtfully put, often critical, and unsurprisingly revealed a great appetite for change. As teachers and curriculum designers, there is a balance to be struck here between taking students’ views into account, and creating coherent and robust curricula where knowledge and conceptual thinking builds carefully as students progress up the school – areas of study cannot simply be swapped in and out. As I have alluded to above, for example we start sowing the seeds of contextual understanding for GCSE and A Level at Y7. Furthermore, this process will take time, as meaningful change always does, and so managing expectations is also something we must consider. In and of itself, modelling the process of systemic change is such a valuable lesson for our students so this must be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate this.

So far, this process of evaluation has prompted profound and necessary reflection by teachers not only on what we teach in the classroom, but on how our own understandings of our disciplines have been conditioned by our experiences and educations. As well as educating our students, we are also continually educating ourselves, often unlearning old ideas. There is still a significant way to go in creating the inherently diverse curriculum we are aiming for, and I look forward to continuing to challenge and be challenged as we work together as a community to, ultimately, try to do right by our students and our world.


References:

[1] http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/vaulting-mere-blue-air-separates-us-history-connection/

[2] Akala, Natives, London, Two Roads, 2019; R. Gildea, Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019; P. Gopal, Insurgent Empire, London, Verso, 2019;

Do you have a ‘Positive’ toolkit at your fingertips?

Mrs Jessica Salt, Head of Year 8 at WHS, discusses the Positive Schools Programme and the impact it could have on your well-being.

Positive was set up in 2011 with the vision of using research in psychology and neuroscience to help individuals and organisations optimise their wellbeing and performance.

Positive started out in the business world before expanding into the education sector in 2016. The GDST created a partnership with Positive to provide all schools in the Trust with the Positive Schools Programme (PSP) – championing a whole school approach to psychological wellbeing and protective psychological competencies.

The GDST recognised that in order for the “girls first” approach to be to be successful they needed to prioritise the psychological wellbeing and health of its teachers. For example, normalising a teacher’s response to stress and pressure, increasing emotional literacy, self and social awareness and emotional regulation will have a cascade effect to the students. Teachers should use the Positive tools to help them tune into how they are feeling and move into a more positive mindset/build resilience, and then apply this knowledge and experience to teach their students to do the same.

Teachers are in an ideal position to help support and guide students through many crucial years where the brain is re-sculpting itself and neural pathways are changing. The PSP is a great way to further extend our evidence based pastoral care and give our girls practical and versatile strategies than can support them throughout their lives.

The primary aim of Positive is prevention. It is built around the four pillars of psychological health:

A Positive Toolkit in Brief:

Awareness

  • The Emotional Barometer (EB) is a visual metaphor tool designed to track your mood state and emotions on a regular basis. Over time you may see a pattern of how your emotions impact your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Our moods and emotions are constantly changing so it is completely normal to move around all areas of the EB – being in the top right-hand quadrant at all the time is not sustainable. The key is to be able to recognise where you are sitting on the EB and why (particularly if we are feeling stuck on the left-hand quadrant) and then to actively deploy a technique that will bring you back towards the middle of the scale.
  • The Inner Coach is a tool that helps you to reappraise an event and develop a positive, reasoned inner dialogue, which offers a more rational approach to solutions during pressurised situations. The Inner Coach should offer constructive solutions instead of catastrophising and self-blaming. Over time and with practice, our Inner Coach becomes stronger and stronger, meaning we can call on them quicker and more effectively during challenging situations.

Focus

  • The Positive Switch is a tool designed to make you more aware of your focus and deliberately regulate your attention. The idea is that you have a switch in your mind which can be moved between three different positions: Task, Recharge, and Present. All three settings bring their own potential benefits and opportunities for your wellbeing. You need to use your Switch to ensure your day is balanced with protected task time, regular breaks and at least one opportunity to enter Present mode.  
  • The Worry Filter enables you to differentiate between “useful” and “useless worries”.  The filter aims to help break the cycle of rumination and decrease your stress response. It can be as simple as a list with two columns and a plan of action for any useful worries that you have a degree of control over. This will then help you declutter and focus your mind, freeing up cognitive resources and thus increasing your creativity. Worry is the most powerful of interruptions linked to the survival instinct. It is important to control our worry, so we do not get caught in a negative spiral, dwelling on imagined threats/catastrophising about the future.

Mindset

  • The Positive Pinboard is designed to help you overcome the human negativity bias. It encourages individuals to notice and focus more on the positives. Over time this mindset switches the default neural circuits in the brain to more optimistic ones and reinforces positive mood-states and resilience. It is a virtual pinboard onto which you can ‘pin’ photos and notes of positive moments during your day capturing them via the Positive App. It is a similar idea to a gratitude journal, but you can add images in addition to thoughts. If you do not have the app you could create a private Instagram page just for you. Choose a trigger to help remind you to do this everyday and form a new habit.
  • The Strength Mirror is a tool with two main parts. The first part involves looking at yourself to identify your personal strengths and how you currently use them in your daily life. You should reflect on your recent experiences and try to pinpoint when you have used a strength most effectively. The second part involves looking into to a future scenario or situation and using imagery to visualise how you can use your strengths to tackle it. Visualising the entire process is the key to the second part of the Strength mirror, focus on the practical steps you can take.

The tools for the final pillar of Connection are yet to be released – watch this space!

At Wimbledon High School we are using the Positive Schools Programme and tools in a range of ways. There are numerous teaching colleagues who have now completed a multi-day course to train as ‘Positive Teachers’ to ensure they have an in-depth knowledge of the programme and tools. We have recently launched ‘Positive NOW’ as part of our staff twilight programme where over 40 members of staff have signed up to learn more about the science and evidence surrounding the four pillars. In our roll out to students we have adopted a gradual process including a range of tools into our Review and Reflection days, form times and PSHE sessions. We want to continue to help our girls shift unhealthy habits and bounce back from challenging times.

Should prisoners on Death Row be accepted as Organ Donors?

Isobel, a Year 10 pupil at WHS, assesses the ethics and logistics of accepting death row prisoners as organ donors.

Disclaimer: This piece is based on the US death row and does not highlight my own views on capital punishment.

From a Utilitarian standpoint, there may appear to be a simple answer to this question: organ donation should be permitted because there is a global shortage of transplantable organs and those in dire health condition are unable to receive the medical care they need. However, as more research is done numerable practical and ethical barriers arise. One country that already utilises organs from death row inmates is China. Reports state that more than 5,000 prisoners are executed in China annually, and organs are harvested for transplantation from suitable prisoners. These prisoners are executed via a temporal gun shot wound and are declared dead secondary to execution. They are not declared brain dead which causes many ethical headaches because the physicians removing the organs are then put in the position of executioner. This brief case study begins to highlight some of the major opposing arguments to organ donation from death row prisoners.

Picture from showing surgery https://pixabay.com

The numerous practical barriers surrounding organ procurement from death row prisoners begin to pile up after closer inspection. The first issue is the low yield of transplantable donor organs from these prisoners due to the potential high likelihood of alcohol or drug abuse. Whilst this is a potential stereotype, these factors can drastically impact the quality of the organs being donated.

For example, alcoholism is the leading cause of liver disease in the US because heavy drinking can cause irreversible cirrhosis. Approximately 10-20% of heavy drinkers develop this disease and it is the ninth leading cause of death in the US, killing around 35,000 people a year. Prisoners in long term facilities will not live on nutrition rich diets, will most likely be malnourished because of the (often) poor-quality food they have consumed and will not get the adequate exercise to build up strong organs such as hearts and lungs. These reasons could also impact the quality of their organs for transplantation.

The second practical barrier preventing condemmed prisoners from being organ donors is the logistics on the day of execution. The surgeon performing the operation cannot kill the patient by removing their organs as it breaches the Hippocratic oath of ‘do no harm’. The patient must already be dead or pronounced brain dead before they are put under general anaesthesia because when the transplant team cross clamps the aorta, resulting in a cardiectomy and takes the patient of the ventilator, they are then declared dead. Many physicians’ groups, including the American Medical Association, have prohibited physician participation in state executions on ethical grounds.

Looking through a utilitarian lense the death of an organ donor means dozens of lives saved and the donation is there simply to help those suffering from end stage organ disease, not for any other ulterior motives. The two documents that set out the rules around organ donation in the US are the National Transplant Act of 1984 and the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. Neither of these documents explicitly prohibits organ donation by death row inmates which means there is no law preventing it from happening. The National Transplant Act states that organ donation cannot be made for ‘valuable considerations’, including exchange of money, material benefit, or a shortened sentence.  This would not be an issue for death row inmates as they have already been condemmed until the end of their life and they have little access to the wider society.

Christian Longo went public with his idea to donate organs as a condemmed prisoner and joined the organisation G.A.V.E (Gifts of Anatomical Value from Everyone). He came up with the idea himself so there is no fear of coercion and he approached the New York times with his story on a voluntary basis. There have been 14 other publicised instances of death row inmates and their lawyers attempting to seek their respective opportunities to donate their organs. They were denied on the grounds of current knowledge on the matter. As popularity surrounding capital punishment begins to dim the public’s sympathy for those stationed on death row is increasing. The conversation surrounding a prisoner’s ability to choose to have one good action in the world before their execution is becoming ever louder.

When a person in incarcerated many of their free rights no longer apply. This can make the ethical arguments considered in organ donation heightened or just too confusing to comprehend.  Two seemingly opposite arguments: fear of coercion, (insinuates the death row inmates are not being adequately protected) and the intention to preserve the morality of capital punishment (death row inmates rights are given too much protection) begin to represent this.

There is a fine line between coercion and free choice when it is made in a heavily pressurised situation like a prison. The emotional stress on the donor can be intense because of the need to make right. Also, the patient who is accepting the donor should be notified that the organs they are receiving came a person on death row. Those who oppose capital punishment are then forced to choose between their life or their personal morals. Many say that the idea of capital punishment is to achieve retribution and deterrence in society. The action of donation is not consistent with either of these aims. Making a hero of the person at the end of their life could have detrimental impact on the family and friends of the victim to the prisoner’s crime. For many, the death of the perpetrator of their pain can bring closure and end to the cycles of grief. To see them be glorified in their last days could have the opposite effect.

https://pixabay.com

It is important to consider the impact that organ donation from death row prisoners will have on the overall practice. The number of potential organs recovered from condemned prisoners would be small. The conceivable stigma that would be attached to organ donation from its coupling with execution could lead to decreases in donation rates. This may especially be true within certain minority groups.

Any notion that groups of people were receiving increased numbers of death sentences to provide organs for the rest of society would clearly make it difficult to attempt to obtain consent for altruistic donation from these groups.

Overall, the bad outweighs the good so although it may seem like an easy solution to a difficult problem, donation from death row inmates would cause more problems than it could hope to solve.

Coronavirus and the economy

Calculator and pen economics

Lily in Year 13 wrote this article just before the start of Lockdown 2 in November 2020 in the UK. As we now gradually come out of Lockdown 3 some 7 months later, how much of the article rings true?

As of the 23rd March 2020 the UK was placed under lockdown and has been moving in and out of lockdowns and restrictions ever since. This is likely to cause an economic slowdown and possibly plunge the UK into recession over the coming years because when people are in lockdown consumption and aggregate demand in the UK is likely to fall. There will be impacts on workers and the UKs supply of goods domestically and from abroad which is also likely to negatively impact the economy. Overall, the UK and its economy is likely to suffer as a result of Covid-19.

Possible impacts

Firstly, aggregate demand in the UK will be hit by the virus as when people are quarantined they will be unable to go out and spend, especially as recently all shops selling non-essential goods along with bars and restaurants have been told to close meaning this spending in these sectors won’t be possible anymore. This will be added to by the low consumer confidence that is currently present as in uncertain times people save their money as a safety net so they will be able to support themselves in uncertain times.

Consumption patterns will also change, meaning goods with an income elasticity of demand between 0 and 1 are likely to see little change in demand as these goods are classed as necessities. Some might even see a rise in demand in the short term as people panic buy (think back to scenes of toilet roll panic buying in April 2020).

However, goods with an income elasticity over one are likely to see a decrease in demand as these are classed as luxuries so people won’t be prioritising purchasing these items when economics conditions are uncertain. This means that overall consumption will decrease as people don’t have the opportunity to spend as much out shopping or on luxuries and are also likely to be more cautious with their spending by nature. This fall in consumption will also be exacerbated if people’s incomes are negatively impacted, such as if they were previously working in the gig economy, perhaps on zero hour contracts or with irregular, situation-based income.

These people would be relying on their savings or help from the government for their money, meaning their spending and consumption is likely to fall. To encourage more spending the bank of England has dropped interest rates to a new record low 0.1% to encourage people to go out and spend instead of save as they will be receiving very little gain from letting their money sit in a bank account. Also, as if demand falls whilst there is still a constant level of supply prices of goods and services are likely fall. This can be seen through the drop in the price of flights as airlines suffer a shortage in demand. For example a flight from California to London would have previously cost $1000 can now be purchased for as low as $246 dollars. However, this drop in prices is likely to have a limited effect on demand because of the uncertainty currently which also means low interest rates are likely to have a limited effect in changing people’s behaviour. Recent travel bans will also limit the impact lower prices in the airline industry since people are unable to take advantage of these lower prices when they are unable to travel or will be deterred by quarantine times. This means that overall aggregate demand and consumption in the UK is likely to fall because there will be fewer opportunities for people to spend but mostly because of consumer uncertainty. This will negatively impact the UK economy.

Aggregate supply in the UK will also be impacted by the virus, impacting costs along with exports if less is being produced domestically. A fall in domestic supply could result in cost push inflation as if demand levels for some products remain steady prices would have to rise to make up for the limited stock or production due to covid-19 restraints on supply. This fall in supply could be caused if workers have to self-isolate and cannot go to work, meaning a company cannot operate at full capacity causing a shift inward on their PPF.

Companies might also have trouble receiving stock from other countries if their production has been impacted by the virus which could prevent production in domestic businesses. This is likely to hit the manufacturing industry especially hard as these rely on parts from abroad, such as the car company Jaguar which is now running out of parts it would usually ship from China[1], and people coming to work as it is very difficult to work from home if you worked in a factory. This effect on supply could be decreased depending as the UK has a flexible labour market, meaning people can easily move from job to job meaning businesses won’t be hit as hard by the shock as resources (people) can be reallocated more easily compared to France where the labour market is very inflexible.

This effect on supply also depends how flexible the product markets are as if a company could switch supplier there would be minimal effect especially if this new supplier was located domestically instead of abroad. There might also be a time lag if producers had stockpiled meaning it would take longer to run out of stock however is still likely to happen in the long term. In the long run this outbreak could cause LRAS curve to shift inwards if there is less investment as companies will be working harder to keep afloat rather than investing or spending on R&D meaning less will be invested into the countries long term productivity.

This can be seen though the fall in the share prices of the FTSE 100 as on 9th March 2020 the average prices of shares fell 8%[2], the worst day since the 2008 financial crisis with £144bn wiped off its combined value. These top 100 companies were likely to be some of the largest investment spenders. Although, as the UKs economy is mainly based on financial services, many can work from home meaning domestic supply issues may not affect the economy as much as countries that rely heavily on manufacturing such as China and Germany shown as Chinese economy shrank by 6.8% in the first quarter of 2020, the first contraction since 1976. The government could also reduce the effect on domestic supply by subsidising companies so they are able to invest in the technologies they need and keep production lines running, or as interest rates are low companies could take out a loan to invest. Meaning there are options for companies to try and uphold supply and investment. However, there is still the underlying issue of people not being able to go to work because of self-isolation. This will have a huge impact on supply in the UK and therefore the economy as if products aren’t being made they cannot be consumed and if they aren’t being consumed profits will fall leaving companies to have less money to invest, impacting supply in the short term along with productivity in the long term.

Overall, the impact of the virus is going to be wide-ranging across the world and in the UK, impacting both supply and demand. Impacts of the fall in supply in the short term will be slightly counteracted by the fall in aggregate demand as if both curves shift inwards there will be a new equilibrium point of production and cost push inflation is likely to be limited. However, the nation’s productivity and output will decrease which means the UKs GDP is likely to fall significantly, plunging the UK into a recession. The British government are spending more to combat some of the impacts however this is unlikely to cover the full economic impact and will see a rise in the government budget deficit as a result. This also makes it likely that we will see the government to following a policy of austerity over the coming years, meaning people in the UK and the UKs economy are likely to be hit hard by this crisis. However, as the virus is a global pandemic, it is likely that its impact will also be mirrored across the rest of the world.[3]

2021 Update

The UK Government introduced the furlough scheme to support workers and businesses who were unable to run as normal owing to the impact of the virus. Up to April 2021 this has cost over £61 billion[4], with 4.7 million jobs impacted. Government spending is at the highest figure ever seen outside of periods of war.[5]

With increasing numbers of the population having now been vaccinated against the virus, and the recently announced reopening of restaurants from 17 May 2021[6], there is a feeling that we are gradually moving out of the crisis and that normality is becoming closer.

However, the vast spending seen since the crisis started in January 2020 will almost certainly mean that a return to a pre-pandemic life will be a challenge and that further austerity will be required to settle the books. The need to ‘level up’ the country, as announced by the Prime Minister on 11 May 2021[7], will be central to life as we know it for many years to come. Whether this can be achieved will be subject to criticism and debate for the significant future.


[1] See https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/coronavirus-jaguar-land-rover-suitcases-supply-chain-factories-china-a9343336.html

[2] See https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/09/ftse-plunges-to-below-6000-amid-global-coronavirus-sell-off-oil#:~:text=9%20March%202020%20Fears%20of,into%20an%20official%20bear%20market.

[3] See https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/grossdomesticproductgdp/articles/coronavirusandtheimpactonoutputintheukeconomy/december2020#:~:text=6.,declined%20by%209.9%25%20in%202020.&text=GDP%20measured%20by%20the%20output,growth%20of%201.4%25%20in%202019. The impact on the UK economy is a 9.9% fall in GDP over the course of the year.

[4] Table and reference from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122100/uk-cost-of-furlough-scheme/

[5] See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52663523

[6] See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2021/05/12/covid-lockdown-roadmap-new-rules-may-17-dates-when-end/

[7] See https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/queens-speech-2021-boris-johnson-pledges-to-harness-spirit-of-lockdown-as-he-sets-out-uks-covid-recovery-995558

The hurts and highs of play: how can promoting play help children process the pandemic?

Ms Claire Boyd, Head of Junior School, considers what we have learned about young people since schools reopened on 8 March 2021.

It is just over two months since schools reopened their gates to pupils and, some semblance of normality, returned to classrooms across the country. From next Monday, the mandatory requirement for face coverings to be worn in schools expires and trips and visits will also be able to resume. Planning for ‘in-person’ events is now underway and many schools now look forward to rounding off the academic year by welcoming parents and guests back into school halls and auditoria. In short, it feels like the cloud of covid, that has loomed large over our schools for the last 18 months, is slowly passing with sunnier days forecast ahead.

Like all school leaders, alongside the practical and logistical implications of running a school during a global pandemic, one of my biggest preoccupations has been working out how best to respond to the impact covid has had upon the development – both academic and social – of our children. Whilst much has been made of lost learning, digital deficits, growing inequality in pupil experiences and a deterioration in mental health and wellbeing, far less has been made of how we can best react and respond to what we have seen and what our children have experienced.

In the short term, like many schools, we have worked hard at WHS to devise a bespoke programme to respond to the full opening of schools and support pupils through the aftermath of an unprecedented period of closures. Launched back in March, Relate, Reconnect and Restore, reflected an acute awareness that the third lockdown affected families in different ways; it resulted in our girls feeling a range of emotions about returning to normal routines after so long at home and such limited opportunities for social interaction.

Watching Relate, Reconnect and Restore unfold across the Junior School over the past few weeks has been affirming and, in many ways, humbling. The seemingly infinite capacity of children – in this case, our 340 girls aged 4 to 11 – to adapt and adjust to new expectations, routines and ways of working together has shown us that few barriers stand in the way mixing up way we teach and learn if the desire and willingness to flex is there.

In many ways, it is still too early to quantify the impact of these new initiatives on development, progress and attainment; they have only been up and running for a short period of time and school-life continues to be curtailed by the need to ensure covid security. Nonetheless, from a qualitative point of view, there are already early indications of the impact these new approaches are having upon our charges. Observations of our girls in action in the around the school, alongside discussions and conversations from with girls and teachers from across the Junior School, suggest there is one stand-out factor that is making a real difference: play.

Play; the act of engaging in an activity for enjoyment or recreation, sits at the heart of the experience of childhood. Universal in its reach, the act of play transcends cultures, continents and time. The impulse to play is innate; it is a “biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well-being” (King & Sturrock, The Play Cycle, 2020) of both individuals and communities. It requires nothing at all except a willingness to engage; either with those around you or just merely in the spectre of your own imagination. Since returning to school on 8 March, the profile and prominence of play across all our Junior School year groups has been remarkably – and gloriously – high. The extension of play time for all, and the extension of the school day for our youngest girls, has provided more space and time for social reconnections to take place. The return of peer-to-peer interactions has stimulated an appetite for play, both structured and unstructured, adult-led and pupil-intimated.

Reflecting on it now, it seems eminently logical that, after a period of disruption and upheaval, where social interactions have been so very limited, that our children are using play as a way of recalibrating and reestablishing themselves as individuals beyond the home environment in which they have spent so much time.

Where formalised programmes of targeted teaching and learning can deliver valuable academic yields, play and the act of playing cultivates an important way of ‘being’ which, over time, shows “superior developmental gains from social, emotional and cognitive perspectives” (King & Sturrock, The Play Cycle, 2020). It provides the opportunity to be lost in the ‘flow’ – the holisitic sensation that people feel when they act in total involvement – of invention, improvisation and adaptation and creation. It generates a helpful landscape to explore the more formal experiences, skills and concepts of the classroom in the free and unstructured landscape of the imagination.

It also provides fertile – and sometimes febrile – ground to learn to navigate friendship and negotiate challenges with a broad range of peers and their personalities. The playground often acts as a microcosm of what lies beyond the school gates and Michael Rosen writes emphatically about what play can do to “help us cope with change and learn flexibility…[as] our lives, our ‘fates’, are always wrapped up with the fates of other, whose lives are constantly changing too” (Rosen, Book of Play, 2019). It seems, after so much time away from the forums of social play, children are instinctively seeking out this the time and space to explore the social order around them.

Play promotes both adaptability and order; it opens up pathways for discovery, for opportunity, for greater self-knowledge and understanding of those around us. In the formative years of a child’s life, it is a big part of how we define ourselves. In essence, it is the hurts and highs of play that gives us an understanding who we are and how we want to take up space in the world around us.

As we continue to seek to carve a strong and steady path out of the experiences of the last year, let us not overlook the art of play and its intrinsic capacity to toy with ideas and feelings, to form new connections, ask questions and find answers. Whilst we can devise programmes to provide catch-up and systems to gap-fill, space and time must be preciously ringfenced for all children to play, to be playful and luxuriate in their own imaginations.