What does educational innovation look like in the post-Covid world?

With emerging new trends in employer recruitment and the rapid rise in digital technology, Stephen Burley, headmaster at King’s High School in Warwick, shares his thoughts on the future of education

There is a growing sense that education is on the cusp of significant change. Anthony Seldon’s book, The Fourth Education Revolution, offers a compelling vision for the ways in which artificial intelligence will transform our schools and universities, enabling a more personalised digital experience that will free up teacher time to focus on the emotional, social and physical development of our students.

Seldon’s book was published in 2018, in that heady pre-Covid era in which Zoom and Teams were barely in our peripheral vision. Over the last decade, most schools have come a very long way to build capacity and develop expertise in digital learning; however, it has been the more recent and pressing necessities of Covid that will have a lasting and significant impact on education.

Necessity is, as the proverb goes, the mother of invention and, so often, the driver of innovation. The lived experience of having to deliver remote education, transforming our schools overnight to develop new online learning experiences, has uncovered the latent potential of technology to bring exciting change and offer a degree of flexibility and adaptability that will have a lasting impact on educational practice. We have all rapidly upskilled in the craft of online pedagogy and this will prove to be very powerful.

From the early experiences of the first lockdown, when the priority for teachers was to deliver core content to a largely silent screen of square boxes and icons on Microsoft Teams, many schools have quickly developed remarkable expertise to provide genuinely exciting and interactive learning experiences.

The introduction of virtual break-out rooms has been a game-changer, enabling collaborative small-group work. For example, in subjects like drama, students can write dialogues together, perform them, edit them into a video and peer assess, all in small groups, before returning to the virtual classroom to feedback, discuss and review.

The opportunities for real-time modelling and feedback are greatly enhanced by students submitting work via the chat function – a simple and immediate way for teachers to review student work in class and for students to see and peer-assess each other’s work. Audio marking has enhanced teacher feedback significantly. Students now click on an icon beside their work and hear their teacher commenting on it. Platforms such as Mentimeter (brainstorming), Quizlet Live (flash cards), Kahoot! (quizzes) and Spiral (mini whiteboards) are now used to replace (and often improve on) equivalent in-class activities.

These are just a few of the many ways in which the pedagogy of online learning has developed into a craft in the hands of confident and skilled teachers. We know that parents’ evenings and snow days have changed for ever, but the depth and significance of the Covid educational experience runs far deeper as educators reflect on how this can transform the learning experience in a more hopeful post-Covid era.

The employment landscape

There are other important currents that are feeding into this movement towards lasting educational change. In the world of the 2030s, 2040s and beyond, into which our students will emerge after A-levels or university, the employment landscape will have changed beyond recognition. Whilst we don’t know what that employment market will look like, we can be very confident that the impact of artificial intelligence and digitalisation will mean that personal skills, mindset and character attributes will take on far greater significance for employers than the traditional academic qualifications that have been so highly prized for so long.

Creativity, creative thinking, emotional intelligence, digital skills, teamwork and networking, social responsibility – these are just some of the qualities that will be vital to enable young people to thrive in the world of the future and the employment market that develops from that.

The personal skills and confidence to develop powerful collaborative networks, to work positively in teams to think creatively to solve real-world problems, to produce new digital content to engage large audiences, to demonstrate a genuine sense of social responsibility and the high levels of ethical, emotional and environmental intelligence that go with that, are the attributes that will unlock the door to success in our brave new world.

The impact of artificial intelligence and digitalisation will mean that personal skills, mindset and character attributes will take on far greater significance for employers than the traditional academic qualifications that have been so highly prized for so long

Already, we are seeing notable shifts in terms of employer recruitment trends: employers now seek far more than strong degrees from Russell Group universities.

Whilst academic pedigree will always carry weight in recruitment decisions, it is very clear that character, creativity, mindset and social engagement are increasingly important. Employers are focusing far more on diversity recruitment as they try to build teams with diverse skills-sets and backgrounds to meet the challenges they face. There are increasing numbers of students opting for exciting degree apprenticeships in finance, creative arts, technology, engineering and other sectors, instead of taking places on courses at leading universities.

This changing landscape, both in terms of our upskilling from Covid and the impact of artificial intelligence on society and the economy, requires schools to be nimble, flexible, and quick to adapt and evolve to meet new and shape-shifting requirements of the future. So, how can schools be ahead of the curve in terms of both student experience and broader educational culture?

The curriculum of the future

Inevitably, a school’s curriculum is the principal vehicle for the delivery of subject content. There have been many exciting curriculum innovations in recent times, with schools developing bespoke courses to promote new domains of knowledge or to enable a sharper focus on skills such as creative and critical thinking. However, the fundamental structure of the curriculum has remained largely unchanged for decades (some might even say centuries).

The traditional academic view of a knowledge-rich curriculum oriented towards terminal assessments that reward memory and application of knowledge still dominates. It requires bold thinking and creativity to re-imagine more flexible and inspiring curriculum models and new ways of engaging with content to build core dispositions, strengthen mindset, unlock talent and potential, and promote collaborative networking and problem-solving skills.

Core academic skills and the knowledge that underpins this will be important, but so too will be a powerful vision for the curriculum founded not solely on traditional subject domains, but on the values and skills that will need to be front and centre of student experience: creativity, curiosity, character, confidence, and community.

A connected curriculum and a connected community that engages with local, national and global issues and organisations will provide powerful real-world opportunities to forge change and consider broader global perspectives. New subject areas will inevitably develop and flourish as we respond to the changing social and economic reality: subjects such as genetics, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, social enterprise, social justice, the environment, happiness and wellbeing, to name but a few, are coming into prominence.

But more important than subject content or domains, will be the ways in which the vision and values of the curriculum are embedded in teaching and learning practice by educators who are excited, inspired and invigorated by the challenges of the future. This requires teams of skilled and intelligent educators working collaboratively to model positive change, to promote a culture of changemaking, where the values of social responsibility and ethical upstanding are developed alongside the ‘softer’ skills of emotional intelligence, empathy, leadership and team building.

Stephen Burley, headmaster at King’s High Warwick

The classroom of the future – the mentoring model

In schools across the world a single model of teaching and learning is dominant, and has been for a very long time: the classroom lesson. In the hands of experts, it has proved to be a remarkably successful and adaptable genre: with one teacher and 20-30 students, the variety of lesson structures and outcomes is remarkable. In sixth form, there is a move to smaller group sizes enabling a seminar-style pedagogy to prevail. It is hard to see the dominance of the classroom lesson diminishing swiftly, but it seems inevitable that alternative models will emerge alongside it.

For years, schools that have delivered the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) have introduced a different model of teaching and learning. Educationally, it has been incredibly powerful and enormously successful. The rise of the EPQ has shown how inspiring the university model of teaching and learning can be when adapted for schools. With rigorous academic content and important study skills delivered to larger groups via lectures, with student-inspired projects supported by an appointed mentor, the EPQ has been a transformational experience for tens of thousands of students since its inception in 2006.

Using and adapting this model, combining it with the possibilities of technology, offers an exciting alternative to the traditional classroom lesson. The combination of lecture, seminar and tutorial style coaching and mentoring can inspire outstanding opportunities for nurturing independent thinking skills. This focus on coaching and mentoring, and the importance of modelling this to students, will form part of a gradual transition from more traditional and didactic forms of educational experience.

Using the mentoring model to develop new courses, and new digital courses which use a blend of live, recorded and independent project work, offers schools powerful motivation to create their own in-house MOOCs (massive open online courses). Using digital content in this way allows for more vertical rather than horizontal academic experiences, grouping students by their interests and passions rather than their age.

Whilst the architecture of school buildings still centres on the traditional dominance of the classroom of 20-30 students, digital technology and our educational lessons from Covid can create far more flexible pedagogical models that will allow new methods of teaching and learning to flourish. The traditional practice of isolated classroom groups, with, for example, five maths teachers all delivering the same lesson on algebra at the same time in separate classrooms, could make way for more innovative, more connected learning experiences which combine excellent content delivery with greater opportunities for bespoke coaching and mentoring supervision.

The future of qualifications and assessment

One of the most obvious things that our experience of Covid has highlighted is the shortcomings of terminal assessment. Our reliance on final examinations as the only means of assessing student attainment, has not fared at all well during the pandemic. The onset of CAGs and TAGs – school- or teacher-assessed grades based on a holistic view of progress and attainment – has drawn into sharp focus how inflexible and, some might say, outdated our assessment models have become.

In the age of artificial intelligence and digitalisation, the idea of students sitting in large exam halls in the summer term handwriting answers after cramming for weeks is hard to envisage. The irony here is that the latest round of government reforms deliberately moved away from coursework, controlled assessment, spoken assessment and modular assessment to assert the dominance of the final exam.

With the whole academic infrastructure of schools now directed firmly at the end goal of terminal assessment, is it feasible to envisage change here? I think that it is. The wider sense of frustration at GCSE assessment has been growing for some time. In recent years an increasing number of independent schools have either rejected GCSEs or developed exciting alternatives.

If the dominance of the GCSE as the gold standard of 16+ assessment continues to diminish, then we could see a more diverse and flexible menu of alternative qualifications emerge, either developed and assessed internally by schools or groups of schools, or accredited externally by universities and colleges.

I, for one, would very much welcome the proliferation of alternative qualifications that are more responsive to the diverse (non-academic) skills that students need to develop in order to be ‘future-ready’

This would enable a much smaller core of GCSEs, based on a broader assessment model, to be studied and supplemented by new and alternative courses and qualifications. In my own school we have developed Create, a new KS4 course to promote creative thinking skills as students work individually or collaboratively to find solutions to real-world problems.

Schools, like my own, have developed exciting Baccalaureate or Diploma courses that focus on skills such as leadership, social responsibility and community service. The New College of the Humanities School Certificate in Philosophy, or the EPQ Level 2 Certificate, are further examples of powerful alternatives to the terminally-assessed GCSE. I, for one, would very much welcome the proliferation of alternative qualifications that are more responsive to the diverse (non-academic) skills that students need to develop in order to be ‘future-ready’.

The International Baccalaureate has long offered an alternative system of assessment to promote the core skills at the heart of their learner profile and offer greater breadth than the A-level assessment models offer. In English, for example, students are required not only to write critically about the literature studied, but they must also discuss and evaluate it via oral assessment, and develop coursework based on their reading of world literature.

A more meaningful and future-inspired assessment model must surely offer a judicious balance between different components that assess independent and creative thinking skills, speaking, communication and presentation skills, alongside a combination of continuous assessment (as per CAGs and TAGS) and summative assessment. The ability to translate knowledge and understanding into digital products that engage others would surely be an important alternative to explore, with student outcomes including blogs, vlogs, podcasts, websites, as well as the traditional essay.

Bold thinking

The future of education must, therefore, personalise the learning experience and be more responsive to individual needs and the breadth of skills, values and character attributes that are so vital for our students. It must celebrate different and varied intelligences by offering greater choice, autonomy and ownership in the educative process. It must inspire, reward and promote emotional intelligence, curiosity, empathy, collaboration and social responsibility as much as it does cognitive skill. In doing so, it will realise huge progress in terms of student and staff wellbeing, which has been so severely eroded in recent times.

As Anthony Seldon argues, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality could rapidly transform educational practice and, if managed well, could enable greater social mobility, more equal access to high quality education, reduced administrative burden for teachers and a more personalised experience that encourages individuality. However, this requires human, not artificial intelligence, to realise. It is the bold and creative thinking, the openness to change, adapt and reform, the proactive leadership and energy in schools now that will continue to prepare the ground for the significant changes that the futures holds.

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