Breaking Bad (Habits)

Back in the days when you were allowed to smoke in pubs, even those of my acquaintances who indulged in the occasional Marlboro Light would always apologise profusely before lighting up.

"I'm sorry", they would say, "I've tried, but I just can't give these things up!"

Now, as much as I dislike the smell, I would never object. Not because it would make me very unpopular, but because I felt it was a bit hypocritical to complain. I don't smoke, myself, mainly because it very nearly killed my father, but I have a far worse confession - I've bitten my nails for 51 years.

Believe me, I've tried to resist. I went to great lengths in about 1993 to grow them for an interview. I was dead proud of them. Anyway, I didn't get the job. So, on Rochester station that afternoon ripped them all of and dined on keratin. No that's not a drug, though it seemed like it at the time; that's what your nails, hair and uppermost layer of your skin are made of. Yeuk!

Why all this talk of chewing fingernails, then? Well, I was thinking when I wrote the book The Classroom After the Storm, how long it might take to get into the bad habit of not bothering to learn. I read some research that, in the USA, students returning from their summer break (which is about eleven weeks) that it took a further five weeks in the Autumn Term to get them back to where they had been before they left for the summer. Another, less optimistic piece of research, found that it took a week to catch up for every week lost to holidays, sickness, global pandemic etc. So, even if we get back to 'normal' capacity in schools in September (personally, I think I've more chance of winning the National Lottery, and I don’t even buy a ticket) it’s going to take another six months, that is until March 2021, to get everyone back to where they were in March 2020!

And this is where #cyclicalschool comes in. We know that we pick up habits when we repeatedly perform the same behaviours day after day or, in this case, week after week. We can find our way home from work because we’ve driven the same route over and over again. We brush our teeth before we go to bed because we have always done it. By going through a cycle of Engage > Explain > Explore > Elaborate > Evaluate we can get back into the habit of learning, even before we are in a position to go back into school full-time. Students will be accountable to their teachers again rather than just getting irate ‘Send to All’ emails because they didn’t complete the week’s assignment.

A recent poll was done for the BBC which made headlines in recent days. It suggested that a third of all pupils had disengaged from their learning completely. Actually, I think the figure in some parts of the country is much higher than that. But those who haven’t worked in a structured way for months can’t be expected to ‘perform’ again at the flick of a switch. If they were staff returning after a long period of absence, they would be offered a phased return. A few lessons here and there; a bit of work to mark over the weekend. That sort of thing.

Post COVID-19 students are going to need the same kind of deal – just to get back to Square One, never mind being ready for their GCSEs and A levels in less than a year. They are going to have to relearn how to learn, just as someone who has had a serious accident has to learn how to walk and talk again through many months of often painful rehabilitation. We must not underestimate how long this could take, especially for those with particular learning needs. It isn’t just a matter of a few extra lessons in the summer or, God forbid, the lengthening of the school day in the next academic year. It needs proper long-term planning and, just maybe, a very different kind of approach. Otherwise, like the house that was built on the sand in the parable we all heard at school, when the next storm comes, it’s all going to come crashing down again.

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