Doha College

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Not all is doom and gloom in education during the Pandemic

Dr Steffen Sommer

While we have all been overwhelmed, for almost a year now, with a constant flurry of doomsday messages about the lasting negative impact of the pandemic on the global economy, on employment, on our wellbeing, on all our future prospects, not to mention the adverse impact on our children and their education (cf. annex), we know from Dylan William’s video “Three Principles and Five Strategies” that good learning outcomes are inextricably linked to the quality of teaching, whatever the mode of instruction (face-to-face teaching, remote teaching or any blended variety).

It is true, education has clearly suffered a great deal: many students have missed out on vital parts of learning during the extended period of on-lines teaching for which schools, across the sectors in the UK, but also internationally, displayed different levels of preparedness. Underfunding of IT infrastructure and/or equipment and inadequate investment therein coupled with insufficient training are often at the root of gross disparities between schools leading to equally substantial differences in learning successes for the students involved. However adverse the circumstances, in education, teachers, and leaders are used to making do, to making the most of the facilities at hand to safeguard a continuum of learning for the students in their care. This very innate trait in teachers being an excellent breeding ground for innovation, we have not really been surprised to read about a fair number of success stories outlining to what extent students have made progress against the odds developing, seemingly by osmosis, skills relating to their learning behavior, which may previously not have been considered important. While the delivery of content will have been impaired in many settings, skills like following instructions in a virtual environment, from a screen, learning independently, linking new concepts to known material, memorising, self-regulating, persevering, learning from mistakes, etc. have become survival techniques which students, often isolating at home, will have shared, and exchanged with each other around the globe.

At Doha College, a high-performing 3-18 British International school linked to the British embassy in Qatar, the children of the British expat and international communities have been benefitting, since 1980, from a very disparate multi-cultural environment in which the soft skills of international understanding are fully integrated within the English National Curriculum and disseminated as a matter course.

In 2018, the college became the first accredited High Performance Learning school in the world, having adopted the HPL philosophy, developed by Prof Deborah Eyre, as the academic mantra and all-embracing culture across the school two years prior. In the course of the four years that HPL has been dominating the teaching and learning culture at Doha College, all stakeholders (students, staff and parents), even those who were initially somewhat skeptical, have become fully invested in the philosophy, simply because there has been so much to show for it, and at such a phenomenal speed. Within a year, public examination results at all levels increased by an average of seven percentage points at top grade level (A*-A, and A*-B) leading to a steeply progressive curve, a trend which would continue and improve further year-on-year. In the summers of 2019 and 2020, we celebrated our fourth year of best examination results ever. While this is hard and fast data which proves success, it is by no means all there is. What is much more lasting and, with it, a guarantor for on-going success is the culture shift that we, as a school, have mastered.

Firmly anchored in a positive growth-mindset, and in the belief that all children can be high performers, we have made Prof Deborah Eyre’s philosophy our own. In an environment where all learning takes place within a well-balanced fully functioning educational triangle (students, parents and teachers /educators who follow the same path while adhering to their very specific responsibilities), students are inspired and motivated by their teachers, exposed to a large and diverse array of opportunities within the curriculum they follow, and their potential is being developed progressively as an open-ended objective. In fact, all students at Doha College develop higher-order thinking skills as part of their every-day learning.

Cognitive and neuroscientists have known for some time that our brains are malleable, and that the IQ can therefore be influenced/enhanced throughout our children’s education and beyond. Since HPL creates conditions conducive to enquiry-based active learning, new synaptic pathways are opened up, and a love of learning is being created in all children. Needless to say, getting there takes some doing. It is an enjoyable process, though which, in itself, is on-going, for there is no defined end, nor is there a template. It is a continuum of progress and improvement which, like a perpetuum mobile, creates a captivatingly innovative culture across the school. Like in a double helix, quintessential learning behaviors (VAAs), developed as part of every-day teaching, are intertwined with advanced cognitive performance indicators (ACPs), which denote situation-specific higher-order thinking skills. It is this potent cocktail of attitudes and attributes which has helped our students adapt to and master the challenges of remote and blended learning which have dominated our existence in schools for almost a year now.

Doha College, like many other schools across the globe, was on remote learning from March until June 2020, and has been on blended learning, a mixture of face-to-face, remote and home learning, since September 2020. Having had as much success as we did owing to HPL complimented, more recently, by AI which we have tapped into since 2019 via the platform offered by Century.Tech, we were curious to establish the Delta of what our students normally achieve in a first term (September to December) and what the attainment levels were like, across Primary and Secondary, in the first term of 2020/21 when we were delivering blended learning following two terms of remote learning in the previous academic year. We also looked at how our students’ attitudes to school, their teachers and themselves as learners may have changed over said period of time in comparison to previous years.

In essence, Doha College students across Primary and Secondary performed very well pastorally, as shown in a PASS survey comparative study. Academically, they achieved, on average, just as highly during remote and blended learning as they did before the pandemic. While we observed minor differences between the sections (Primary and Secondary) and across the year groups, on the whole, the attainment levels in Maths and English in Primary and Secondary are comparable to the historical data (three-year average). That said, the data revealed a notable amount of sensationally high achievement across the year groups. Beyond all expectations really! Only a minority of students, who will now be in our focus with tailored top-up teaching sessions in the time normally reserved for co-curricular activities, showed marginally lower attainment levels.

The students’ attitude to self and school, according to the PASS survey, was on a par with previous years across the Year Groups in Primary and Secondary. Compared to previous years, Doha College scores have been maintained or improved upon in the way of student attitudes, in particular their feelings towards school, their teachers and themselves as learners.  The most positive responses came from the younger years, and the most positive developments have been observed in Years 4, 9 and 13, compared to previous years. Years 7, 8 and 10 felt slightly less positive compared to previous years, but the scores are still high.

 

So, what does the comparative data say?

 

Primary Data

English Maths
EYFS assessments 6% increase in attainment at or above age-related expectations on average EYFS assessments 40% increase in attainment at or above age-related expectations on average
NGRT reading assessments 0.27% increase in average standardised age score KS1 & 2 Maths assessments 7.99% decrease in average score

Secondary Data

  KS3 KS4 KS 5
English 4.8% increase in average reading scores, and 1.43% decrease in average writing scores 9.45% increase in average English Language scores, 13.7% increase in average English literature scores 31% increase in average English Language scores, and 39.25% increase in average English Literature scores
Maths 0.05% increase in average scores 1.76% decrease in average scores 5.34% decrease in average scores

An analysis of our students’ study behaviour showed that many have been applying, as a matter of course, their well-developed HPL skills, using the VAAs and ACPs throughout the period of blended learning. The uncompromising focus on learning behaviours (VAAs) to supplement and crystalise the students’ advanced cognitive skills have led to learning outcomes that exceeded all our expectations, at a time which did not seem to do any good to the learning business. The students’ self-regulation skills improved by the day as well as their strategic planning. The, by now, deeply ingrained open-mindedness has clearly helped many students flourish, even when adapting to prolonged home learning.

 

So, what has worked well, and what were the contributing factors for our success during remote and blended learning?

 

During this unprecedented period our students, according to their own admission, further developed, personalised and intensified, often dictated by circumstances, the following HPL skills:

VAAs - Practice, Perseverance, Resilience, risk-taking, open-mindedness

ACPs – Self-regulation, strategy planning, connection-finding, problem solving, automaticity and open mindedness.

Furthermore, the periods of remote learning and blended learning have vastly increased our staff and students’ adaptability and their confidence when using technology in different contexts. This stems from their innate ability to develop an automaticity in the application of knowledge and skills.  Firefly, which we are using as a retrieval- based information platform for the entire community and as a vibrant and much-vaunted VLE, has been as much of a contributor to the overall achievement over the period of the pandemic as have specific iPad apps, which students could use on their individual mobile devices. 

The use of collaborative tools such as Zoom, Google Docs, and apps like Padlet to develop collaboration and interactivity in the remote and blended learning processes have also been significant contributors to these successful outcomes. Nothing, however, has done as much for our students’ progress during these difficult times as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) provided by Century.Tech’s platform. The personalised support to each and every child through clever, automated questioning aimed at encouraging the students to dig deep into their own toolbox, find connections, use prior knowledge, etc. solidifies and future-proves all learning. The highly adaptable programmes, which are linked to the relevant syllabus content, keep going back to what the students know while progressively moving forward. A highly effective way of using VAAs and ACPs in every student’s daily learning experience. Century.Tech really does take the lid off learning and, what is more, all progress made can be tracked and monitored by the class teachers.

While no-one could have predicted it, there were also other aspects which, according to our findings, have help us achieve these fantastic learning outcomes:

  • While on blended learning, the Ministry of Education in Qatar insisted on 50% class sizes, which we effected by dividing the school into two, with either half of each class attending on alternate days, each face-to-face teaching day being followed by a home-learning day. The resulting much smaller class sizes have provided opportunities for highly focused and much more personalised teacher interventions;
  • In order to master the content delivery in half the time, each face-to-face teaching day was very much content/ input focused with a minimal amount of time spent on consolidation, which benefitted the most able who then often shared their understanding with others on the following home-learning day;
  • The home-learning day being reserved for consolidation, students could take their time, do focused research on the internet to supplement their learning, consult fellow students or their teachers, and practise at their own pace;
  • The curriculum could thus more easily be adapted to the individual, ensuring that the needs of all learners are met;
  • It also allowed for the adaptation of pedagogical approaches, such as flipped learning, so the time spent in the classroom could be optimised.

While we are naturally very pleased with the discernible progress Doha College students have been making during the pandemic, we cannot underestimate the adverse impact on education in general. Maybe some of the tools and tips described in this blog may help schools, wherever they may be, develop retrieval strategies so that the long-term effect on the children’s learning may be curbed.

Dr Steffen Sommer, Principal of Doha College

Nicola Meikle, Vice-Principal Teaching and Learning Doha College

 

Annexe:

Research trends relating the adverse impact of the pandemic on children’s learning across the globe:

Remote education research - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Recent studies have focused on the degree of learning loss that pupils have encountered while learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. One paper, on the Dutch primary school system, highlights that pupils had made little or no progress while learning from home. This is despite a relatively short (8-week) lockdown and the country having a high degree of technological preparedness. These results suggest much larger losses are likely in countries that are less prepared for remote education.

Impact_of_school_closures_KS1_interim_findings_paper_-_Jan_2021.pdf (educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk)

Key findings

  • Year 2 pupils’ attainment in reading was significantly lower in autumn 2020 compared to a standardised sample from 2017; representing a Covid-19 gap of around two months’ progress.
  • Year 2 pupils’ attainment in mathematics was significantly lower in autumn 2020 compared to a standardised sample from 2017; representing a Covid-19 gap of around two months’ progress.

 

Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement (edworkingpapers.com)

Under these projections, students are likely to return in the autumn of 2020 with approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and with 37-50% of the learning gains in maths. However, we estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures would not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading. Thus, in preparing for the autumn of 2020, educators will likely need to consider ways to support students who are academically behind and further differentiate instruction.

 

https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/JRC121071/jrc121071.pdf

Conservative estimates of the average effect of COVID-19 on student learning have been computed for France, Italy, and Germany. Despite the fact that only missed learning time due to the switch from physical to on-line education is accounted for, these estimates clearly show that physical school closure will cause, on average, a learning loss. Although the size of our estimates indicates a weekly learning loss of between 0.82 and 2.3% of a standard deviation, the true magnitude is possibly larger given that other factors are also likely to contribute to the negative effect exerted by COVID-19 on student achievement. Moreover, the estimates would seem to support the hypothesis that the learning loss is greater among younger students compared to older students.