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A ‘thinking/feeling’ school finds its way through a pandemic

| January 14, 2021 | 0 Comments

BY KIM VAN DER HOVEN, VAUGHN BOND, LEIGH MYLREA AND JACKY WOLVERSON

Forres Preparatory School in Cape Town adopted the phrase ‘Be a thinking/feeling school’ some time ago.

It began when we embarked on a ‘thinking school’s journey’ in 1999 and attended a conference which showcased many cognitive programmes that would teach learners how to think critically.1

One of the speakers at the 1999 conference highlighted the opinion that in addition to developing ‘thinking’, we should also develop the ‘feeling’ side of our children. This balance is imperative to prepare our learners to enter the world one day with both a career and the desire to be of service to humanity and contribute to making the world a better place.

A ‘thinking school’ during a pandemic

The day lockdown started, that future seemed to arrive in an instant. We knew we needed to find a way to hold and support the Forres Preparatory School community by creating and then delivering an effective online platform that was as close a replication as possible of our bricks and mortar school, and that would include our ‘thinking school’ cognition programmes and strategies.

Overnight staff had to do a big ‘re-think’ and further develop skills and strategies that belonged to that distant future.

One aspect of preparing our learners for a future unknown has been to teach them about their brain and how it learns, in order to teach them how to think and learn independently and critically. One aspect of brain function that helps us do this is called ‘executive functioning’.

In a nutshell, executive functioning happens in that part of the brain that assists learners to manage the massive volume of incoming information through all the senses, in a sequential, logical way, enabling them to execute tasks and instructions within a given time frame. It helps us sort through what information is important right now, and what is not. It also helps us decide what information is true right now, and what is not, an especially useful tool in a world of fake news.

Executive functioning is made up of three key elements, selective attention, working memory, and self-regulation.

Of course, the area of executive functioning is vast, with many aspects involved. Yet the two areas we found to be especially relevant for our Virtual Classroom during lockdown were:

• teaching learners to become future thinkers
• teaching learners how to ‘backward plan’

We were able to construct our information and lessons in such a way that learners could be trained over time to become as independent as possible, as opposed to being dependent and prompt driven.

This is a simplified explanation of the process:

You start at the end with the task DONE! The learners put on their imaginary future glasses and visualise what the task looks like DONE! (If you start with GET READY! the learner will always be prompt dependent.)

It is preferable to give them a visual of the DONE! Task. The reason for this is that research shows executive functioning starts in non-verbal working memory. Having a visual picture of the end product helps learners develop visual imaging (mental movie-making skills) that are needed to plan all the steps they need to take to complete the task.

DO!

Now learners can work backwards from the finished product and pre-rehearse in their heads (make a mental movie) what it takes to do the task and break it down into ‘DO-able’ steps.

These steps appear in the DO! box.

In order to make a mental movie, one has to be able to imagine the ‘situation’ within which the task will be executed. This is called situational intelligence.

You imagine all the following aspects of the situation:

• People: I can see the role I will be playing and the people I will need to
help me.
• Space: I can see myself in the space and moving around the space
executing the task.
• Objects: I can see myself working with the equipment and resources needed.
• Time: I can experience a sense of the ‘sweep of time’ it will take to complete the task. Thus, I can plan when I must start and how much time I need to finish.
• Feelings: I can feel if this is right and will work well for me.

In essence, the learner plans backwards to execute forwards. The beauty of this is that the learner can do a pre-run of the task without fear of failure in real-time. If it doesn’t feel right, the learner can make changes and run another mental movie. If this ‘mind mime’ feels right, the learner can make the appropriate preparations and then execute in real-time.

It is so interesting that research shows that 90% of the time, task planning happens in a different space from where you execute the plan.2 A perfect example of this is when you are sitting at work at the end of the day thinking about your drive home and what you need to do before you get home. You make your mental movie of the route you will drive to get home. On this route, you visualise the shop you need to stop at to purchase milk, and then the child you need to collect from school. During the course of your mental movie making, you realise the time of day it will be, and the traffic jam you will experience on the route you have chosen. Immediately you feel the anxiety or frustration of being stuck in that traffic. You now make your changes and run another mental movie, taking a different route. There is no traffic on this route. It feels good, it works better. You settle on this plan of action. Without realising it you have pre-planned in your mind your trip home and now you can execute it.

GET READY!

GET READY! tells the student what equipment or books they need to get started.

Following this format, the staff at Forres adapted each and every lesson during lockdown. The following diagram is how it looked on our Forres virtual classroom. It was quite easy for parents to follow and help their children execute each lesson.

The broader design of the virtual classroom was achieved by breaking the curriculum down into manageable, small, chunks of information and skills that were to be practised and built, one on top of the other, daily. This repetition of routines and exercises and tasks along with the ‘backward planning’ approach linked in beautifully with what we teach our learners about their brains and how they love to learn. It is an extension of how we value a ‘growth’ mindset at Forres. This view gives learners agency over the development and plasticity of their brains. Intelligence is not fixed, and the more they put in the effort, the more their brain grows. Our message to them is ‘You are the driver of your brain’.

The Forres virtual classroom continued to support the school to adapt to all the changes we had to morph through, from half the school back on alternate days, to all children back in full force in the fourth term. In addition, it continued to support those children who for various reasons had to continue to stay at home and learn online. To date, it remains the backbone of our learning programme and should we have to lockdown again in the future, we will be able to move back online with ease.

The ‘feeling school’ during a pandemic

As a team we were also aware, and more so as time went by, that we would need to find ways to maintain connection with and emotional support for everyone in our school community. One obvious way was continuous communication via letters about what was happening or going to happen. These briefs included tips and information on how to navigate the virtual classroom. If we received feedback from parents that they were struggling, we would arrange Zoom meetings to advise them further.

Above all, ‘narrative practice’, the umbrella philosophy that guides all the practices at our school, and stands front and centre of our ethos, was invaluable in supporting our community during lockdown.

Narrative practice means that we adopt a position that children live their lives according to the stories they tell about themselves and the world. As the Forres staff, we therefore stand accountable, believing that we hold the responsibility to develop narratives that are supportive, and that help children build a positive vision for their lives and give them hope.

During these past months, we found ourselves digging deep in response to the unexpected challenges brought by COVID-19 and the lockdown. As a narrative school, we continued to be mindful of our custodianship of the whole-school story and how supporting every person in the school community was key to navigating through these times. Webinars and conferences were offered to both staff and parents to help them respond to everything the pandemic was throwing at us: uncertainty, change, loss and grief.

Our narrative response to COVID-19 brought our community closer, made our sense of purpose clearer, and heightened our gratitude for all those in our community who have helped to bring our vibrant little school through this particularly challenging time.

It also gave us the tools to tell our own story of the pandemic in response to the very loud and frightening stories out there in the world.

References:

  1. The Thinking Foundation, located in California in the US, is one of the
    organisations that offers a thinking school accreditation process. The
    framework it uses for a school to achieve accreditation is based on five key areas for reflection, and 15 criteria representing the vision of directly facilitating thinking as a foundation for early childhood through adult education and for nurturing all students as global citizens. See:
    https://www.thinkingschoolsinternational.com/what-is-a-thinking-school
  2. See: https://impact.ref.ac.uk/casestudies/CaseStudy.aspx?Id=39814
  3. See: http://www.michaeldwarner.org

Category: Summer 2020

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