Imperfect learning

Imperfect learning
Date6th Sep 2021AuthorNick AllenCategoriesTeaching

Over the course of the pandemic there has been much discussion about ‘lost learning’. You may remember in late 2020 that a ‘Lost Learning Expert Group’ was announced with much fanfare: a group of experts tasked with steering the post-pandemic educational recovery. Not only did it never meet, but its membership was never even formalised. There is of course a delicious irony in this group, shall we say, getting lost.

I have never been terribly content with the phrase ‘lost’ learning anyway, with its implications that learning cannot be regained. We only need to consider the extraordinary educational journeys of school children with first languages other than English or students on Access to HE courses to know that just because learning has not happened at the time that it usually happens, it is far from lost.

OFSTED have recently contributed in this context, and they will require inspectors to consider how schools and colleges are responding to ‘missing learning’. This gets a little closer to the point, but it still seems a little simplistic. It almost imagines learning as a jigsaw, and to solve the problem you just need to identify the missing pieces, deliver them to the student, and all will be well. We all know that learning is far more complex than that.

My contention is that we would be much better served by using the concept of ‘imperfect learning’, and recognising not only that learning has always been imperfect, but that the experience of the last eighteen months makes learning more imperfect than ever. 

We need to consider that imperfect learning is a phenomenon that will affect both upper and lower sixth students, but it is one which will affect them in different ways. Imperfect learning impacts on our upper sixth students who have had a disrupted sixth form experience, and our incoming students will have had differential experiences of content, delivery and assessment.

By recognising that learning is imperfect, we avoid the trap of assuming that all is well. We need to be acutely aware of the danger of a failure to be curious in this context. We need to seek out these imperfections: those that we inherit when students join us, and those imperfections emerging from their experiences of learning with us.

It is imperative that we tease out, understand and seek to ameliorate these imperfections. Consider the complexities of these imperfections for those students joining us in September:

  • Some schools will have delivered only a partial experience of the specification
  • Different schools will have been differentially successful at remote delivery
  • Different students will have had different experiences of the pandemic in individual, family and community terms
  • Students experience different home and community contexts and these contexts will be differentially conducive to remote learning
  • Students will have responded individually to the pandemic, not only in terms of work ethic and engagement, but physical and mental health
  • Our student populations draw on a large number of feeder schools (often in excess of one hundred schools), and by extension on a number of different experiences.
  • In normal times, we can make reasonable initial assumptions about a student’s starting point by looking at their GCSE grades. This year we cannot be sure what a (for example) grade 7 in Biology represents for an individual student, in terms of coverage or aptitude.
  • Some students will have experienced learning gain, and found much enjoyment in pandemic learning; for others learning has come to a juddering halt.

We need to come to a view then about where our students are. We need to talk to each and every one of them. We need to find out what students know, what they understand, and what they can do. We need to take the worm’s eye view and get to know every student individually, but we also need to take a step away and view things from a distance to get a sense of the overall issues at class and course level. We need to review our schemes of work, and consider how effectively they will meet the needs of these students. How effectively did our plans work last year? How effective do we think each phase of learning was? How do we know?

For those students who have spent the last year with us we are in a rather different position. We know more about these students and about their learning. But this perceived understanding is double edged. There is a rather neat quotation which is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw that is highly relevant here: 

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."

Just because we have taught something does not mean students have learned it. Ofsted are currently deploying a useful summary of this: attendance does not equal engagement, and engagement does not equal learning. I suspect that the colleges which will be most successful in 2022 are those who pursue this theme most vigorously: constantly questioning how effective learning has been, and always considering 'How can we be sure that they know the things we think they know?’ 

The single biggest problem in learning then is the illusion that it has taken place. This is perhaps most relevant for our upper sixth students. While we have a degree of scepticism over learning that may or may not have taken place elsewhere, we tend to be relatively less concerned about our own teaching, and assume that just because we have said something that it has been internalised by others.

DGuMIulXoAALn7QCopyright Bud Blake, creator of "Tiger" comic stripCopyright Bud Blake, creator of "Tiger" comic strip

For some subjects, the priorities for the coming year will be immediately clear. It is probably safe to assume that a subject that was denied access to the practical facilities at the core of the course for some months, will need to prioritise those practical skills. For others it will be more subtle process, of using assessment to judge learning how effectively learning has taken place at individual, class and course level. 

Ultimately, working with students is about powerful conversations: seeking to know as much as we can about where students are and what they have experienced before they arrive, and striving to understand how successful our teaching has been. We need to understand the imperfect position of every student, and we have to be careful to do something about it.

In practical terms, making the most of assessment is central to doing this well. In value added terms, it is both easy and powerful to run lower sixth exam grades (and other assessment data-sets) through a value added model. It enables you to identify courses where learning has been less effective, see classes that seem to be disproportionately affected, and establish whether there are groups of students who have contrasting performance. It enables dialogues of learning to take place while there is still time to make a difference to current students.

We should also not forget that education is about more than learning subjects: it is a sequence of significant experiences. Our students have missed, and missed the impact of, key (school) life events. We are now in a situation that none of our students (upper or lower sixth students) will have learned from the experience of preparing for and sitting public examinations. In normal times many schools do two or even three full sets of mocks prior to the GCSE exams. This experience of an exam season is missing. The experience of knowing the impact of a particular level of revision (and learning from it) is missing. While I’m not suggesting that our first priority should be getting all the students into exam halls (though many will be for lateral flow testing) we need to consider how we put our students in the best possible place for the public examinations which will one day return. Imperfect learning is not just a matter for individual subject teams to consider: it is a matter for whole college strategic thinking.


Nick Allen is vice principal at Peter Symonds College and leads the Six Dimensions project, an in-depth yearly analysis of academic and progression data for the sector as a whole and for individual SFCA members.

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