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Teaching students to take ownership of their own learning

Back in August 20th, students returned to our school building after almost five months away. But not five months away from school. From March to June, students logged on each morning to their regular lessons, met with their teachers and classmates online, even participating in assemblies, concerts, celebrations and clubs far from the physical spaces that would normally have contained all these activities.

Our ‘Virtual School’ was born and much acclaimed and appreciated by the whole ISA community. It provided students with a sense of routine, purpose, and affinity throughout the challenges everyone faced during lockdown. However, no-one pretended that this was the way of the future; that even after restrictions eased, we would want to continue with this way of learning.

Everyone agreed that we wanted to be back in the building and so our team worked hard over the summer to make it as safe as possible in the current circumstances. The school meticulously planned how students would be dropped off and picked up safely. Classrooms were re-organised and learning areas re-defined. Hand sanitiser stations were installed outside every classroom and frequent routines for handwashing and room cleaning implemented.

It is great to be back! But students are not in the building in the same way as a year ago.

Our new health and safety procedures don’t stop at the front door but are effective throughout the day. Nevertheless, Students continue to thrive because the school’s approach to learning is centred on them. Not the teachers, not the curriculum, and not the institution.

What does this mean in practice?

First, student wellbeing is the foundation of what every school does. It is what we describe in our mission statement as ‘a safe and caring learning environment.’ Not just physical safety, but increasingly, in this time of uncertainty, emotional security too. Our full time counsellors onsite help a lot, but it is more about a general approach: small class sizes, an open attitude of listening and responding to concerns, recognising the challenges of current and changing situations, and supporting students through it.

Our student-centred approach put your kids in the driving seat. It focuses not on what students learn, but how students learn. First there is choice. This choice, or student agency gives students the power to take responsibility for their learning, creating independent and self-regulating learners.

From pre-school, just aged three, our students can study French or Spanish. They enjoy music, drama and art so they can make more informed choices when they specialise in Middle School. A student-centred approach is about opportunity, something we have all come to appreciate as more and more restrictions have been put in place during the pandemic.

Grade 6 students are starting a new computer programming course this year, and those who have been at the school a while are joining extended language classes so that they can graduate proficient in a foreign language. In today’s globalised world, these are opportunities not to be missed.

The key to our success with the virtual school and is preparedness for the challenges ahead undoubtedly lies in the role of our teachers and the aptitudes encouraged in students. Technology was of course crucial, providing alternative teaching options. The content of lessons no longer has to be delivered by teachers standing at the front of a classroom or in front of a screen. Students can engage with relevant material for themselves. Command and control is a thing of the past and this allows teachers the freedom to work with students individually or in small groups to help them take the next steps in their own personal learning journey. More importantly they learn how to continue and extend that learning journey. That it isn’t something that happens to them, it is something they drive and are responsible for and this ability to make their own learning decisions triggers a greater investment of interest and motivation.

Covid-19 has asked many questions about how we do things across Scotland, the UK and the world. What is really important? How do we maintain that?

Schools have had to look carefully at safety, while ensuring that students continue to thrive. The old ways of students moving forward in unison on the command of a teacher just don’t work anymore and have never allowed each child to reach their maximum potential. At ISA students are empowered to take control over their own learning in a caring, encouraging and supportive environment.

ISA is glad to be back in its first-rate facility, but learning happens within the students, no matter where they are.

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