When lockdown was implemented in late March, we went from teaching and learning in physical schoolrooms to fully online lessons overnight. This abrupt transition was far from seamless and, for masters and pupils alike, it brought with it a great deal of disruption, stress, anxiety and the need for rapid upskilling.
By the end of the Lent half following a week of improvised remote teaching, it was clear that the existing timetable of lessons (the ’35-school week’) didn’t offer the flexibility or additional time needed to make a success of online-only learning. Over the Easter break, a new timetable was inventively engineered, and extensive plans were put in place to maximise the opportunities to provide pupils with a high-quality, rich and expansive experience in the Summer half.
Pupils in exam year groups (D and B Blocks) needed to regain a sense of direction and purpose given the opportunity to show their potential in the exam room had been abruptly taken away from them by the virus. To this end, a vast array of two or four-week electives was offered up with masters lovingly crafting online courses covering topics such as creative writing, globalisation, environmental ethics, programming, medicine, as well as courses entitled ‘Cooking like Heston’ and ‘Poisons, explosives and other dangerous chemistry’. Pupils and masters relished the fact that these electives provided opportunities abound for intellectual stimulation, curiosity, as well as critical and creative thinking. The other year groups continued to progress with all of their subjects with fewer but longer (50-minute rather than 40-minute) lessons. Masters went to great lengths to provide compelling live lessons and asynchronous learning tasks. Despite the many challenges that remote learning presented, platforms like Zoom, Teams, OneNote, Quizlet and Nearpod were successfully used to ensure pupils remained actively engaged and supported in their learning. Masters boldly seized the opportunity to explore the potential of digital learning tools and steadily gained skills and confidence as a result.
Pupils also invested time in EtonX courses aimed at building vital skills such as resilience, critical thinking, creative problem solving, and verbal communication. In the broader educational and social context, the importance of developing real-world skills such as these alongside academic learning couldn’t be more pertinent.
Regular tutorials continued to take place via Zoom providing important breathing space to check in on mental and physical wellbeing and give mutual support. On the co-curricular front, we developed the PPP (‘Pupil Progress Platform’) to incentivise and motivate pupils to regularly engage with a wide range of sporting challenges, as well as career education, community engagement and personal enrichment activities. It was heartening to see pupils proactively seek out ways to support their local communities through self-led projects.
Given the growing evidence that regular physical activity supports cognitive and brain development in children and adolescents, it was considered vital to encourage pupils to stay active and spend time away from their screens. Inter-house sport competitions pushed pupils to submit their best plank time or highest number of keepy ups as well as contribute to collective cycling challenges and the ‘moon race’, an attempt to walk/run/row the distance to the moon where we racked up an impressive 102,100 miles over the course of the summer half but, alas, this didn’t even take us halfway there! The price of this collective failure was to suffer the Head Master’s moon jokes during the morning podcasts, which, along with the regular webinars, online chapel services, society meetings and quizzes via Zoom, provided familiar structure and routine as well as a much-needed morale boost and an important sense of remaining firmly part of our strong Eton community, albeit virtually.
Looking ahead, many challenges remain for our return to school in September. A hybrid approach will likely be required with in-class teaching for most pupils and those unable to attend continuing to access lessons online. Thankfully, the considerable efforts of masters to get to grips with online teaching has meant many of the benefits of digital education are becoming increasingly embedded as part of routine practice. With the final cohorts of pupils soon to be equipped with school-managed iPads, the broad implementation of digitally enhanced teaching and learning is possibly one of the few silver linings of these tremendously challenging times.
 Ishihara, Toru & Drollette, Eric & Ludyga, Sebastian & Hillman, Charles & Kamijo, Keita. (2020). Baseline Cognitive Performance Moderates the Effects of Physical Activity on Executive Functions in Children. Journal of Clinical Medicine. 9. 2071. 10.3390/jcm9072071.