Academic transitions occur at regular intervals throughout an individual’s educational career and represent changes that are often presented as disruptive. The challenges of these changes have been well documented: the move from primary education to secondary at age 11, for example, encompasses a number of significant factors linked to the new environment, including (very often) a much larger building, more teachers, the need to move from classroom to classroom, new rules and different academic and behavioural expectations.
These challenges have been compounded in the past two years by the pandemic, with the majority of students missing substantial amounts of time in the classroom with their teachers and peers. Students who moved into year 7 in the academic year 2021-22, for example, would not have had a “normal” school year since year 4; for learners who transitioned to year 12 in college or sixth-form, year 9 was their last uninterrupted year.
As the transition process involves both academic and social changes, these gaps in schooling represent significant challenges for how well students are prepared for a change of environment. Two years of cancelled examinations only add to these limited opportunities for in-person social interactions.
However, case study research conducted pre-pandemic in a college of further education revealed that while transition can be a time of challenge and anxiety, it can also bring exciting new opportunities.
Interviews were conducted with 16- and 17-year-olds who had recently progressed from studying GCSEs at school to following an A-level or BTEC programme in college, with participants identifying a number of academic and social benefits that moving to a new educational environment brought. These included a new sense of maturity, often linked to feeling more in control of managing their own workload and having different, more respectful relationships with teachers, as well as the chance to leave behind the “cliques” of high school and make new friendship groups more in keeping with their current sense of self.
Participants expressed an enthusiasm for different teaching methods, with a greater focus on independent, self-directed study and an ability to explore their chosen subject(s) in greater depth.
We should be mindful of doing all we can to preserve these opportunities at a time when government and media focus has largely been directed towards the imperative to “catch up”. While content has undeniably been missed or restricted in many areas of the curriculum, this focus produces a deficit model that can only compound the existing challenges of academic transition.
So what can we do to ensure that such periods continue to offer the chance for positivity and growth? One option is to promote and facilitate student communities of practice, allowing learners to develop the social and academic skills that are so crucial to a successful adaptation to the new environment.
A community of practice exists when a group of people with a shared goal or interest come together to learn how to do it better through their interactions, and while the idea has been around for more than 30 years, the possibilities afforded by combining face-to-face teaching with technology mean that we can now bring learners together in a variety of shared spaces.
Some software packages, for example, allow students to post discussion items and answer each other’s questions while the teacher monitors and intervenes as much or as little as necessary. Similarly, building communities of peer-to-peer feedback can arm students with a deeper understanding of the outcomes and standards expected from a piece of work, as well as creating opportunities for meaningful and productive social interactions.
Essentially, student communities of practice allow participants to take more responsibility for their own learning while building valuable relationships with peers, all in a safe and supported environment.
So while there are no quick fixes in beginning to address the effects of the pandemic on schooling, this is one way we can help our learners bridge the gap to the next stage of their education.