The New Normal: Teaching Amidst Coronavirus

Written for the DLTV Journal in April 2020 as a follow up to my first blog post responding to teaching amidst Coronavirus. This reflection outlines my school’s approach to Remote Learning 1.0.

It is a difficult time for teachers. There is so much scrutiny and attention on what schools are doing right now. It feels like the whole world is watching as we scramble to build the plane while flying it. We are doing things many of us have never done before, but what has bothered me is that so much of the talk is about the methods and platforms we are using but not about what is important for learning.

Like so many teachers, I‌ returned to school (from afar) this term with news of what (it felt like) every other school in the world was doing to tackle remote learning. I was slightly apprehensive that what we were presenting as a school might not be enough. That my friends in other schools who would be presenting three lessons a day and staying on camera for hours and hours would be doing better. That we hadn’t factored in enough time for teaching.

I wasn’t considering just how much time that left for learning.

We are two weeks in to our remote learning approach at my school. The amazing school I work at built a plan for remote learning where students select from a “learning menu”. The menu has a list of tasks that dive deeply into a range of learning areas, including literacy, numeracy, STEM, the arts, humanities and language. There is a beautiful balance of open-ended tasks, problems worth solving, investigations, personal inquiries, games and tasks that consider timely learning opportunities like ANZAC Day, or ways to contribute to their community during isolation.

At this stage, most of the contact teachers have with students is wellbeing focused, ensuring students still feel connected to and supported by their school community in a difficult time. We are building and maintaining an emotional, social and psychological safe space amidst turmoil and uncertainty. Teachers and staff have called and video conferenced with students, held whole class “meet ups”, sharing jokes and projects and pieces of writing and smiles, and this week our small group virtual meet ups will launch.

Aside from these meet-ups, students’ learning time is their own. And, boy, are they making the most of it!

I have a student who is in isolation near the coast. She is fascinated by the mutton birds she is seeing on her daily exercise. She has undertaken a personal inquiry into the characteristics and lifestyle of these birds, researching using various sources – including the primary source of her own observations – and is analysing the data she is collecting from her own research.

Another student helped a parent plant some vegetables in their garden. He is keeping a log of the growth of the vegetables by measuring them and noting the conditions they are growing in and how well they grow. He is looking into the recipes that they can cook once the vegetables are harvested.

At least ten of my students have created their own games. They are designing boards, cards and game pieces, developing stories, trialling and refining rules as they playtest on their families, developing complex gameplay scenarios and perhaps hardest of all, capturing all of this into rulebooks.

I am checking in with my students multiple times a week and I’m amazed to see what they’re achieving. Instead of delivering lessons, I am listening to the learning they are already doing, and attempting to gently guide them where they can go deeper or further. I am providing prompts, questions and suggestions, extending their learning using whatever they are currently transfixed by.

  • So you are making a slideshow to share what you have learnt about the top ten surfers… Who is your audience? What tools can you discover in Powerpoint that will help engage your audience? Have you thought about including videos, animations, quizzes?
  • So you are developing a parkour course to practice the new skills you have learnt… could you film an instructional video to teach other how to do them? Could you work on a script for the voiceover?
  • So it sounds like you really enjoyed the book you just finished. Can you create a way of making a book recommendation to share with others so they want to try that book too? Where can you share it so others can see it while we’re in isolation? What information is best to include or leave out?
  • So your mum said you might be able to get a pet lizard if you convince her? What will help you persuade her… language, facts, emotions, costs? What information does she need to know? Try reading this book about a person with the exact same challenge. How will you present this to your mum in the most convincing way? 

So much of the talk is about what students won’t have access to… a carefully scheduled timetable, a teacher on hand at every second of their 6-hour school day, materials, internet and so on. But a compelling thought is that so many factors that are important for learning have not disappeared… agency, curiousity, goal setting, interesting questions, learning about things that are personally meaningful, feedback from teachers, peers and relatives, a genuine audience. They just look a little different.

Australia’s Prime Minister is saying we don’t want children to miss out on a year of education, but what if we looked at it a different way?‌ What if, when students don’t attend school, they aren’t “missing out” but gaining? What if removing the school part of education just leaves more room for learning?

I’m hoping that a lot of the learning that is going on remotely will come back with us when we return to schools.

Originally published in the DLTV Journal 7.1

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