As the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues, education systems around the world are continuing to adapt and adjust to a “new normal” as schools continue to operate in various states of in-class and virtual existence. In New Zealand, as in other parts of the world, educators are attempting to capture the stories of the experience of teachers, students, families and education systems as they have had to adjust to the requirements of emergency remote teaching and learning. Numerous reports are now available, and from these we can begin to see a picture of some of the key themes that are emerging across all levels of our education system.
In the past few days I’ve taken the opportunity to read through a number of the key reports that have crossed my (virtual) desk – both from NZ and some international, and provide below a brief synopsis of what I see as some of the key messages.
The lockdown has exposed a range of existing inequalities, disparities and divides within the NZ Education system, and in some cases, has actually exacerbated them. Two things stand out in particular from the reports:
- A growing digital divide as a consequence of a lack of access to internet connectivity, lack of access to digital devices and/or a lack of digital literacy. Despite the huge effort in many areas to equip students with connectivity and devices to access their learning from home this divide remains a significant barrier to a large number of learners and their families.
- Disparities in the experience of learners in the home environment, including variable levels of support from parents/wnānau, lack of suitable places to study and demands from family to contribute to the running of the home, including in some cases, seeking employment in order to maintain an income where a family breadwinner has lost her or his job.
Parents as partners
The shift to home learning has placed a number of expectations on parents and caregivers in terms of the support they provide for their children while learning at home. For many this was a positive experience, allowing them to engage more closely and meaningfully with their child as they learn. For others it was a significant challenge, for some because of their feelings of personal inadequacy in terms of meeting the expectations that their child and/or school placed on them, and for others, because of the competing interests on their time – particularly in the case of essential workers.
An important lesson mentioned in most of the reports relates to the need for greater clarity in communications from teachers and the school around expectations of parents and how they may support their child(ren). The reports also highlighted the need for ongoing and purposeful two-way communication between parents/whānau and teachers/schools.
Problems of Praxis
Many teachers found working with their learners remotely a significant challenge, requiring a re-think about many of the pedagogical activities normally engaged within in an in-class setting. A common observation of many of the reports is the importance of ‘knowing your learner’ – not simply in terms of where they’re at in their learning, but about their learning context, the support available to them, the place they have to study and the other demands on their time etc.
The issue of learner engagement ranked high on the list of reported concerns – with teachers reporting they needed to find quite different ways of engaging learners online, and then to monitor progress and offer feedback and support in a timely and appropriate manner.
For some there was an upside to this, with some reports observing that working in the online environment actually created a more ‘intimate’ way of working with each learner and provided opportunities to engage with them around their personal needs and interests.
A number of ‘tensions’ are identified across the reports, including:
- the provision of ‘busy work’ vs meaningful learning activity
- focus on content delivery vs active engagement
- unrealistic workload (i.e. too much expected in too short a time)
- too little feedback vs too much interference
For most teachers the sudden shift to remote learning, without any time for preparation, posed significant challenges and exposed the need for a range of skills and knowledge required to operate effectively in these new environments and with these new tools. The reports highlight a wide range of responses from proficient to panic, and highlight a wide range of pedagogical approaches being adopted, from project-based, competency-focused to delivery of content and coverage for assessment.
Almost all reports concluded that a strategic approach to teacher PLD is urgently required if teachers are to be expected to operate in this sort of way into the future.
Across all of the reports there is a strong emphasis on issues associated with both teacher and student wellbeing. The expectation to provide ‘continuity of learning’ in an emergency remote situation cannot be addressed without acknowledging the considerable stress experienced by many teachers, students and their families during this situation. For some this is a consequence of economic hardships, meaning the concerns about meeting the basic needs of the family must take priority over the need for finding money to pay for connectivity or devices etc. For others there has been the stress of having to look after children while also being deemed an ‘essential worker’ and thus having to manage child care or supervision. Anxieties about being separated from friends and picking up on the ‘sensationalised’ messages on the media all contribute to stress in learners and are detrimental to wellbeing.
Agency and autonomy online
Surprisingly for some the experience of having more freedom about what, when, where and how to learn was seen as a major ‘positive’ by many students. Some of the most positive experiences were reported where the teacher/school provided well designed challenges that enabled students to spend time pursuing the solutions in their own way/time (within guidelines and with effective feedback loops etc.) An important consideration here is to understand that learners do need some coaching and guidance to reach this level of self-management in learning, and so it cannot be assumed that they will automatically be able to operate in this way.
Conversely, some of the least valued experiences were reported where the focus of schools/teachers was on ensuring ‘coverage’ of content, and where learners were required to adhere to a rigid regime of timetabled activity (watching videos, zoom calls, online collaboration etc) that allowed little time for independent study and completion of tasks.
The title of this post is ‘lessons from lockdown’. Seems that title is becoming overused at the moment – yet it is important for, as educators, we are used to thinking of lessons as being linked with outcomes. The purpose of a lesson is to provide an opportunity for learning to occur and to guide a learner toward a desired outcome. Unless, therefore, we are open to thinking about what the outcome of all the learning we can do from these reports might lead us to, then they’re not really lessons at all.
Here are some of the key lessons I believe we need to be thinking about:
- A blended (or hybrid) future for all learners – designing our system to create greater flexibility for teachers and students to have choices with a mix of in-class and virtual/online learning activity.
- Address the issues of inequity at a system level – these run far deeper than simply providing devices and internet connection (although that is important!). To genuinely achieve a more equitable system we must be prepared to take a system view – and to find ways of enabling those who have to support those who have not. Simple as that.
- Design learning to provide for greater autonomy and independence for learners – activity promote self-managing strategies and build greater student agency by reducing the emphasis on content deliver and coverage for exams.
- Continue with the use of online platforms – extending the ability of learners to engage purposefully with their learning beyond the bounds of the current school day – and providing opportunities for greater parent/whānau engagement
- Challenge our definitions of success for learners, and explore alternative ways of assessing learning.
- Actively challenge the existing structures of our system and expectations of learners and be prepared to dismantle any that have been exposed as barriers to the desired future state.
Greater CHCH Schools Network – Closing the Digital Divide during the COVID-19 Lockdown: Student, whānau and staff perspectives – Findings from a survey of 3,105 Canterbury primary and secondary school-aged students, their parents and whānau, and school staff about how students found learning from home. Includes over 150 schools and EY centres. The report summarises the connectivity of students, parents and staff in the greater CHCH region, assesses the experiences of learning in lockdown of these groups, and makes recommendations for further work in bridging the digital divide as well as having adequate procedures and policies in place should school closures happen again in the future.
University of Auckland – Addressing Rangitahi Education: challenges after COVID-19 – This report responds to flaxroots research by Ngāti Whātua Orākei that provides compelling evidence of disparities in digital education during the pandemic response. It shows the the positive effects of addressing these digital divides on the outlook of both rangatahi and their parents about their futures.
Evaluation Associates – Insights from Learners in Lockdown – A small-scale, qualitative study captured a ‘bubble in time’ of 31 learners who sent video or written submissions after a call went out to our team for volunteers among their friends and families.
Evaluation Associates – School-led learning at home: Voices of parents of Māori and Pasifika students – Reports on a survey that sought the views of parents of Māori and Pasifika students on their experiences of the first week of school-led learning at home. 134 parents responded to the survey. These parents represented at least 105 primary and 79 secondary students from throughout New Zealand in English and Māori medium settings.
Education Hub – Learning from Lockdown – what seemed to work well – Key findings from the narrative reflections of teachers, parents and students from across New Zealand on their experiences of schooling under lockdown, collected by The Education Hub in May this year.
NZCER – Open Access articles for COVID-19 Times – Includes:
- School leadership in a post-disaster setting
- Making the most of learning from home during times of crisis
- How might research on schools’ responses to earlier crises help us in the COVID-19 recovery process?
- Opportunities to reframe moderation practices in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic
- Our education system responded to COVID-19. How will it respond to climate change?
CANeLearn report – Documenting Triage: Detailing the response of provinces and territories to the emergency remote teaching – A national review and analysis of crisis learning in the spring presents learning opportunities to redefine the classroom of the future that can bring learning beyond the four walls and into our communities across Canada and around the world.
UNESCO – COVID-19 : 10 Recommendations to plan distance learning solutions – UNESCO is sharing 10 recommendations to ensure that learning remains uninterrupted during the period of school closures in a growing number of countries to contain the spread of COVID-19.