8 insights for achieving resilience

Image: Derek Wenmoth

This week marked the conclusion of the Tai Tokerau Hybrid Learning project involving a number of schools in the Far North. I’ve had the privilege of being involved throughout the project since its initial design earlier in the year. The image above was taken yesterday as the teachers involved shared their experiences over the past months, highlighting the things they’ve learned from the experiments they have tried.

The Tai Tokerau Hybrid Learning project was an initiative of the Northern Region Ministry of Education who invited two schools to explore and report on strategies that support the work of teachers and learners in a hybrid learning environment.

Bream Bay College and Bay of Islands International Academy already had a reputation for innovation in the use of digital technologies and in pedagogical practice, and were already working with their neighbouring schools which they then invited participate in this project.

The scope of the project was deliberately open, with the expectation that participating schools and teachers would have an opportunity to trial a range of ideas and approaches and then share more widely the things they learned so that other schools could benefit.

The broad goal of the project was defined by the Ministry of Education who were interested in capturing stories of success in hybrid learning that could help inform activity among other educators, and some of which may be scalable beyond the immediate context they were trialed.

At its heart the programme involved giving teachers permission to try things out and providing them with the resources required to achieve this. Unsurprisingly, given the experiences of the past year with the Omicron disruption, a key focus of many of the teachers in the project was on finding innovative ways to engage learners, and their parents and whānau, in the learning process.

To help ensure there was a level of discipline and focus in the way this was carried out, the facilitation team introduced a simple design template that participants used to help them structure their approach.  This simple tool provided a level of rigor to the way in which teachers planned and organised their experiments, while at the same time enabling them to take risks they may not otherwise have felt empowered to pursue.

There were regular ‘check-in’ sessions held throughout the project, and each participating teacher was offered one on one mentoring with one of the project facilitators throughout the time of the project. Throughout this time the teachers were capturing a digital story of their experiences, including evidence of the impact the things they were doing.

While the specific focus of each teacher was unique and each revealed a key insights relating to what they did, there were a number of overarching themes and insights revealed during the final report-back and celebration day held yesterday at Bream Bay College which I’ve summarised below:

1. Participation matters

Educators have long recognised that the best (deepest, enduring) learning is active, not passive, and that students are driven by social interaction and shared interest. The reality of how this plays out in a hybrid situation requires more thought and intentional design it appears.

It turns out that simply putting worksheets and instructions for activity online for remote learners to access isn’t sufficient. Neither is creating an online forum and inviting remote learners to ‘stay in touch’, sharing videos of in-class lessons, or holding regular Zoom lessons where the teacher does most of the talking (instruction).

Teachers in this project explored all sorts of ways to increase the level of active participation in all aspects of the learning. This included contribution to the decisions being made about the design of the learning itself and the use of innovative and interactive online activities to capture interest and motivate leaners, both in-class and remote.

Designing for greater levels of peer involvement proved important here, including group activities, peer support and peer assessment. These things leverage the student desire for social interaction and add value through an intentional contribution to learning.

Two of the teachers included a focus on gamification in their experiments, leveraging the benefits of learning activity that is goal-driven, promoting active participation, and providing rewards for goal achievement. This proved extremely motivating and engaging for learners, and was also an effective way of designing learning activity that involved both in-class and remote learners simultaneously.

2. It’s all about partnership

Parent/whānau engagement is critical to the success of any learning, but particularly in a hybrid context. We must regard parents/whānau – and the wider community – as partners in the learning process. Several of the participants conducted interviews and/or surveys with parents and were encouraged at the level of interest shown when they were invited to be more actively involved with the things their children were learning.

One of the things that became apparent was the benefit of including parent access to the online learning resources and support that was developed for the learners. This led to instances of extra resources and information for parents being provided so that they could, in turn, provide quality support fo their children at home.

The fact is, of course, that learners spend a lot more time at home than they do at school, even when they are attending school in-person on a regular basis. In addition, parents have relationships with their children that means they’re generally better placed to provide certain kinds of support. So it makes sense to involve parents and whānau members as partners in the support of young learners.

In the hybrid learning projects parent feedback confirmed the benefit of providing better and more timely information about the expectations teachers had regarding the learning activities to be completed at home. In addition, parents appreciated the ideas and suggestions about how best they could support their children while not physically at school.

3. Design for fluidity

Just as a hybrid vehicle shifts effortlessly between its electric and petrol engines, the desired state for learners is that they can transition seamlessly between in-class and at-home learning without being penalised. Thus, designing learning to enable the re-engagement of learners when returning to the in-person classroom is key to successful hybrid learning.

Some of the teachers in the project reflected on earlier approaches they’d taken which essentially meant they were planning for two groups of learners – those in class and those at home. Not only did this create unsustainable workload issues, but it made it more difficult for learners to re-engage when they returned to schoool after time away.

Thus, an important lesson identified by teachers in the project is that hybrid learning design must be a fully integrated approach, not an ‘add-on’ for those who can’t attend class in-person. Invariably that will lead to students returning to class having to ‘re-orient’ themselves to what is happening instead of simply continuing with their learning.

This doesn’t simply mean planning for the same content and activities. It means planning to use online environments create the maximum opportunity for learners to learn with and from each other, regardless of where they are located. It can mean scheduling some times for synchronous activity where learners at home and at school use webinar tools to share in specific activities. or events. And it should mean using common tools and approaches to monitor and report on progress in learning.

4. Mix it up

A topic of conversation in the report back day was the realisation that, despite the rhetoric, a lot of our learning design is biased towards a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. With the best of intentions we may have scheduled a series of webinars and expected everyone to participate – often as a substitute for the teacher-talk time in classrooms.

In this project we saw examples of teachers…

  • using a mix of synchronous and asynchronous opportunities for students to connect, some even providing learners with the option of which they used in order to ‘check in’. One teacher who had been expecting learners to attend regular Zoom calls received feedback pointing out that often, rather than being helpful, they actually became a distraction to the focused learning taking place.
  • using a mix of grouping approaches, sometimes with groups on-site or at-home only, and sometimes mixing students on-site and at home, using online tools to communicate and collaborate on projects.
  • being intentional about using the Universal Design for Learning framework to design learning experiences that provided learners with more choice about how they access, process and share their learning.

5. Practical activities can work

This was one of the most interesting findings from the project. During previous lockdowns there had been lots of concern about students involved in subjects involving the use of specialist tools or facilities (e.g. art, music, technology etc.) being disadvantaged. While it would be difficult to complete all requirements in some disciplines without access to specialist facilities and tools, teachers on this project demonstrated that, with careful design and planning, it is possible to provide meaningful learning experiences for learners during their periods at home, and reserve the focus on the practical tasks for when the learners are able to attend in-person.

In this project an art teacher and a PE/Outdoor Ed teacher each demonstrated how this could be achieved and were encouraged when all of their students were able to complete all requirements in their subject areas for NCEA, regardless of times they weren’t able to attend in-person classes.

6. Roles change

For most teachers in this project the reality of having to re-think their role(s) as teachers was an important insight. Many commented on the shifts they made from ‘deliverer’ to ‘designer’, facilitator, mentor, guide etc.

The consequence of making the learning activities more accessible online, including sharing learning intentions and assessment frameworks, together with a more intentional role for parents and whānau, was that the teachers became more involved in the process of helping learners navigate their own learning, putting more focused time into helping those who needed it most, and being present to adjust expectations and strategies based on what they saw happening.

7. Shifts in motivation

In an attempt to more immediately increase engagement in learning, particularly the online dimension of what they had planned, several of the teachers included various forms of extrinsic motivation in their learning design. This included things like points tables to recognise contributions to online discussions, or an ‘attendance’ wall to acknowledge participation in webinars etc., or various forms of ‘reward’ for completion of tasks or assignments.

Such efforts were generally very successful, with both students and their parents providing feedback about the increased motivation these provided to become more regularly and meaningfully engaged in learning activity. This was very encouraging, particularly given that increasing learner engagement was a primary focus of almost everyone on the project based on the evidence of lower engagement generally over the past year.

During the course of the project, however, many learners (and their parents) reported that they were less interested in these, explicit forms of motivation, but had become more genuinely involved with and intrinsically motivated by the nature of the learning activity itself. Many of the factors highlighted above contributed to what the learners identified as making this difference, in particular the explicit sharing of learning goals and expectations, and the impact of the application of UDL approaches in the way learning activities were structured.

Thus, while various forms of explicit motivation will provide immediate gains in engagement and participation, the focus should be on providing authentic learning experiences, with targeted feedback and support, so that the motivation becomes more implicit and a consequence of the quality of learning design.

8. Transparency is key

From my perspective as an external observer/mentor to this project the thing I saw make an enormous difference was the increased transparency at all levels. By this I mean the visibility that all participants (teachers, learners, parents/whānau) had and have of the entire learning process:

  • Learners had a clarity around what was expected and the options they had for accessing resources and support
  • Parents were better informed about what was required and about the specific ways they could help support the learning
  • Teachers had visibility of each other’s planning which meant that it became easier for them to work collaboratively and to ‘step up’ if one of them had to be away because of illness.

While initially more time and effort was required to design and implement these innovative approaches, in the longer term these ways of working will lead to more sustainable ways of working, and a greater level of resilience at the school and system level.

The project team are in the process of assembling all of the reports and evidence from this project onto a website that will be available to view shortly. This will undoubtedly prove to be of value to other educators and schools seeking to find ways of achieving greater resilience in the way they design their programmes, and ultimately, achieving better outcomes for all learners. I’ll share the link once the site is made public!

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