Switching on the Remote Learning

pexels-photo-1792056Recently I wrote a range of ideas about the issues around access, pedagogy and culture that have been highlighted by the sudden shift to remote learning. I wanted to extend that discussion by drawing together various sources and ideas about what remote learning should look like. 

Education was never the sole focus of schools, and it’s a shame it has taken a pandemic to prove itLaura McInerney

Vision

This is the most important time to lead with humanity, empathy and kindness. Individual schools’ visions will have values that relate to these ideas, but now is the time to really make them visible. Perry Rush from the NZ Principal’s association affirmed that “Our job at this time is to infuse any home learning plan with a deep sense of humanity.” This absolute focus on well-being means some other concerns might take a back seat for a while, but the bigger picture here is we are helping to equip our young people with resilience and grit.

What is needed at this time is leadership that has emotional resonance. This is not a time for you to be a transactional leader singularly focused on how learning may continue. It is a time for you to metaphorically wrap your arms around the young people in your care and embrace their families too – Perry Rush

Jacinda Ardern continues to emerge as a beacon of hope not just for NZ but for the global community. Many of the world’s leaders have focused on instructive messages, politically charged with contradictions or explanatory in their intent. However, Ardern’s value-led statements have repeatedly emphasised care and compassion while using the mantra of “be kind“. Our schools should be led with the same approach.

Relationships

Humanity, empathy and kindness are central to the idea of positive relationships. In the classroom I consider my personality my most valuable asset – I use it to engage students, management behaviour, motivate and connect with the students. Now from a distance, it is still vital to connect virtually and maintain positive relationships. According to Core Education this means beginning with people – and people need humanity, empathy and kindness.

Parents will be under all kinds of new pressures in these situations so they too need reminding of these central values and the need to prioritise well-being and relationships above learning the times tables. Zoe Williams described the situation as a marathon done at a sprint: “We don’t have to win it – we just have to live it.”

Pedagogy

I had to check myself for a moment when I initially laid out this blogpost I had the subheading ‘technology’ – technology is not a pedagogy; it’s a vechicle and we can learn to be better drivers, but ultimately it is not a replacement for excellent teaching and learning. What does that look like in this context? I think there are a few considerations:

  • Project based learning: chunking learning into assignment style projects.
  • Beyond the classroom opportunities: community support activities, citizenship endeavours that focus on family well-being (i.e. cooking), and where appropriate subject scholarship.
  • Personalised: available to access anytime and anywhere, with plenty of options and approaches for learners at different levels, with different skills and interests.
  • Work ready focus: enrichment activities like online language learning, investigating careers through online talks and work preparation.
  • Collaborative: make students part of the planning and learning creation; have opportunities for their feedback and contributions.
  • Learning to learn: a fundamental underpinning of the NZ curriculum; for a lot of students this might be a deep end experience so a focus on how will help.

These considerations can be enabled by tools like Google Classroom, Canvas, Seesaw, Microsoft Teams etc. in different ways. I think the key is that whatever tools are used, they are collaborative, interactive, and promote agency. Furthermore, that the spirit of experimentation is encouraged. Many teachers will be encountering these tools for the first time, and a sense of there being one right way will only restrict the potential learning possibilities.

Structure

It was terrifying to read that many schools have maintained their classroom timetable for remote learning. This is not the time for business as usual. It’s not viable for most households to maintain this, and greatly reduces the opportunities that distance learning pedagogy can have. Claire Amos in a recent Spinoff article put it this way:

Life in lockdown shouldn’t have a predetermined timetable, and neither should learning. Replicating a timetable in a remote context is not kind, and haven’t we all been asked to be kind?

Bishop Carroll in Calgary, Canada is part of the Self-Directed Schools movement. Their approach is to timetable the teachers (so students know when they are available) and student co-construct their own time including masterclasses and workshops. Such an approach could very well be adapted to the current context. Teachers could be timetabled into an online chat space (with video to enhance connections) on a regular basis with students checking in to ask questions, seek clarification or feedback. The rest of the time a suggested programme could be provided helping students to fill the time in meaningful ways. 

Monitoring student connection on a shared google sheet (or similar) in lieu of attendance rolls will help to keep tabs on engagement and help inform tutors and pastoral leaders or who needs checking in on. But monitoring students for output should not be valued at all. This would not fit within the vision of leading with humanity, empathy and kindness. 

Assessment

This is a great opportunity to diversify the way we view assessment. So many assessment systems are stuck in traditional mindsets that view examinations as the dominant form of assessment. As these are no longer possible in the short term, perhaps we can consider how alternative approaches could be more authentic, integrated, and holistic. Performance over time can produce a significantly different result to a single high-stakes summative test. Which is a more accurate reflection of a student’s ability?

But perhaps a better consideration is to interrogate what we are measuring and how we are collecting that data. What skills and knowledge do we value in these times? Perhaps we should be finding ways to reward students who develop the skills to support their families and communities, or even volunteer for the NHS. How do we want to measure and collect this data? Perhaps we need to be looking at engaging students with more than just written work through social media, oral submissions, and multimodal methods.


I am by no means claiming this is a holistic take on all the issues that the current crisis presents. I’m sure school leadership in these unprecedented times is far more complex than my idealised take on it. Regardless, I think it is so important to keep emphasising the values of humanity, empathy and kindness.

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