Joe Lumsden, Secondary School Principal at Stonehill International School.
When the global pandemic began to impact school systems around the world in early 2020, the transformation of the art of teaching, which had been slowly manifesting itself in technology-rich countries over the past few decades, received a disruptive, yet potentially exciting jolt. The ‘delivery of instruction’, an almost archaic term in our age of easy, on-demand access to information for anybody with an internet connection, came face to face with an existential crisis. Learning was going to be different from now on.
Students and teachers in impoverished communities clearly faced often insurmountable problems due to lack of access to the technology needed for learning to continue. At the more fortunate end of the opportunity spectrum, however, different challenges arose, challenges which signified a fundamental shift in how we teach and learn in schools.
At Stonehill International School, the transition to online learning in March 2020 was seamless. As all learning resources, assessment tasks, class messages and teacher feedback were already accessible online for both students and parents before schools were forced to close, it was fairly straightforward to transition face-to-face classes to video conferencing platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet with immediate effect. Teachers quickly learned how to use the software most effectively, experimented with other available online tools, and shared what they had learned with other members of staff in faculty meetings, forums and group chats to ensure that all teachers developed competence in delivering learning experiences remotely. Within a few weeks, everybody felt comfortable working under these new conditions.
The availability of technology and the technological competence of both students and teachers meant that the ‘tools’ were never really going to be the major challenge for us. Instead, what has happened over the past eighteen months could best be described as a renegotiation over what it means to ‘teach’ and ‘learn’, when and where such actions take place, and who is responsible for what.
Teachers who have struggled the most are those who are clinging on to a traditional view of ‘teaching’, an approach in which an adult ‘instructs’ young people in a particular discipline and gradually fills the empty vessels in front of them. Such teachers see their own subject knowledge as their raison d’etre and can’t imagine students can succeed without their instruction. In an online environment, their default approach, therefore, becomes lengthy, tedious zoom lectures, with students inevitably switching cameras off and presumably multi-tasking while feigning attention.
The necessary technology-driven shift in pedagogy, however, requires teachers to sacrifice control over the ‘when’ and ‘where’ factors of the learning experience. The verb ‘to teach’ can no longer comfortably be equated with the image of ‘instruction’. Instead, ‘teaching’ becomes an amalgam of directing or grabbing attention, providing resources, posing questions, offering individual or small group support, giving feedback, etc. ‘Instruction’, particularly to large groups, can only realistically happen in short bursts when required. And even in such cases, there is inevitably a YouTube video that students can access if they are struggling with a particular concept.
The available technology together with a more up-to-date understanding of what teaching actually entails, therefore, basically allow learning to take place asynchronously, online or in school buildings, whenever, wherever and with whoever. While it’s probably more pleasant to work collaboratively with real human beings in a room, I don’t see any evidence suggesting that this is more effective academically than independently using resources available online, collaborating using the Google Suite Apps, checking in with others when necessary through videoconferencing, and directing one’s own learning experience to suit one’s own circumstances.
All of which leaves us face-to-face with some fundamental questions that schools and educators will need to answer over the coming years.
If learning and physical school attendance become increasingly flexible for students, what happens to practical subjects like the arts and PE? How do teachers set up collaborative activities on campus if students don’t need to be there? Can you successfully learn a foreign language without regular human interaction? How do you run authentic, reliable assessments if some students are at home? How can you effectively communicate with students in class and online simultaneously?
And how can schools expect teachers to have a full-load of classes at school and then still be available 24/7 to work with and respond to students asynchronously? Are schools brave enough to demolish traditional timetables and move towards a more flexible approach to learning? Can teachers handle such an approach? Can all the students? Are the parents ready?
These are the questions that need to be addressed now. The availability of technology together with the wake-up call provided by the pandemic has resulted in a fundamental shift in how we ‘do schooling’. For those courageous enough to take risks and adapt, this could be a really exciting time to work in education.
Also Read:Challenges faced by students while switching from online to offline classes