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Lessons from lockdown: initial questions and considerations for schools and education

The impact of COVID-19 on education has been significant. In the short-term, there has been a complete change to the day-to-day realities of educators, students and their families. However, there also are much broader and on-going implications. The physical closure of schools has shone a spotlight on some of the persistent and systemic challenges facing our education system, providing an opportunity to refocus our attention and efforts on them. It further has created a space for asking big questions about education; do we want to return to the status quo and business as usual when schools reopen? Might the lockdown period act as a catalyst for education reforms that many have been seeking? And if so, what should we be looking to change?

It is too soon to come to any firm consensus on any of these questions. However, there is an opportunity to start thinking about some of the ideas, themes and opportunities emerging from the current context.

Equity, schools and society

The inequalities that exist within New Zealand’s education system are not new. However, this period of home learning has made readily apparent the profound disparities in children’s access to support and opportunities. This perhaps has been most manifest in some students’ [lack of] access to a digital device and wifi connection at home. However, this is just one aspect of the huge variation in resources available at home to support students’ learning, which also includes, a suitable place to engage in learning, parents’ capacity to support learning (including various enrichment opportunities and other forms of social capital), and access to books and other materials. Added to this are the capacity and readiness of individual students to learn (right now independently but also when at school), and the requisite foundation, including knowledge, learning skills and social and emotional competencies, required to enable them to do this effectively. Harvard Professor, Paul Reville, has suggested that there is an opportunity out of the current situation to rethink how we address questions of equity in schools and society. Revile proposes that what is required is the reconceptualization of “the whole job of child development and education, and [to] construct systems that meet children where they are and give them what they need, both inside and outside of school, in order for all of them to have a genuine opportunity to be successful”.

The role of teachers

Nearly all parents will agree that the current context has demonstrated the valuable role that teachers and schools play in our society. However, hopefully it does more than this. There is an opportunity to think deeply about what it means to be a teacher and how we conceptualise the role of the teacher within schools and schooling. While some fear that the shift to online and distance learning will prompt an irreversible move towards reducing the role of the human teacher in place of technology, I hope that the opposite is true. While increasingly we are seeing the erosion of boundaries between the digital and the non-digital, between human and the machine, it is possible to leverage the pervasive power of technology to elevate the human in teaching. There is an opportunity to reinforce a humanist approach to education, emphasising teaching and learning as a social and relational enterprise. Professor Alison Jones has written a thought provoking piece exploring the role of physical presence, the body, and performative relationships in teaching.

Learning priorities, the curriculum and teaching resources

A consistent piece of advice to teachers over the past few weeks has been to reduce the amount of content you are trying to cover and to identify key learning priorities. In time, it will be valuable to reflect on what these priorities were, what they mean for teaching and learning moving forward, and whether they represent a new model for approaching the curriculum. Incorporated into these discussions should be some consideration of the Ministry of Education’s creation of different learning resources over this time – physical packs, education television, and online learning resources. There have been multiple discussions about the curriculum simmering away in New Zealand over the past few years, many regarding the level of autonomy schools should have over how they engage with and cover the NZC. The current situation provides an opportunity to re-engage with and elevate some of these curriculum conversations and to also include in them discussions regarding the role and production of teaching materials and resources.  

Pedagogy and effective teaching

There has been no shortage of advice around how to approach distance teaching and learning. What is fascinating, is that much of it seems to be based on well-established principles effective [in-person] teaching. Consistent messages coming through include:

  • The importance of relationships and developing a class culture based on mutual respect, care, empathy and warmth, and the need to attend to and ensure the emotional wellbeing of each student.
  • Establishing a careful sequencing of content to be covered, which builds logically and consistently through a series of well-designed and clearly focused tasks.
  • Designing learning activities in keeping with the principles of how we learn so as to avoid cognitive overload and to facilitate an understanding from comprehension, to remembering, to understanding and the engagement with higher order thinking skills
  • Supporting students to effectively manage their time, establishing routines and habits and establishing clear expectations for what students will be doing
  • The need to ensure plenty of opportunities for free play, for time in nature, for creative engagement, and rest

There perhaps is an opportunity to consider how some of the pedagogical approaches being advocated for and incorporated into teaching and learning at present might also be meaningfully [re]integrated into face-to-face classrooms.

The importance of systems, structures and school culture

During the first weeks of the lockdown most people were in firefighting mode, trying frantically to adjust to new ways of working and being. Emerging from this have been a wide range of models and approaches to distance learning. What is becoming clear, is that those schools that developed clear systems and processes to underpin their move to distance learning and had a strong school culture within which to situate and embed these new approaches, tend to be faring better. As schools shift their focus towards considering what life will be like when they reopen fully, there is an opportunity to think about the systems, structures and culture that should be underpinning their core work.

Above are just some of the themes raised by the current situation. The Education Hub is intrigued by the challenges, questions and possibilities regarding schools and education that are emerging. We are beginning a series of work that will start to explore lessons learned from lockdown and the opportunities these may present. In this work, we are looking to begin a conversation and to explore different perspectives and approaches. We start this work with a webinar exploring the findings of a recent report on the voices of Maori and Pasifika parents during level 4 lockdown, and hope to expand it to capture the experiences of both educators and students over the past weeks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.