Distance Learning Round 3: Applying what we’ve learned

Screenshot from today’s video lesson.

In Western Australia we have been lucky that our periods of COVID-19-related lockdown or distance learning have been counted in weeks, not months. In fact, until the weekend, we had gone almost ten months with no community transmission of coronavirus.

Monday was to be the first day of the academic year for most students in Western Australia, but as 2020 taught us, COVID-19 disruption can strike at any time and change circumstances. One hotel quarantine case of the B117 variant of the novel coronavirus, and Perth was put into a five-day lockdown at 6pm on Sunday night, hours before the first day of school was due to begin. The Premier’s announcement came at lunchtime Sunday, giving school leaders just enough time to meet to plan the response, organise communications, and open schools so that staff could drop in before lockdown commenced to collect anything they might need for remote teaching.

Luckily, this was unlike the announcement in April last year that pressured schools and teachers with significant extra work to begin a hybrid learning environment with students learning from home and from school, simultaneously. Rather, what was announced was a one-week extension of the school holidays. Schools did not need to open for essential workers, nor did they have to provide resources for learning from home. Many independent schools had, however, already started their school years, so student lockers were filled with books and boarders had arrived at boarding houses. Other schools, having not started the school year, had IT devices and books not yet distributed to students.

Government schools are honouring the Monday to Friday extension of the holiday break. Some independent schools launched into remote learning from Tuesday or Wednesday for all students K-12. At my school, we took a balanced approach. The academic year for our K-10 students was postponed for the week, with teachers spending their time at home preparing lessons for Week 2, possibly to be delivered using distance learning if the lockdown is extended due to testing or case numbers. After two days of teacher preparation (of remote lesson plans, instructional videos, Teams functionalities and resources), teaching of courses in Years 11 and 12 began today (Wednesday) via distance learning.

This lockdown and period of remote learning feels different to the scramble in March last year. Even then, we were considered and prepared in our approach. In 2020, in the most isolated city in the world, we had seen the virus coming across the globe like a tidal wave we knew would reach our shores. But it was still a case of building the plane while flying it, and finding ways to listen to our community to figure out what was working well and what could be improved. This time our plan had been refined by deep reflection on lessons learned from our last two rounds of distance learning, and we continued to base our decisions on the following key principles.

  • The wellbeing of all in our community, including students, families and staff. We did not want to rush into providing a home learning scenario for all students as families and teachers were busy preparing their households for the lockdown. Parents and teachers were organising to work from home, while having their children at home.
  • Clear and streamlined communication. Everyone was consuming and coming to terms with fast-changing news, a new suite of rules and restrictions. A bombardment of communication from the school, or from teachers about remote learning, was not what our community needed on top of the firehose of information they were processing. We ensured clear communication through a couple of key channels. Our All Staff Microsoft Team allowed for detailed, dynamic communication for and among staff.
  • Clarity of plan. In 2020, while learning in Western Australian schools returned to face to face, the leadership team continued to iterate and improve the distance learning model for what we thought might be a ‘next time’. That plan—what we called Distance Learning 3.0, as well as previous emergency response planning—made Sunday’s planning much easier. We knew what was likely to work, and we could swiftly tweak the plan for the current scenario and for what is most appropriate for our community, based on a range of previous feedback.
  • Collaboration. It has been heartening to see the collaboration between staff in our virtual spaces this week. Staff are creating how-to videos for one another, sharing resources, and reaching out. There is an incredible and uplifting sense of solidarity and staff community, even when a bushfire emergency was added to this week’s lockdown scenario.

In the last year, we’ve learned a lot in education about how to bring humanity together with precision of instruction and collaborative technologies so that remote learning is effective, reassuring and provides connectedness. Today, on our first day of distance learning with Year 11 and 12 students, there has been tremendous uptake and engagement by students. I have been buoyed by feedback from teachers, parents and students, and energised by interactions with my own class and their openness to beginning our course at a distance.

Going slowly, carefully, and with clarity in our response to the latest lockdown has allayed overwhelm and anxiety. It has given time, space and resources for teachers to design remote education for their students that is excellent, equitable and realistic for the context in which we find ourselves. Our approach balances best practice in remote teaching and learning with safeguarding the wellbeing of students, families and staff. We have been able to respond realistically, responsibly and with agility to changes in circumstance, and will continue to do so. With any luck, our five-day lockdown will end after five days.

20 things I learned in 2020.

I have written less in 2020 on this blog than in any other year since starting it in 2014. Like many, I have been busy, shell shocked, wrung dry, and spread thin by the events (personal, local and global) of this year. Before this one there have been 20 blog posts in 2020. I almost didn’t want to ruin that symmetry by writing post #21, but here it is: a brief run down of those things that this year brought into sharp relief for me.

Of course, I learned plenty things this year, such as how to dress for video calls, that living in the world’s most isolated city is a blessing during a pandemic, and that full toilet paper shelves in supermarkets can be symbolic of a community’s sense of psychological safety. But these didn’t make my list of 20 things I ‘learned’. Perhaps I should have titled this blog post ‘20 things I already knew but learned for real in 2020’. The experiences of this year have helped me understand their significance beyond their aphoristic ‘truthiness’. And here they are:

  1. We need to listen to research and science, not opinion, misinformation, and social media noise. But research and science can’t tell us everything. Sometimes we don’t know, or we don’t know yet. We need to make the best decisions we can with the best information we have.
  2. The Western world moves at a cracking pace that isn’t healthy, sustainable, or good for the planet. We need to rethink the ways in which we live and work, but it’s difficult to change our norms, assumptions, and ingrained ways of behaving and being in the world.
  3. We don’t need to be in the office or workplace to be working. We can lead more flexible and integrated work-home lives.
  4. Our world is full of inequities that become starker and more sickening during a crisis.
  5. Health and wellbeing are paramount, and are the responsibility of everyone. To ensure the health of populations around the world, governance and leadership matter, but so do the actions of each individual.
  6. We are relational, interdependent, social organisms whose biology draws us to one another – physically, emotionally, and cognitively. When we are forced to distance from one another, it hurts.
  7. Among the most important things in life are our family and friends. We must live our lives as though being with those we love is one of our essential needs.
  8. Wellbeing is more than being physically well. Anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness, loss, and trauma can have wide ranging and unexpected impacts.
  9. Meaningful work is crucial to wellbeing.
  10. Technologies can help us to connect with one another, but do not replace face to face connection.
  11. Webinars and virtual conferences allow greater breadth of participation but do not allow the time and head space of a physical conference held away from home.
  12. There are many in our societies who are undervalued but whose work is essential and often invisible. Cleaners, grocery suppliers, delivery drivers, facilities managers, nurses, doctors, care workers, pharmacists, and teachers deserve ongoing professional trust and respect.
  13. Teachers can’t be replaced by technology, but technologies can enhance teaching and allow students to display independence, resilience, and autonomy in their learning.
  14. Remote teaching and learning (like any major undertaking) requires careful design and responsive implementation if it is to be successful.
  15. Schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care. They also serve the practical, economic function of looking after children while parents go to work.
  16. When leading during a crisis it is tempting to focus on the immediate, the problematic, and the measurable, but leaders must simultaneously consider the possible, the human, and the humane.
  17. Collaboration is key to a positive future: local, national, and global collaboration that is meaningful, transparent, and productive, and focused on the shared moral purpose of the greater good for all.
  18. It’s hard to support others when we are ourselves struggling. It’s hard for a community to support each other when many are struggling.
  19. Being kind to others means listening with empathy and taking positive action, sometimes without being asked.
  20. Being kind to ourselves means giving ourselves permission to say no, being present with our feelings and reactions, and prioritising what’s important to us.

As we near the end of 2020, I hope that, in amongst the challenges and difficulties this year, each of you experienced moments of hope, gratitude, and reflection.

Leadership in 2020

Source: Shutterstock

It is becoming increasingly apparent that, while leadership is about service, in order to lead we need to look after self. Familiar analogies–of fitting our own oxygen masks before we can help others, and filling our own cup before we can pour from it into the cups of others–apply. Leading involves difficult, complex, human, relational work. Leaders need to build in their own mechanisms for wellbeing, such as pauses, support, breaks, and doing those things that nourish and replenish us.

I have been quiet on the blog this year. There are a few reasons. 2020 (probably enough said). A new job. An exciting behind-the-scenes project. Prioritising the important stuff (including family and self-care, as well as work, writing, and advocacy) over feelings of obligation or guilt. Working on saying ‘no’ sometimes.

This year has served up a squall line of disruption and distress. Since March, leaders in all industries have been responding at pace to relentless changes and uncertainty. We have had to reconnect with one another and reimagine our fields. We have had to reconsider the foundations of leadership. We have asked: How have we historically done things? How could we do things now? How might we do things differently? How do we want our world to be? How do we each want to be? What really matters and how do we enable and protect what is most precious and pressing?

Recently, as part of the WomenEd Australia network group, I participated (from afar) in the WomenEd global virtual unconference (a participant-driven meeting). WomenEd—a global grass roots association and 35,000-strong international community, based out of the UK and co-founded by Vivienne Porritt, Jules Daulby, and Keziah Featherstone—is a movement that aims to connect and support women in education, and to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the education sphere. It encourages diverse educators to be ‘10% braver’, to shift out of their comfort zone little by little.

The team of WomenEd Australia prepared a video presentation that explored what influences our leadership, available on YouTube.

In my video reflection for the unconference, I discussed that my own practices of leading are anchored in working towards a shared vision and moral purpose. I begin from a base of trusting in the capacity of those throughout the organisation, and in the importance of supporting and investing in teachers. Good leaders build good leaders.

In the video, I also explain that my leading practices are underpinned by frameworks for action. These include:

  • Consciously navigating tensions. Switching between the ‘dancefloor’ and the ‘balcony. Being strategic while also working to understand the lived experience of those in the school and community. Communicating with clarity and also empathy. ‘Leading fast and slow’ – at once able to respond quickly but also to work strategically at the long game; implementing gradual change with the aspirational end in mind.
  • Applying clear frameworks for decision making with consistency and transparency. One thing we are desperately missing during 2020 is predictability; knowing what to expect and what is likely to come next. I really hope that 2021 can bring more certainty and less anxiety.
  • Meaningful collaboration and consultation. Working at ‘we’, ‘alongside’ and ‘together’. Seeking out dissenting voices and seeking to understand multiple perspectives. Some of the most exciting and uplifting parts of my leadership role are working with a range of diverse stakeholders on productive, positive change.
  • Marrying clear policy and process with responsiveness and adaptability, qualities brought into sharp focus by the constantly changing circumstances of 2020.

Recently, the Year 12s at my school had their final Valedictory celebrations. In their yearbook, I pointed them towards Mariannne Williamson’s words, in which she encourages us to be our brave, unique selves.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine.”

Shining has often felt out of the realms of possibility this year. Surviving is more likely to describe how many are feeling, even those who others may say have shone and been part of significant or invaluable work. Part of leading may involve demonstrating strength or holding the line, but leading also encompasses empathy, vulnerability, and sitting with discomfort. We can be powerful beyond measure, especially when we give ourselves permission to take time and care for ourselves, when we support and energise one another, and when we work towards a common goal, one tiny nudge at a time.

Distance Learning 3.0: Ready to launch

source: pixabay WikiImages

Today I shared with teaching staff our school Distance Learning Plan 3.0. While Western Australia continues—for now—in a bubble of semi-normality, we are aware, as other places in the country and the world show, that COVID-19 is an illness that can explode in a community at any time, despite the best precautions.

At my school, we enacted distance learning during Term 1 for a period of about three weeks, and then were ‘locked down’ during the two week school holiday break before students began returning to school for Term 2. We generated feedback from our community at that time, which suggested the following for our next round of distance learning.

  • We need to ensure we are differentiating our approach. Distance learning needs to look different for different ages and stages, and for different subjects. As a kindergarten to Year 12 school, students (and their parents!) require varied approaches to distance learning, relevant to developmental age and capacity for autonomy in learning. Older children are more likely to cope with increased opportunities for flexibility and independence; younger children need scaffolds, structures, technologies and resources appropriate to them. Subjects that are more content heavy and theoretical require different approaches to those that are more practical. We need to fit the pedagogical and technological tools to the learning purpose.
  • We need to support student organisation, structure and routine. For example, by setting out for students a clear structure to the day, and a clear plan for the day and week in advance so they can plan accordingly and be flexible and autonomous in their work.
  • We need to provide live video lessons and pastoral video check-ins, for learning and connectedness.
  • We need to provide a range of teaching and learning content, blending modes and approaches.
  • Predictable and streamlined communication works best. The Goldilocks approach is what we are aiming for here: not too little and not too much.
  • Workload needs to be manageable for students and teachers. My understanding from colleagues in Victoria and overseas is that long term lock down–including working, teaching and learning from home–is exhausting for all. Especially in the early years, set work for children needs to be manageable for parents.
  • Wellbeing is essential. Ill-being, trauma, anxiety and inequities have increased in our world during this global pandemic (which was preceded in Australia by a terrifying bushfire season). We need to build in time and encouragement for nutrition, hydration and physical activity, and regular breaks from screens and from the relentlessness of a life in constant lock down.

The main elements of our Distance Learning 3.0 model are the following.

  • Teacher instruction: in short bursts of 15-30 minutes, delivered synchronously (live) and asynchronously (for students to access in their own time).
  • Student collaboration: through virtual and online platforms.
  • Student independent work: in which students manage their own time and work autonomously.
  • Student reflection: in which they are encouraged to use metacognitive strategies, reflect on own learning and set clear targets for improvement.

All of these elements are underpinned by trust in the professional capacity and professional judgement of teachers as experts in curriculum (what they are teaching), pedagogy (how to teach so students learn), and their students.

key elements of our Distance Learning Plan 3.0 – wellbeing is central

Wellbeing is at the centre of our distance learning model. We have deliberately built in a focus on the wellbeing of our students, parents, and teachers by integrating the following.

  • Shortening lesson times and increasing break times during periods of distance learning.
  • Including one Student-Directed Learning Day per week for Years K-10. This day is a ‘non-contact’ day of learning in which students organise their time to complete set work, and teachers prepare, mark and respond to student queries. The day will be cycled through the days of the week, depending on when distance learning begins (e.g. Monday one week, Tuesday the next, and so on).
  • Paring back content to the essentials and rethinking the way students can engage with content.
  • Reconsidering the ways in which students can show their learning, and redesigning or rescheduling assessments where appropriate.
  • Continuing to act with kindness, compassion and empathy.

Our Distance Learning Plan 3.0 is the plan we hope to never have to use, but as I explained in my last post, it’s the plan we would be irresponsible to be without.

COVID-19 and distance learning: Preparing, not just reacting

I’ve lived through Melbourne winters. They’re cold, wet, and dark, but the great thing about them is all the warm, cosy places to socialise, connect, enjoy the arts, attend festival events, watch and play sports, eat delicious food, and drink a beverage of choice with friends, family, and strangers. Life in lockdown, in the middle of a Melbourne winter, must be incredibly hard for everyone. While the mist still rises off the Yarra in the early morning, and stormy colours swirl in Port Phillip Bay, most of what makes Melbourne winters great is currently cancelled. Adults are working from home. Students are learning from home. Everyone is staying home. Face masks have become part of daily life. I can only imagine what it feels to live a Melburnian’s current reality.

Over in Perth, Western Australia, life is different. We had about four weeks of lockdown, but are now in what our state government calls ‘Phase 4’ of restrictions easing. That means that the only restrictions are the two square metre rule indoors, 50% capacity at major venues, and a ‘hard border’ between the rest of the world and our WA bubble. Businesses are open as long as they have a COVID-19 plan for contact tracing, extra cleaning, and appropriate physical distancing for adults. Many are working back in their corporate offices. Community sport is being played. People are travelling around the state (at four times the size of Texas and twelve times bigger than the UK, that’s plenty of landscape to cover). Schools have full attendance of students and staff, with classes being taught face to face and assemblies and other school events being held in ways that are compliant with government regulations. Students—including those who are 17 and 18 years old like the Year 12s I teach—are considered exempt from the physical distancing rules.

Things feel strangely normal (apart from hand sanitiser at every turn, contactless greetings, half empty stadiums, holding meetings and events in rooms big enough to  allow for physical distancing,  and watching what is happening elsewhere in the world unfold). We know we are incredibly fortunate. We also know that COVID-19 is around for the mid to long term, and the government keeps telling us ‘we can’t be complacent’. The time lag between the virus being transmitted, symptoms, and test results, means that we won’t know the virus is circulating in the community until it may be too late to easily isolate it. After 102 days of no community transmission, New Zealand now has 56 active cases, including 37 from community transmission. A quarantine breach, followed by socialising in our current ‘Phase 4’ conditions, would be enough to send Western Australia back into lockdown and into a reality of anxiety, loneliness, ill-being, and the traumatic human, economic, and social costs of this virus.

As a school leader charged with leading teaching and learning, I know that we need to have a distance learning plan ready in case we need to move to it at short notice. Not being prepared for another bout of distance learning is irresponsible, like living in a tsunami-prone area and not having a tsunami evacuation map. We might not need it. But we might.

Rather than wheeling out our previous plan/s, we have been thinking about how we can do distance learning better, if and when there is a next time. So we have been working on our ‘Distance Learning 3.0’.

We had our original plan, pivoted to when students, apart from children of essential workers, were encouraged to learn from home at a day’s notice. We had Distance Learning 2.0, finalised in the first week of the Term 1 school holidays, only to be put in the file drawer when the government announced that schools would be welcoming back all, most, or some children sooner than originally planned. It was unclear; all students were encouraged but no-one was required to attend school, and parents were told by government officials that no child would be disadvantaged either way. That set of messages necessitated all schools to rewrite their plans at pace, and resulted in our 2.0 Hybrid Learning version, the plan that no school leader wants to unveil and implement because it means—no matter how carefully we try to set manageable parameters—that teachers are likely to have to straddle two modes of teaching for those students at home and those in the classroom.

Now, while we continue with business-as-usual-as-2020-will-allow, we are refining our distance learning model–and the ways in which it serves the learning, care, and wellbeing of our community–as best we can. We are honing our context-specific model for its implementation, which may come sooner, later, or never. Our 3.0 model is based on what we now know about the way distance learning is experienced by our community and by others in the world, as well as from emerging research. More about that in my next post.

I would love to hear from my Victorian colleagues about the realities of how distance teaching and home learning are going, and what your learnings are this time around. We in the west are thinking of you.