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.

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.

Distance Learning 2.0: Adjusting our approach

My Australian school implemented our Distance Learning Plan on 24 March. While we had been planning for a pivot to distance learning, and we had a transition period, the change happened rapidly and required incredible agility, innovation and ingenuity from our teachers and leaders. No matter how well-intentioned and well-informed our plan was, we know we can always work to be better.

Now we have a chance to break for school (stay-at-home) holidays to rest and rejuvenate before Term 2 begins in two weeks’ time. With almost three weeks of distance teaching and at-home learning under our belt, now is also an opportunity to take stock, reflect, refine and improve our model.

Like all Australian schools, we are unsure how long our distance learning model will need to run. Whatever adjustments we make need to be sustainable for a potentially long term. The model needs to keep not only teaching and learning in mind, but also physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. During a pandemic, we must consider Maslow (health, safety and wellbeing) before Bloom (curriculum, pedagogy and assessment). We need to keep equity in mind and ensure that no student is disadvantaged.

At the end of those first few weeks of distance learning, we generated data through a survey, asking what was working well, what we could do differently, and what was interesting about our original model. About 500 student responses, 500 parent responses and 100 staff responses gave us plenty of scope to understand the experiences of various stakeholders and to see patterns in the data.

While the experiences of students, parents and teachers were varied, the following takeaways were reflected in the survey responses:

  • ROUTINE. Students are finding ways to create organisation, structure and routine. For example, students appreciate using their normal timetable as a guide, but also knowing the work for the day and the week in advance so that they can plan accordingly and be flexible and autonomous in their work.
  • PEDAGOGY. Students and parents overwhelmingly love lessons that involved live video meetings. These develop a sense of learning with others and enhanced feelings of connectedness between students and their teacher and classmates. These facilitate the relational and social aspects of the classroom, and provide important opportunities for students to ask questions and clarify instructions. Students appreciate pre-recorded instructional videos such as PowerPoint videos and screencasts.
  • COMMUNICATION. Communication in a distance learning model can be overwhelming. Clarity and consistency is key. Students and parents request that teachers and the school to carefully consider how much is communicated via consistent platforms and timelines.
  • WORKLOAD. While some students enjoy the autonomy and flexibility that comes with distance learning, many feel an intensification of workload that threatens to overwhelm them. Teachers, too, are coming to terms with finding efficiencies within a distance learning model; setting professional boundaries around time and availability; and giving themselves permission to pare back expectations of students and of themselves to ensure that work set is realistic, and that feedback to students is consistent but achievable. Teachers are finding new ways of tracking student engagement in and understanding of learning.
  • WELLBEING. Students and teachers would benefit from reduced screen time and increased break time. Students are grieving for their connections with friends and teachers, and their hopes for what this year of school would be (especially our Year 12 students).
  • GRATITUDE. Many parents express gratitude for the school’s approach and for the work of the teachers. Many teachers have been impressed by the level of student resilience and engagement. Teachers are thankful for the generosity of their colleagues and amazed at the exponential rate of professional learning during this time.

The array of feedback we have generated resonates with student experiences outlined by the Sydney Morning Herald and New York Times, summarised here by Anne Knock. We are using our contextual data–as well as the best advice about what is likely to work, such as this resource from AITSL, this resource from Evidence for Learning, and this collection of  resources from the Chartered College of Teaching–to adapt and adjust our Distance Learning Plan. Our aim is that our Distance Learning Plan 2.0 continues learning while also encouraging students to maintain relationships and be physically active.

Specifically, we are refining:

  • COMMUNICATION, especially of learning outlines to students in ways that allow them to plan ahead and stay organised in their approach to learning.
  • SHAPE OF THE SCHOOL DAY, including start and finish times, reduced lesson times, time for organisation, and increased break times.
  • PEDAGOGY, including effective use of live video meetings and other distance pedagogies for teaching, collaboration and connectedness.
  • ASSESSMENT, reporting and continuous feedback in a distance learning model.
  • DIFFERENTIATION between approaches for different year levels and different subjects. Our Year 12s are a particular focus, as are students with specific learning or pastoral needs.

Our students remain at the centre of what we do, but teaching from a distance with students learning at home means that we are having to find alternate ways of teaching, learning, connecting and engaging as a community. There is no one-size-fits-all distance learning model. Responding to feedback from our context helps us to continue to adapt in order to best serve our community during changing circumstances.

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Previous blog posts on distance learning:

Week 1 of Distance Learning

video conference

photo: Getty Images

We are in a time of rapid education reform. Australian schools have in recent weeks been planning for and beginning to enact distance learning. I reflected on Tuesday after Day 1 of my school’s move to distance learning, and over the last few days I’ve reflected further as I’ve led, taught and listened to the responses of students, teachers and parents from across the school.

Below are my Week 1 takeaways.

Less is more

This week, our teachers have been working incredibly hard. They have been putting in extremely long hours to make this ‘pivot’ work. They have been preparing content and front loading teaching before the school day begins, as our Distance Learning Plan notes that the day’s work needs to be to students by 8.30am on the morning of a particular lesson, so students can plan their work for the day. Teachers are responding to individual emails, messages and requests from students and parents. What they have achieved individually and collectively is nothing less than extraordinary, and the gratitude from the school community for their hard work has been resounding. However, teacher workload in a distance learning model is an issue we need to consider. ‘Less’ is better for teachers.

Students have been engaging positively and openly with the distance learning model, but some have felt inundated with communication and set work over these first days. The pace of learning from home can be slower than learning that happens at school, the delivery different, and the need for disciplined student work habits greater. Some students have been feeling overwhelmed. ‘Less’ is better for students.

As we continue to evolve in our distance learning provision, we need to think carefully about the desired learning outcomes, what is really important, and what is possible and desirable in the current climate of global crisis. We need to be realistic about the hours teachers have in the school day to provide teaching materials, learning opportunities and feedback; and the ways that learning happens in a home environment, when many students are learning independently and with less support than they have in the school classroom.

One thing we are considering is what a lesson’s worth of work might look like. A lesson at school includes transition time between lessons, roll call and packing up, as well as probably some teacher-directed instruction and some student working time. How might we use this to guide what we provide and expect of students, giving students time between lessons to stand, move, be active, do chores and catch up with each other in non-classroom spaces and ways.

‘Less is more’ will become even more important as teachers increasingly work from home, with all the complexities of family environments.

Let’s make sure that students, parents and teachers are all able to be human beings at this time, not human doings. Teaching material shouldn’t be about keeping students busy, or glued to their screens, but about continuing their education, wellbeing and connectedness in these uncertain circumstances.

Testing and tracking

Similarly, we need to consider the purpose of assessment and feedback, and how these can best work in a distance learning environment. We can think about this from the point of view of what is possible for teachers to enact, and what is useful for student learning.

How might we use our professional judgement to rethink, redesign or reschedule assessments? How might we use technologies to give meaningful feedback? Video conferencing, OneNote, and online rubrics through platforms such as Schoolbox and SEQTA, are some tools that teachers can use to  provide online, continuous feedback.

At my school, we are not taking lesson-by-lesson attendance, but we are tracking student engagement in learning by asking students to ‘like’ posts in Teams, seeing who joins class or small group video meetings, student work in OneNote class notebooks, and checking in on students who don’t appear to be engaging.

Humanising distance learning

In this time of physical distance, our students and staff are keen for a sense of connectedness. We’re finding that video and audio are humanising distance learning for our students. This includes live video and audio meetings with groups of students, pre-recorded screen casts, and PowerPoints with audio or video.

Seeing teachers’ and peers’ faces and hearing their voices can help to bridge the isolation we all feel, and bring some of the connectivity and relationality missing when we are teaching and learning remotely.

Distance Learning: Day 1

with my Madonna headset about to run a live video meeting with Year 12 Literature

In recent days, the Australian Prime Minister indicated that schools in Australia will remain open. On Sunday 22 March his announcement was as follows.

“Schools will remain open through to the end of the current school terms to support students whose parents choose to send their children to school. Victoria’s school break will commence on Tuesday 24 March 2020.

If parents choose to keep their children home from school, parents must be responsible for the conduct of the children and to ensure they adhere to the social distancing arrangements in place.

Schools will be encouraged to provide access to online and distance learning.”

This statement seems to suggest that Australian teachers are expected to provide face-to-face teaching to those students at school, and also online and distance learning for those students staying at home. It is not a workable solution to ask teachers to provide, simultaneously, both in-school and distance learning models. The only viable option that came to my mind was to provide one model–a distance learning model–with which all students can engage at home or at school.

Then yesterday the commission that governs my school and a range of others made a decision: to urge parents to keep children at home, if they can, from today, and to transition to a distance learning model over the next few days. As a result, today my Western Australian school launched (a transition to) our Distance Learning Plan.

So, how did it go?

Here are my end-of-day reflections.

As this is not a government-directed school closure, staff are continuing to work from school, which remains open for staff and for those students whose parents need them to be at school. Continuing to work from school means that staff have access to resources, the school network, the IT department, a Microsoft remote learning expert we currently have on campus to help staff with just-in-time professional learning, and one another. Helping each other through this first day has been a real bonus in terms of morale and collaboration.

A small percentage of students turned up to school and were supervised by staff on a roster as they engaged in the distance learning model. This allowed most staff to enact distance learning in empty classrooms or their offices. Students on site expressed that the feeling of a near-empty school was ‘weird’ but that it was also calm and positive. Students at school were taken out for some physical activity and were able to space out at break times. Reduced numbers of students meant that physical distancing could be practised according to the government’s guidelines.

Students showed their adaptability as they began learning from home. As well as following their teacher’s instructions and their parents’ guidance, some students took their learning into their own hands, showing initiative and collaboration. For example, a group of primary students started their own live video meeting in order to work through their spelling activities. Students used the functions of Teams and OneNote to answer each other’s questions. Some of my Year 12s told me that they had been much more productive at home than they normally are at school. Parents sent in photos of their children engaged in at-home learning.

Teachers launched into our Distance Learning Plan, communicating with students and parents, setting the work for the day, creating content, rethinking assessments and checking in with students through Microsoft Teams. Even though we have been planning for this, a sudden pivot to distance learning meant teachers confronting change head on and being ok with the risk of ‘getting it wrong’. It meant troubleshooting technology. It meant finding ways to humanise the distance learning experience. It meant colleagues helping each other, students helping each other, and students and colleagues helping one another, in a variety of in-person and online ways.

One teacher told me that moving to purely distance learning was like becoming a parent:

“You’re never really ready until it happens, and then you figure it out as you go along.”

I have previously blogged some considerations for planning for distance learning and my message to our teachers this morning was this:

“We haven’t done this before and will be learning as we go, but my tips are:

  • Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. Students will struggle with technology and motivation, as might we!
  • Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions and find efficiencies. Not every lesson needs to be video, live, technology-based or amazing.
  • Trust your professional judgement. You know yourselves, your subject and your students. Do what works.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Reach out for help if you need it.”

I am grateful to be part of: a school and system acting with the health, safety and wellbeing of its community in mind; a staff who are working incredibly hard and with acrobatic agility and positivity in a constantly changing professional environment; and a community of students and families who are engaging with these changing circumstances in optimistic and open ways.

Thank you to all those educators around the country and the world sharing their resources and experiences. The education hive mind is alive and well. We’re in this together and we’re better together. Stay safe.

COVID-19 forces educational and societal reform

cyclone-2102397_1280

The last couple of weeks have been hectic around the world and the pace of change at all levels has been rapid and relentless. In Australian schools, leadership teams and teachers have been preparing for distance learning. Parents have been making decisions about whether or not to send their children to school. Worry in households and panic in shopping centres have reached climactic levels. School leaders are doing their best to remain calm and methodical while preparing their schools for what seems like imminent closure in the near future.

It is surreal to watch corporate and education reform happen at such a rapid rate. We are reforming the workplace and rethinking how we go about our work. We are reimagining how we interact and collaborate. We are reframing education and redesigning schooling on the fly.

Those who have been calling for the abolition of standardised tests and the rethinking of university entrance are seeing education systems transform before their eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant the cancelling of standardised tests (GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK; NAPLAN in Australia so far) and the consequent abolishing of league tables derived from these tests. Those who have been calling for the end of traditional schooling are seeing the swift move to remote learning and the upskilling of teachers in learning technologies and online platforms.

Australian teachers and school leaders, whose jobs are already incredibly complex, are supporting increasingly anxious students and parents. They are communicating work to students who are not coming to school. They are preparing for a move to teaching remotely. They are considering how learning might look different, authentic and meaningful when done from home. They are considering issues of equity and access for their communities. They are worrying about their own children, parents, families, livelihood, groceries.

Educators are collaborating within schools, they are collaborating with other schools. They are sharing their distance learning plans and teaching resources, because as a profession and as a society, we are better together.

We are one society, one humanity. All of our jobs and job descriptions are now in flux. What does our workplace, our clientele, our society need now, at this moment in time? Grounded flight attendants stocking supermarket shelves? Military personnel assisting surgical-mask-producing and toilet-paper-manufacturing facilities? Consultants training teachers to use online technologies? Office staff filling bottles with hand sanitiser and disinfecting workplace surfaces? All of us rearranging furniture and staying at a distance from one another?

We are needed in new ways, and there is an almost wartime redeployment of labour and a need for banding together as whole workplaces, as a whole society and as a whole world.

This is a time for us all to think about what leadership means, regardless of title or position. We can reach out (from a physical distance) to others and support one another as best we can, even though isolation feels like it goes against our biology. We can consider carefully where we get our information, and how we respond to that information. We can all lead by example, by clear communication with one another, and by clarity of purpose and cohesiveness of action.

During the current crisis, Canadians began a ‘caremongering not scaremongering’ campaign. This week is Kindness Week, a week to think about how we move beyond fear and individualism to compassion and courage. Australia has not yet seen the full force of COVID-19 and its real, human ramifications. There is no more important time to be kind to ourselves and each other than right now. We are in a time of adaptation and evolution, by necessity. When we come out the other side, society, work and education may be reformed for good.

Planning for distance learning in the event of school closure – COVID-19

Source: @bzak on pixabay

School closures have yet to happen in my Australian city of Perth, but in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning at a K-12 school with over 1700 students, I have been involved in planning for what we will do in the event of a closure due to COVID-19.

This article by Tomas Pueyo shows why social distancing is so important for flattening the curve of how quickly a virus like COVID-19 can move through a community. School closures are part of the social distancing manoeuvre.

In this post I share some of my thinking around what schools might consider in the face of a school closure, in the hope that it contributes to the global conversation or is helpful to others.

‘Distance learning’ or ‘remote learning’, rather than ‘online learning’

Effective and meaningful learning can take many forms. Walking through classrooms in any school will reveal that teaching and learning is diverse. Learning environments vary. Technologies are leveraged in a variety of ways. Across the teaching of a course, learning will look different, as teachers move through the explicit instruction of content, facilitating of robust discussion, questioning, one-on-one feedback, small group tutorials and a multitude of other pedagogies.

Learning remotely, or at a distance from school, can also happen in many ways. While technology plays an important part in distance learning, it is not the only tool and it is not always the most appropriate platform for student learning. Learning at a distance from school does not mean being constantly online, staring at a screen for six hours each day.

Consider all stakeholders

In planning for distance learning, we can be clear about:

  • What teachers will (and will not) provide;
  • How students might engage in their learning; and
  • How parents can support their children’s learning during a school closure situation.

Teachers can and should continue to provide appropriate communication, materials, learning activities, teaching resources and feedback to students.

School closure can be an opportunity for students to develop independent work habits as autonomous learners, but prolonged school closures may result in students struggling to maintain motivation and complete set work. This is a good guide for senior students on how to be effective remote learners. Students can also be encouraged to incorporate physical activity and mindfulness into their day.

Parents can help their children to establish a routine, for instance by using the normal school day as a guide. They can help to establish an appropriate space where children can do their learning at home (quiet, comfortable, resources, and without distractions such as smartphones). The age and independence of the child will determine how much checking in or assistance they need with their learning.

Learning tools and strategies that are ‘fit for purpose’

There is no one-size-fits-all in distance learning. There is a great variety of subjects with varying needs. Some are easily translated into online or at-home environments. Others, such as those subjects with a large practical component (e.g. Physical Education, the Arts or Home Economics) or that require specialised equipment (such as Woodwork, Media or Science practicals), are not so easily replicated outside of the physical grounds of the school. Different subjects and age groups require different approaches to distance learning.

Teachers will know their students’ capacities for technologies and are able to design learning experiences that harness those tools with which students are familiar. Teachers should be trusted and empowered to deploy appropriate delivery of content and learning activities, utilising tools that are fit for purpose and relevant to the subject, content and skills being learned, as well as to the age and stage of students.

A blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning

Distance learning can involve a combination of synchronous (live learning in which students learn with the teacher at the same time) and asynchronous (students learning independently at different times). This edublogger post provides a useful outline and ideas for structuring distance learning.

Some schools during closures have been running identical timetables in which students and teachers ‘arrive’ at online spaces for each class, in its regularly scheduled time. This synchronous approach is one way to go, but it may mean students spending large amounts of time at a computer screen, and teachers giving lessons in didactic, one-dimensional ways.

Distance learning doesn’t have to mirror learning as it normally does in school. In fact, trying to replicate the pace and type of work that would be done at school is unrealistic. Trusting teachers to plan appropriate work for their classes allows them to select how students might best use the home environment and available tools to maintain the continuity of learning during a school closure, with realistic expectations.

There are great video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams, and effective collaborative spaces in various Learning Management Systems (such as SEQTA, Schoolbox, Canvas and Blackboard). The Office 365 suite offers opportunities for feedback, collaboration and communication, such as through Class OneNote, Teams and Seesaw.

‘Flipping’ the classroom through video content that can be re-watched by students and later used for revision is one option. For younger year groups, spelling words, handwriting books, mathematics games and exercises, physical activity challenges, inquiry projects and learning apps can be communicated home, with recommendations for how the day can be spent, in order for children to continue their learning.

Consider infrastructure and equity

Designing a distance learning plan means thinking through the required hardware, software and training of staff and students. It also means considering equity and access. Schools will vary by the demographic and by existing technology resources and practices.

Do students have their own devices and power supply for home use? Do they have access to paper, stationary, and a printer? Do students and staff have sufficient internet access and bandwidth at home for the planned learning? Are the intended technology tools accessible remotely via a web browser or a Cloud-based app?

Some schools are running trial mornings before the event of a closure to test technologies and systems.

Communication is queen

Proactive, regular communication is key in uncertain times. This goes for government officials as well as for school and system leaders.

It may not be ‘business as usual’, but we can let our students, staff and families know that planning is in hand, and keep them informed with updates about what is happening and how they might be affected.

Consider wellbeing

Social distancing means isolation from others. It may mean being away not only from the relational spaces of schools, but from friends and family, and from places like gyms, cafes and sporting clubs that are a part of normal routine.

School closure can add pressure to parents and workload to teachers. It can lead to students feeling anxious, perhaps especially those who are in their final year of schooling, preparing for examinations.

In these situations, we all do our best with the emotional, cognitive, financial, technological and physical resources available. Hopefully, this is an opportunity to think about teaching and learning a little differently, to see how we might be efficient and innovative by necessity.

We can be kind to ourselves and each other, and support each other with optimism, care and togetherness, even at a distance.