Today is the first day of the Easter break, and in all my time as a teacher, I have never been more in need of a break.
Since February 3rd schools here in Hong Kong have been closed due to the outbreak of Covid-19. As a result, for the last 9 weeks the hands of the 54 International Schools, including mine, have been forced and we have been thrust into what was originally a two week period of online learning. Over 45,000 international students, have found themselves “attending school” from home over the internet.
I write this from the perspective of a teacher, a working parent and a student. My son’s iGCSEs have all now been cancelled, so he is ‘revising’ over the Easter break for whatever takes their place which is hard. I have suspended my own learning (I am currently completing a Master’s Degree), so I too am experiencing this from all sides.
As the virus took longer than hoped to control, and our local epidemic has morphed into a worldwide pandemic, other countries followed suit and as I write many more schools worldwide have now joined us in, amongst other things, a huge de-facto piece of “research” into what a school is.
In responding to this unprecedented situation, with the upskilling of teachers and students (and parents!) in the use of online learning platforms and apps, are we finally proving the hypotheses of educational technologists about tomorrow’s schools that physical schools are a thing of the past?
The results so far suggest not.
If this surprises you, think about the fact that even before our enforced experiment, the giants in technology, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple et al, have all continued to take on physical office space worldwide (see Google’s new London ‘Landscraper’ HQ, Apple’s Silicon Valley ‘Spaceship’), even though they have provided their employees with the very best online systems and tools to work remotely almost since their inception.
A deeper dive into our experience and what we have learned follows I do not claim that it is the experience all schools have, and will have, but I hope it will help you not just by learning from our experience, but by sharing your own experiences, ideas and thoughts in the comments section at the end of this article.
Virtual Classrooms vs Physical Classrooms
We are ahead of the curve here, our students have been learning from home for almost the entire term, a full 9 weeks. This has followed a short period of closure in Term 1 this academic year due to the demonstrations here in Hong Kong, so circumstances outside our control have moved us at an unprecedented rate towards upskilling our teaching staff, our students and our parents in their knowledge of technology and our use of it to support student learning online. So what do we know?
AT FIRST, EVERYTHING IS HARD
Everyone has been thrown out of their comfort zone through no choice of their own, so of course, it is hard at first. But doesn’t great learning often happen when we are outside of our comfort zones? Of course, it does, but we have to be mindful of what our learning community are currently experiencing:
Instead of being in their school classrooms, children now find themselves learning independently from home. The ‘Think-Pair-Share’ or ‘Ask 3 Before Me’ strategies they are so used to using don’t help when they are working on their own and this can be really hard for children who are used to learning through talk, questioning and enquiry. They don’t have their friends or talk partners with them. They don’t have immediate access to the myriad of resources they usually have in their bricks and mortar classrooms, and their teacher is not physically in the room with them so can’t look over their shoulder, or just whisper to them that they are doing really well, just stick with it!
Many children are working in their bedrooms, the only quiet space they have in their typically tiny Hong Kong homes. And many are spending more hours than anyone could imagine, or agree is healthy, in front of a computer screen every day. We also know that when there is a deadline to be met, more is usually achieved. Most homes do not have a school bell, or a teacher reminding the class they have only 5 minutes left, and therefore most activities are taking the children longer to complete.
Since the school closure, over 99% of our parents have quickly upskilled themselves with Seesaw and Google Classroom, enrolling and actively accessing both platforms to interact with their child’s learning. A big ask for many. Parents also have their own jobs they need to be focussing on from home too, so managing children, school work and paid work is a huge challenge and one which can actually change the nature of family relationships which is hard. As a teacher myself, I know the challenges in teaching my own child, and the difference in the parent/teacher role first hand. (See the clip HERE which I think demonstrates parental frustration rather brilliantly!) And I won’t even mention the amount of food everyone seems to need when learning and working from home!
And it has been all change for teachers too. I have been continually amazed at how quickly, creatively and innovatively our teachers have created and delivered learning activities through online platforms. Videos, audio recordings, screencasting – you name it, they have done it. And, without complaint, they have done it brilliantly. My colleague Dominic Hill, @MrHillEdu has tweeted HERE a fantastic resource he has created which is helping, not just teachers in my school, but teachers around the world as their schools start to close. Who would have thought that Zoom, Screencastify and Google Meet would become such commonly used, everyday buzzwords in Education a few weeks ago? With 40% of our cohort attending ‘online’ school from home countries across the world and in different time-zones, our teachers have been working hugely extended hours to ensure that all students, regardless of location, are given timely and useful feedback and feel supported in their learning.
Everyone has risen to the challenge and pushed through the teething problems, provision has been tweaked and improved week on week and the feedback is indicating that most students were learning better than initially expected, but everyone is missing (normal) school. So why?
WHAT IS MISSING?
Parents who initially did not want their young children sitting in front of a screen every day for 5 or more hours, started crying out for more ‘front of class’ (screen) teaching, even though when in school, teachers these days spend very little time delivering whole class instruction from the front of the classroom.
Teachers who follow a weekly timetable every day in school are feeling bored with the daily routine of introducing talks, uploading teaching and learning materials, giving feedback to students and supporting their reflections on learning. Everything that again, they do in their classrooms every day. And they are struggling to get the children to log out of live calls and online chats when they are finished because they want to go on talking with each other.
Because everyone is missing the physical, personal interaction we all inherently know to be so important. Parents are struggling, not in supporting their children with the subject content of their learning necessarily, but in keeping them focussed on it to completion. The oh-so-many memes on social media streams suggest that many parents now have a new respect and admiration for teachers, although I suspect this mainly comes from a place of frustration.
Well, I have been talking a lot about this with colleagues at my school, and with colleagues in other schools across Hong Kong (virtually of course!) and it is clear. We are missing human interaction. We are all missing the physical, face to face relationships that are central to everything schools are built around.
We know that student engagement is higher when children are seeing their teacher introduce the learning activities when they are able to ask each other questions and discuss their learning together. We know that children learn best from each other and that they thrive in the supportive, enabling and still sometimes competitive environments our classrooms provide. They miss the daily interactions they have with their teachers and the other adults who support them at school. The touch on their shoulder, the sticker on their page of writing and the class dojo house point they are awarded for being a good friend. They miss the incidental conversations they have with each other as they are learning, The physical interactions they have every day during playtime and the space they have during those times to run, laugh, fall out and importantly, learn to resolve their differences on their own.
Teachers, in their daily routines, can predict many misconceptions that can arise in learning, however, they can not predict how each individual child will react. They miss hearing what questions their learning may lead the children to ask, or what avenues they may want to choose for themselves to explore further. They miss the opportunity for deviation, or diversion space for this is limited to that offered when learning is pre-recorded or delivered virtually. And like all adults currently working from home, they miss a morning coffee in the staffroom and an opportunity to talk with colleagues and friends about life outside of school. They miss being able to let the children run off their frustrations and energy and enjoy being outside.
BUT IT CAN, AND DOES GET BETTER!
So, the silver lining in all of this is my firm belief that bricks and mortar classrooms are here to stay. I, along with all my teacher colleagues, can’t wait to get our students back into their physical, bricks and mortar classrooms just as soon as it is safe and possible to do so.
But in the meantime, let me share a snapshot of what we have learned 9 weeks in, in the hope that it helps you and your students.
- New routines will embed more quickly than you may think – hang on in there!
- Week 3 was a turning point for us as students started to understand the new routines. Teachers stopped worrying about what they looked like, or how they sounded in recordings and realised that most parents were too busy to watch and/or judge them anyway! And parents were clearer about where and how to access the daily activities and understood the expectations for learning.
- Use different ways to record the teaching element to the learning activities to keep the approach fresh and interesting.
- You must check out the amazing list of platforms and apps you can use, and the ‘how-to’ videos which we have found invaluable which @MrHillEdu, my colleague Dominic Hill, has created and Tweeted HERE.
- Use video or audio recordings. Screencastify is brilliant if you want to teach using slides or examples. If these elements are recorded the children can access them whenever is best for them. They can also rewatch them if they need to, and do this in their own time and we have seen this make a real difference for some of our learners.
- Post examples to the virtual classroom, and model ‘what looks good’ in the teaching videos. Share expected strategies too, that way students can use them, but so can parents who may be supporting the learning at home.
- Provide the scaffold, examples and tools the children need to support their learning from home, and share ideas with parents, and students, about the ‘manipulatives’ they can use at home, like pasta shapes, grapes, marbles – anything useful to support learning for children used to Cuisenaire rods or Numicon for example.
- Provide regular opportunities for student talk every day.
- I am not advocating ‘live teaching’ for Primary age students, but what has worked well for us is daily live interactions with class teachers. Our children have so enjoyed a 30 minute morning run through of the day’s activities on Google Meet with their class teachers, and the chance to share their learning with each other in a second live session at the end of the school day.
- Record all your live sessions too, and post them to your platform so that other students who can not join at the live time, can access it later in the day.
- Host a weekly live meet so that the children can just ‘hang out’ virtually with each other. Make sure an adult is involved to supervise the meet, but leave the kids to chat with each other.
- Ask TAs to run support drop-ins at set times in the day. Students who need that extra support can access it directly then.
- We have run live year group assemblies giving out our usual reward certificates each week. Sending the certificates home in the post has proved a big hit with the children too. Specialist teachers have joined these assemblies and led Joe Wicks style PE sessions, live music sessions and Mandarin sessions too which have been fantastic fun. The children love them and it gives the teachers a short break too.
- Have different adults the children are familiar with, record themselves reading a story and post this to the student’s learning platform. Our youngest children have loved this. Even upper Primary children have said how much they have loved hearing their teachers read the next chapter in their class novel.
- Keep activities meaningful but manageable.
- Try to cover learning objectives you would have covered if the students were in school, but think about how to facilitate the learning creatively.
- Remember, learning takes longer when students are doing it on their own, so less is more.
- Give children the opportunity to share their learning in different ways. Voice recordings, video (our students use Screencastify better than I do!) record their spoken ideas and thoughts and share their learning that way.
- Ask students to give feedback on the learning of their peers. Our kids have loved giving feedback in Seesaw, writing comments and recording audio messages.
- Don’t be afraid to ask parents and students for feedback
- We sent out a survey after 2 weeks and were overwhelmed with the ideas parents shared with us. It can be easy to hear only the negative voices in the crowd, but the feedback from this survey was actually extremely positive. Parents do understand that we are all doing our best, even in fee-paying schools like mine, and they often have great ideas to share with us.
- Try to introduce one or two changes to your online provision each week or two to keep things fresh. Listen to what is working well, and do more of that. If it is not working, stop doing it and try something else.
- Don’t overdo the surveys though. The last thing you want is feedback telling you there are too many surveys!
- Network – find your people and share the load!
- Networks and support groups have never been so important for teachers. I am part of a group of Primary Principles here in Hong Kong and their advice and support has been invaluable. Join a group like SmarterStrongerTogether on Facebook, or get onto Twitter. There are so many teacher groups out there, and so many colleagues who are always happy to share great ideas and feedback. @TeachThought has a great list of Twitter hash-tags HERE, so give it a go.
So, after 9 weeks on-screen, it is time to take a break from our screens for a few days, but we are by no means finished. Schools here in Hong Kong are closed indefinitely, and not likely to reopen until we see 21 days with no new Covid-19 cases reported.
We still have a lot to do and we still have a lot to learn, so please share what you can with me here and with colleagues across your school, your region and internationally, about your current experiences and thoughts on tomorrow’s schools. We are in this together and I know we are all at capacity trying to ensure that we are giving the very best for all our students.
It’s over to you in the Comment and Discussion section below…