Despite the remarkable ways the global pandemic of Covid-19 has limited our face to face teaching, there are many new opportunities this forced transition to digital learning has provided. This article explores a PYP teachers’ reflections on what can be learned for the future of our teaching practice in this digital age, after experiencing remote learning and transitioning back to the face-to-face classroom.
“When faced with the uncertainty, and the immense pastoral needs of families during this crisis, teachers globally banded together and went above and beyond in their care for students.”
During a global pandemic when everyone is relegated to their homes, the last thing you may expect to see is a community of educators uniting, collaborating, innovating and learning. Yet that was exactly my experience of teaching throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. When faced with the uncertainty, and the immense pastoral needs of families during this crisis, teachers globally banded together and went above and beyond in their care for students. Whether it was dressing as an Easter bunny and dropping off eggs to homes while socially distanced, bringing whiteboards to doorsteps to further explain concepts, or creating virtual escape rooms full of animated Bitmojis, this time turned from one of anxiety and fear, to one of hope, creativity and collaboration.
My school is blessed to have been able to return to face to face teaching after only six weeks of remote learning, and therefore the staff have already had an opportunity to reflect on the experience and consider what this has shown us for the future of education. Through a flipped version of the traffic light visible thinking routine, teachers first reflected on what the experience has made them wonder, what they are proud of and what they are inspired by. Staff then considered what elements of remote learning they would like to keep before considering the difficulties.
Most of us were surprised by the incredible way the students and staff demonstrated resilience, overcame challenges and embraced collaboration at a time of upheaval. For our community, Covid-19 came at the end of Term 1, when most students hadn’t had a proper summer holiday due to a horrific Australian bushfire season, in which many community members had houses affected. We then had a thick haze of bushfire smoke blanketing our city for weeks. Following that, there was a wild hail storm with golf ball-sized stones destroying many cars in the city. Students who spent their break with family in China needed to quarantine at home for two weeks at the beginning of the school year. Our school then happened to have a real lockdown during Term 1. At a time when you would expect the students to be disheartened under the weight of these enormous disruptions, the children proved themselves to be the incredible resilient learners their teachers have always known them to be.
“For our community, Covid-19 came at the end of Term 1, when most students hadn’t had a proper summer holiday due to a horrific Australian bushfire season, in which many community members had houses affected.”
Families united and helped their kids access remote learning materials, and for those parents whose full-time work precluded them from much involvement, teachers offered extra Zoom sessions and check-ins. By no means was our school experience perfect, and we are also incredibly blessed in our access to technology. This time certainly resulted in a huge increase in teacher workload as they upskilled and provided pastoral care to families. But the experience did highlight some inspiring possibilities for the future.
Our head of school phrased the question in a recent staff meeting as “What positive future learning culture did we all glimpse?” We are currently in a whole school professional learning cycle with Wabisabi Learning. The Japanese concept of Wabisabi is a powerful one to apply to these times. It means finding beauty in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It focuses on finding the good within our daily lives, and focusing on how things are, rather than how they should be. Many of us enjoyed a chance to slow down, reflect, and spend time in nature. What can this reflective time teach us about the education of tomorrow? I believe the experience has particularly highlighted the possibilities of technology, the importance of teaching students meta-learning skills, and the power of collaboration.
“The Japanese concept of Wabisabi is a powerful one to apply to these times. It means finding beauty in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It focuses on finding the good within our daily lives, and focusing on how things are, rather than how they should be.”
The Possibilities of Technology
What a way this was to upskill the entire workforce of teachers globally! Teachers who didn’t feel tech-savvy now are. Teachers who had some knowledge have gone deeper and supported their colleagues. Bitmojis and flat teachers have helped students have a laugh and maintain connection despite the distance. As we have returned to the classroom, the students’ technology skills mean flexible groupings can occur more seamlessly, where some students access materials from planners independently, such as slides and pre-recorded videos. This also allows differentiation and personalisation to occur more effectively as students can have different tasks assigned.
During the transition to face to face teaching, we kept the same planner and content posted online for those students still learning remotely. This meant students who missed the learning for other reasons could complete activities and remain connected. Parents also had a deeper connection to what was occurring in the classroom. Teachers are now more focused on the essentials when planning, and share lessons and resources in a more efficient way. Additionally, students love engaging in game-based math learning, using coding to design solutions to problems, or sharing their research on a Google site that has a wider, authentic global audience
“If the PYP framework has agency at its heart, we do need to teach self-regulation skills, how to take initiative, and a love of learning to help all students thrive.”
Meta-learning skills and Agency
As many teachers who are currently handling long term teaching on Zoom would be acutely aware, remote learning requires the students to have self-regulation skills. Skills to focus on the tasks assigned instead of playing video games, skills to organise their day and manage their Zoom lessons with homeroom and specialist teachers, skills to access feedback and reflect on it. Unfortunately, during this time some students’ incredible technology skills were used in ways counteractive to their learning. Teachers around the world reported stories of students who changed their Zoom backgrounds to black photos saying ‘connecting…’ to pretend internet problems were preventing them from joining the Zoom lesson.
In a recent podcast by John Hattie, self-regulation was mentioned as an important factor in how well students adapted to remote learning, and whether they were completely reliant on parents and teachers. If the PYP framework has agency at its heart, we do need to teach self-regulation skills, how to take initiative, and a love of learning to help all students thrive. What was surprising was how many teachers noticed that the students who regularly get distracted in the classroom by social issues were able to have renewed focus and thrived. Whereas some of the more academically capable students sometimes performed less well, as they didn’t know how to challenge themselves or take initiative in the new context. Teaching the skills to learn independently and collaboratively will be important to prioritise as we return to face-to-face teaching.
“The concept of Wabisabi can remind us to enjoy the opportunities in the present, wherever we are.”
The most inspiring part of the experience of remote learning was certainly the collaboration. Even when in our own homes, the way our teaching team united meant we were never facing this alone. It wasn’t only the school community who were connecting with each other. I was inspired by teachers globally who posted uplifting messages and inspiring ideas on Facebook groups, technology blogs, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram. Teachers were able to upskill and access an enormous number of resources because companies offered free access. The recent Inquiry Educators’ Summit, where experts shared their knowledge on Zoom, was an example of the incredible collaboration between members of the teaching profession, which I hope continues long after the last student returns to the classroom.
I hope we can apply this optimism about our world as we continue educating, whether in person or online. The concept of Wabisabi can remind us to enjoy the opportunities in the present, wherever we are. Hattie relayed this message in his recent podcast when explaining that errors are opportunities, and challenge is important. He said this time presents a new opportunity for us to change the grammar of schooling, involving more listening to our students. When asked why he was so optimistic during this time he replied, “When you work as long as I have with teachers and schools you never underestimate their skills to solve a problem.”
Wabisabi Learning: https://wabisabilearning.com/
John Hattie podcast: https://education.nsw.gov.au/news/secretary-update/every-student-podcast-john-hattie
The Inquiry Educators’ Summit: https://www.toddleapp.com/ties/
Andrea Norman is a PYP educator currently teaching Year 3 at Canberra Grammar School, Australia. She previously taught internationally at The International School of London, Qatar, where she was also Language Coordinator. She is currently completing a Master of Arts in Education (International Education) through the University of Bath. She remains curious about the incredible opportunities new digital technologies can provide to help students connect globally, inquire independently, and broaden their perspectives of the world.