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Change in Education

How remote emergency learning has changed education in 30 days

While it feels like months, we’ve actually only been engaged in remote emergency learning for four weeks. That time lapse tells us that navigating the pandemic with our school communities has been a challenge. While connecting with a family via Zoom yesterday, it dawned on me that education has changed dramatically in less than 30 days… and I don’t think it will ever be the same. Here are eight ways in which I see education has changed. And in most cases, I think it has changed for the better.

Connecting with families
When we are in our schools, we are fortunate to be able to connect face-to-face (f2f) with our students. In seeking to hold students accountable, we tap them on the shoulder, engage them in dialogue, and express our celebrations and our concerns. Parents are now the f2f contact for our students and therefore many of our concerns go through parents. When students don’t respond to our messages, it is an e-mail or a call to a parent that allows us to uphold student accountability. I miss the value of the student-teacher f2f dialogue, but in many cases, we have been forced to bring parents into the conversation, which creates a stronger three-legged stool to support the needs of our students.

Access to technology
Being isolated has magnified which families do not have access to technology. We have generally managed to justify the lack of resources in homes by naming that these resources are available at schools. During isolation, school boards and schools have stepped up to bring resources into homes. We have learned that we have the ability to better provide equity in terms of the resources students have in homes, and to not allow finances, isolation, or distance to dictate the type of education a student receives. When students return to school, there is no reason these resources shouldn’t remain in homes so we can continue to bridge the equity gap in learning.

Technology as a meeting norm
If I had asked a family to have a Zoom meeting five weeks ago with their daughter or son, I am quite sure many would have resisted. Yesterday, I had two great meetings with families about wellness concerns and inappropriate behaviour online. Families didn’t have to take time off of work, the entire family could be there, and families didn’t have to drive significant distances to attend. As a society, in four weeks we have become comfortable with the efficiency of a video conference. While I prefer f2f, if the other option is no meeting or limited attendance, then I will take the video conference.

The value of f2f relations
I am an advocate of relational teaching, restorative practices, and f2f dialogue. However, I believe the last four weeks have been a reminder to our entire school community that relationships drive us and drive our learning. Our teachers are missing students, our students are missing teachers, and our students miss their friends and peers. The value of relationships and relational approaches for learning, for community, and for health and wellness have been made clearer than ever for students, educators, and parents. It is my hope that when we return to our buildings, that our intentionality around relationality will be stronger than ever. We can never underestimate the value of greeting our students at the door, or using circles to engage our students in dialogue about themselves and about their learning. These practices — or what I call micro-relationality — are the foundation of ultimately fulfilling the mission and vision of our schools.

“Assessing For” learning
Teachers have recognized how much of their time is usually spent “assessing for” learning, and how video conferences deny their ability to do many of these assessments. Walking around to students in class, looking at the expressions on students’ faces, and allowing students to ask questions are some of the ways in which educators typically attend to the learning needs of students. Video conferences are simply not as conducive to responding to students. Teachers are working hard to create “Zoom Cultures” where students are safe to express their concerns, but many students cite the lack of comfort they have in asking questions in a video format: they feel exposed. My colleague calls these connections “micro-conversations”, and he notes that we have hundreds of these conversations each day. My hope is that we value these conversations more than ever when we get back to our classrooms. Teachers I have spoken to have expressed how they better understand that significant parts of their time in the classroom are about “assessing for” learning and responding to student needs through observations and micro-conversations.

Lack of engagement does not mean a lack of motivation
While some students have flourished working from home, others have struggled. Student wellness, mental health, literacy concerns, and other learning exceptionalities are magnified when a student is left on their own to navigate learning. Some students don’t even have parents at home during the day to support them as learners and as individuals. Remote learning has forced teachers to reflect on the tasks they give out and to ask if their students have the capacity to meet the desired learning goals. Learning has been adapted, which in the end is much better for our students — both their learning and their well-being. I believe we better recognize the value of an educator connecting with students every day, and that many of our students need someone beside them to engage in learning, and to promote wellness. This period of isolation is supporting educators in continuing to recognize that getting down to work isn’t just about trying harder. The magnification of learning needs is pushing educators to reflect on how the learning we deliver considers where students are at: we have seen the gap widen among those flourishing with remote learning and those who are struggling. This also amplifies the need for teachers to be aware of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) so learning fits the known needs of the student, and we are thereby able to narrow the gap.

Changing how we assess
Remote learning has caused us to question what it means to meet learning goals. Traditional tests and exams with one right answer are difficult to hold to a high level of integrity. While I recognize there is still a need to be able to articulate theory and processes, especially in our mathematically based classes and units, it is also causing us to think about how we can create assessments that have multiple answers, allowing for creativity and providing students an opportunity to reflect on their learning. The end of our courses become about the learning journey and celebrating learning, rather than a stressful final exam that focuses on memorization and a student grade. Educators are changing their traditional assessments, and I view this as great for all learners, especially those who struggle with memory recall. These assessments promote student learning, encourage student success, and allow our students to go deeper in and further out as learners.

Creating independent learners
In my school, a class consists of 110 hours. When we are in the building, educators often hold students accountable, ask if students have questions, and through constant assessment, they can attend to the needs of students. Learning from home has forced our students to be independent learners. I will reinforce that I would much rather be in a classroom with my class. Nonetheless, our students are learning to get down to work on their own. Likewise, they are learning to be question askers. At the same time, educators have to create an environment where it is safe to ask questions. Students have to know that we genuinely care for them, and that learning trumps grades. In my restorative language, we have to do learning with our students rather than to students or for students. We first have to consistently let our students know that asking questions and asking for help is not only OK… it is good! Students then need to take a risk in asking for our help. Our response dictates whether they will trust us again with another question. Student care has to come first, and once students know they can engage with us, then we have established the foundation for a strong learning relationship. Whether f2f in a classroom or responding online, it is this relational foundation that is the core of great learning.

I am not sure how long emergency remote learning will continue, but my deep hope is that the ultimate outcome is that students’ needs are better served so both students and educators can flourish in the learning process.

Owen Webb, Dean of Students
Hamilton District Christian High