Skolan och covid-19: del 7

Vi har samlat ett antal exempel och reflexioner från människor som arbetar i skolan, ett försök att spegla den här tiden om än i begränsad omfattning – från när och fjärran, högt och lågt, negativt men också positivt ibland – och vi publicerar några i taget och detta är del 7. (red)

Don’t flatten the curve

On the evening of Sunday 15th of March, a cheer rang out through the boarding houses as the President announced the schools would close under the declared state of disaster in South Africa. The cheers were somewhat premature as the volume of excited voices drowned out the information that the shutdown was still three days away and would involve shortening the June/July holiday. The excitement, while understandable in the young, proved premature for a host of other reasons.

In the aftermath of the Presidential address it became clear that as someone who had recently returned to South Africa from the UK (out of the fire and back to the frying pan), I had to go for testing followed by self-isolation. The next morning, having finally confirmed on the COVID-19 hotline (you are number 85 in the queue) that a test was required, I headed off to the nearest facility. Unlike our students I haven’t taken a test for a while and I was nervous.

From the welcome, “This is going to be a little uncomfortable”, to the test (I’ve never had anything inserted so far up my nostril), I found the experience anxiety provoking. Dealing with people in masks, while entirely necessary, feels like being in a dystopian teen novel. My blood pressure, taken at the time, soared. White coat hypertension apparently.

After what felt like a lot longer than two days, I got the call to say I was all clear.

Relief.

While all this was going on it turns out my colleagues were sending the departed students a barrage of work large enough to stop a small army in its tracks. Certainly, enough to curb the premature excitement of the recipients. Then came the announcement that children were not returning to schools, for some time as it turned out.

It has been a fascinating shift from classroom to on-line learning. I am surprised by how quickly, and in many cases effectively, the educational industry has been able to make the jump from four walls to 4G. Like the rest of my colleagues I have muddled through Moodle, suffered the indignity of recording myself (and the agony of watching it back), while Zooming between meetings all within the comfort of my own home. It’s been a learning curve for teachers. Pedro DeBruyckere, educational scientist at Arteveldehogeschool in Ghent, Belgium, termed it emergency remote teaching as opposed to real online education. It certainly felt like that.

The hardest thing was the lack of interaction with students. In a virtual world it’s hard to gauge engagement. Teaching a lesson is a bit like the opening night of a West End show without the audience. Worse than that, it’s playing the lead role with no supporting cast, delivering lines into the void. No matter how brilliant, without some two-way dialogue, it just falls flat.

Some psychologists I have spoken to have told me that they largely insist on a video call for on-line consultation, as opposed to purely audio. This assists them to gauge response and reaction through facial expression. Even then they say it’s just not the same as an in-person appointment. Body language, tone, and other cues that a psychologist would usually pick up on, go unnoticed. Technology is just too crude a tool for those sorts of subtleties. I think this is true for teaching too.

Of course, the fact we can have the conversation about the effectiveness of technology in teaching is testament to how far we have come. If this had happened during my own school days we would have had to rely on centralised television and radio broadcasts, material delivered in the post and perhaps the odd phone call. Today, through on-line learning systems, teachers can deliver live lessons to specified classes, post material and resources for students to download, who in turn upload their work for the teacher to view. You can even get your marking done for you if you set the task up correctly, something that I took full advantage of.

No doubt some students (and staff) thrived in cyber space. Despite this it seems to me that while technology is fantastic for enhancing teaching and learning in a school-based environment, it comes up short when it becomes the learning environment. Put another way, teacher-based instruction enhanced by technology is better than technology-based instruction enhanced by a teacher.

During the most severe phases of lockdown I tried to attend the researchED Online presentations (one of the positives of lockdown) at least once a week. In his session in the series Pedro DeBruyckere spoke about education during and after Corona, asking the question, what can we do that will benefit our children? He explained that while flattening the curve of COVD 19 cases is desirable, flattening the curve in education is not.  Educational achievement tends to follow the usual bell curve distribution. We want this distribution to be fair, (based on ability). However, inequalities in education ensure that almost always the distribution cannot be entirely just. In the current situation these inequalities will only be exaggerated. With school shut the education curve will be flattened. Put another way the gap between the achievers and non-achievers will be even wider. This flattening of the scholastic curve will be due to factors such as stress, income inequality (which impacts the availability of information technology), and levels of parental involvement. Here in South Africa with such disparate levels in income and resources the consequences are likely to be grave. According to DeBruyckere, we do not yet know what the impact of school closure will be. Previous closures around the world due to strikes, natural disasters and even long summer holidays, all indicate that the effects on learning will be significant. 

Our students are now back at school, as they are in most places around the world. However, like a tidal wave after the earthquake the educational impact is yet to be fully felt especially for the less fortunate members of our communities. However perhaps online learning (or emergency remote teaching) went some way, perhaps a large part of the way, to ameliorate this. Time will tell.

Tim Jarvis, (@timothyjejarvis, https://timothyjejarvis.blog/)

Senior Master and Guidance Counsellor, High School

South Africa

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