Imagine you have a Golden Ticket—a chance to disrupt the grammar of schooling, a chance to engage more students, a chance for educators, not policy makers, to truly lead a drastic improvement in our schools, a chance to keep the best of what is and add the best that has been, a chance to truly hear our students think, problem–solve, and engage in learning.
This is exactly what COVID-19 has offered us. It has closed schools as we know them for 1.5 billion students around the world, disrupted the grammar of schooling as we know it, and forced a major change in the way educators work. In the meantime, educators have engendered a revolution. They have worked out how to best serve their students online, in blended learning, and in class with some online. They have brought all students back and sent them home again. Educators have learned how to deal with parents in a new way, learned new tech skills, confronted many inequities, and modified their teaching. And perhaps most importantly, this has been an educator–led change.
COVID-19 can be the Golden Ticket
If we take this opportunity to really learn what is happening during this time of pandemic teaching, we can bring back better. In addition to great teaching, this will also take superb leadership. School leaders have demonstrated remarkable powers of resilience, ingenuity, listening skills, and empathy during these COVID -19 disruptions, and they need to demonstrate these same powers when teachers and students return.
Let’s look at my own state, Victoria, Australia, and its experiences with COVID-19. Schools went to at–home teaching in mid-March. Eight weeks later, first year, last year, and students with special needs were offered the chance to come back in-person. A short time later all students were invited back. Then, six weeks later, the second wave came, and all students went back to distance learning. Now, three months later, they are trickling back. COVID-19 hit near the start of the school year, so our experiences are long and rich, unpunctuated by summer holidays.
Based on surveys from 60 schools, 14,000 parents, 20,000 students, weekly school leader surveys, 28 workshops and focus groups, and the usual Department data sets (link) we know a lot about what worked and what did not work. For example:
- School attendance rates remained high. A majority of students took part in remote and flexible learning every day.
- Morale also stayed high, as teachers and school leaders worked together to address difficult dilemmas with a sense of mutual respect and common purpose.
- Parents gained unprecedented insight into their children’s education and school.
- Students liked the freedom and flexibility to work at their own pace and own schedule, in the comfort of home, with less stress and fewer distractions.
- New skills have been acquired and new pedagogical opportunities trialed.
Of course, there were challenges. I acknowledge the sadness of illness, death, and economic hardships; working from home with working parents; homes that are not always safe havens; inequities in access to technology and internet. From the educator perspective there is reduced face-to-face contact with students, which can make it difficult for teachers to address ongoing welfare or educational concerns. Some students who lacked supportive family environments struggled to access learning or even log on to classes. About 10 percent of students from disadvantaged schools were absent during the remote learning period, compared to about 4 percent of students from advantaged schools, reflecting what also happens in person. Let’s look at the positives of COVID-19.
- Better connections with parents. School principals, teachers and parents all spoke overwhelmingly of the positive relationships built over the period of remote and flexible learning. Many parents have sat with their children during this period: They have become more engaged in their children’s learning and now better understand their work. Schools also learned more about the home situations of some vulnerable students and can better incorporate these insights into their teaching and student support.
- I have long written about how powerful it is for parents to learn the language of learning. The pandemic has turned parents from homework police to those who can see the desirable struggles of learning that their children experience. Connecting and talking with parents and students online opens up more powerful vistas and messages for parents and for teachers.
- Greater flexibility of remote learning. There is much evidence from numerous school leaders and teachers that many students enjoyed, and some students excelled in, exercising greater agency with the flexibility that came with remote learning. This did not happen by assigning work to students and leaving them alone; in fact, that was attempted and, not surprisingly, it failed. Teachers had to use learner- and backward-design methods to structure classes to teach more self-regulation and a greater and faster release of teacher responsibility, to teach students how to work with others, and to have many formative evaluative opportunities to check and diagnose progress. Yes, many struggled with traditional testing, realising that more transparency around what success means and looks like, and more diagnostic assessment (particularly by listening to students thinking and voice) was much more appropriate and informative. Teachers found technological ways to allow students to showcase their understanding in exciting ways.
- Expanding online learning. A number of schools emphasised the benefits of putting lessons and videos online for students to access whenever they wanted. Teachers spoke of how they have used technology to provide more engaging resources for students. Teachers also saw value in being able to talk to students online at times convenient to both parties. Likewise, students could view recorded lessons as many times as they wished without having to acknowledge that they were doing it. I believe that many high school students will be more prepared for college and university, as they have long been working with video and online classes and becoming independent learners.
- Increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of how schools operate. As on a plane, great school leaders put on the oxygen masks for teachers first, before attending to themselves or the students. During COVID-19 teaching, meetings were minimized and there was increased cooperation in teaching, highlighting the importance of effective leadership providing clarity and support to staff during the pandemic. We truly saw distributed leadership in action.
- Increasing the esteem of teachers. We must note the increased workload for teachers, many of whom are working from home, and the rapid, sometimes overnight, changes from in-class instruction to at home. Who in your country is responsible for the esteem of teachers? Now is the time to work overtime on capitalising on this increased esteem for teachers by parents (voters).
- Acknowledging the efforts of school leaders. Teachers spoke glowingly of the efforts and effective leadership of many school leaders. School leaders claimed that there was an increased sense of collegiality and shared purpose between and within their schools, as well as more distributed leadership. School leaders too rarely come out of their own schools to discuss problems and struggles within them—at the risk that it may be seen as a failure of leadership—but the collective efficacy about impact on teachers and students is common across school leaders, was evident much more than ever before.
- Students with special needs. The experiences of remote and flexible learning for students with special needs were as varied as the students themselves. Beware of generalisations. Maybe now is the time to STOP categorising and labelling students and see them all as learners. I know that funding follows labels, but categorising students has a major downside in that it assumes all students with the same label should have the same accommodations and teaching techniques.
COVID-19 has brought great challenges and negative impacts, but for schools it may be the greatest educator innovator and accelerator we know. After past disruptions such as earthquakes, floods, strikes, and wars, we rushed back to the comfort of old schooling hierarchies. The worst consequence of the pandemic for schools and students may be not learning how to bring back better. The Golden Ticket handed to us by the current situation is our best opportunity to dramatically change and improve the learning lives of our students—and it is an educator led revolution.