Let me paint a picture.
I am standing on my well-loved blue yoga mat at the kitchen counter with my laptop perched on three coffee table books – America: An Illustrated History, Exciting Singapore: A Visual Journey, and 1000 Events That Shaped the World. Another coffee table book, The History of the World: From Earliest Times to Present Day, remains on the coffee table. But here I am at my makeshift standing desk. Like most people reading this, I’m living in an online world right now and my online world is school.
Those familiar with my work know that I typically talk about education. I’ve written at length about what education means and how I understand it. Right now, however, I am deliberately talking about schooling. Merriam-Webster says that schooling is:
- instruction in school
- training, guidance, or discipline derived from experience
That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re giving students instruction, asking them to do something, guiding them along the way, and giving feedback at the end. In a learning environment that was set up with intention and not in an emergency, this would look very different. Anyone who has taken a self-paced online course can attest to this. However, I do want to be realistic about what we can and cannot do right now. Ergo, the use of the word “schooling”.
I do not like online school; I know precious few who do. But there are four things I don’t hate about it, four things that I might actually even like.
Starting at the same point
At my school, we are using Google Meet and Google Hangouts to communicate. Email is still there but it has become increasingly common for students to send a quick hangout chat rather than a formal email. Students reach out very casually in a chat and I am more than happy to reply in kind. Breaking down hierarchy in schools is long overdue. Many students find video easier and it has become my practice to ask students for their preference. We’ve all learned how to share our screens and we’ve all made mistakes while doing so. We’ve all had trouble accessing documents or navigating new platforms.
Teachers and students are more alike in our current learning environment than we traditionally have been. This is new for all of us and the novelty makes us all real, genuine people. We’re all in this together in a very literal sense; no one can claim to have been here before and therefore it’s true that some have a much better handle on things than others. Sometimes, it’s the teacher but often, it’s the students.
While being genuine is important in all teaching and learning, I think it’s especially significant in our current context. I’ve asked my students about how things are going academically and in their personal lives and I reply when they ask in return. Some are really struggling, and so am I, and so are my colleagues. Under normal circumstances, this is easy to hide. But because these things literally are our every day lives, there’s no pretending. There’s no claiming we know the answers because every day, it’s more and more obvious that there are no answers right now.
The informality of our current online schooling system allows me to be involved in my students lives at a time when, by their own admission, they need human connection. Students who don’t normally like to talk have asked to talk. Students who are often reluctant to ask questions have been asking questions. One of my students (finally!) referred to me by my first name in our Advisory group.
We really are all in this together.
Learning out of interest
I teach grades 11 and 12 students and the expectations of and for grade 12 students changed significantly with the cancellation of exams. The message I have tried to get across has remained consistent since this announcement rocked everything we’ve worked for. But like I told my students, though I admit it took a couple days to find the words, the point of learning is not to sit an exam at the end. The point of learning, the way learning works in real life, is to explore something we want to understand and perhaps to share it with others.
The cancellation of exams for graduating seniors gave us the opportunity to remember that and to put it into practice. While my students study a lot of psychology over two years in the course, there’s a lot we don’t study. My students are interested in topics and questions far beyond the realm of the course and this gave us an opportunity to explore. They chose a question to investigate with the goal of sharing what they had learned with their peers. Many put together presentations, some recorded videos, and others created infographics. As part of their research, students wrote an annotated bibliography, many learning this highly practical (in the academic sphere) skill for the first time.
Most importantly, they enjoyed themselves. I conferenced with each student as they worked and they were excited about what they were doing and how they were doing it. There has been little time in the last two years when they’ve been able to learn something just for fun and just because they were interested in it. I’m glad that our current situation allowed them time to do so.
New ways to give feedback
I have never enjoyed collecting written work online because I find it very difficult to provide feedback that way. My students are used to their written work coming back covered in comments, circles (areas to fix), and underlines (well done, this is a key idea in what you’re saying). Each new cohort of students tends to find it initially alarming, which suggests that many of their teachers don’t mark up their work. But I do, and I’ve never been one for online submissions as a result.
However, that’s the only option we have now. Of course, not all tasks require extended written responses but I recently collected one that did. Instead of using the comments function on Google or the review function on Word to give feedback, I recorded it. I read through each student’s document and then ran through a screen recording. As I would when working individually with a student, I walked through each section of what they’d written and I talked, indicating certain parts of the text with the mouse or scrolling back and forth between other parts. I concluded each recording letting them know where they were on a scale of low-middle-high and summarising no more than three tips to move up. The recordings lasted between two and three and a half minutes.
I’ve never done this before and I put out a survey asking whether students liked getting feedback this way. Except for the one who replied “neutral”, all students said that they did and gave a very clear reason why. They said that it would be easier to look back, was easier to understand, and that they appreciated being walked through each part. Wow. Well then.
This is a time when we are trying to figure out what works for our students, who are going through something none of us adults can understand. It is really important that my students and I have settled on something that works for them. My responsibility now is to listen and to continue working together to make the best out of the system that we have.
Not chasing grades
There are many ways to find out what a student knows and understands. In a normal classroom, we find this out every time a student speaks or asks a question. Teachers gauge understanding as we watch who pairs up for activities, how long the activities take, and the resources students use without prompting. Ongoing informal assessment is not possible in an online schooling situation the way it would be (which is to say constantly) in a regular classroom. It is not fair to students to pretend that it is.
Additionally, formal assessment in a classroom is completely different than formal assessment online. For one thing, it is controlled in terms of time, materials available, and peer (or teacher) involvement. Formal assessment need not come in such a standard form but it often does. Again, online learning has thrown this on its head.
With my own students, I’ve provided options. In the above example of a written task, we actually generated a list as a class of all the possible ways students could think of to demonstrate understanding of a prompt. Not everyone wrote an outline or essay. Additionally, I’ve minimised grade bands. Rather than giving students a mark out of 22 and then converting it to the IB 1-7 grade bands, we talked about low-middle-high and variation within that.
Low-stakes assessments still tell me what my students know and therefore what we need to work on. From the students’ perspective, they don’t have the stress of thinking about a grade at the end. Hopefully it will also make it easier to talk about improvement without a number hanging in the background.
Like everyone else, I am eagerly awaiting the day I can welcome students back to school. I miss the conversations, the connections, and the general atmosphere of classrooms and hallways. Immersion in a dynamic and vibrant space is, after all, what I love about being a teacher. Standing in tree pose on my yoga mat doesn’t quite match up.
But I know that it’s important to find silver linings. I know that there is some learning to be had in every experience and in that sense, this one is not unique. I do not like online schooling but it’s not about liking or disliking right now. Instead, it’s about taking the emergency situation we are in and doing with it the best that we can. I have landed on four things that are actually going okay and four is more than I would have thought when this began mere weeks ago.
And, as always, there will be more to learn and try and implement along the way. It is my hope that the lessons we learn at this time are not forgotten but instead are taken to heart and into practice when times change yet again.
Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone’s knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier. – John Dewey