I write this post during the Coronavirus lockdown. Like all schools closed in the 2020 pandemic we need to continue our teaching. All schools need to do this to survive, but a more important mission is for us to seek academic thought.
Fortunately we have spoken to many great schools in Asia who have been closed for months about their best practice. Four thoughts are below:
- Term our current situation ‘Distance Learning’ rather than E-learning or similar tech-based labels. This is not just a corporate marketing ploy. Students need to see learning about thinking, not just about accessing technology. Much of the Big Tech promotes the purchase of expensive materials under grandiose claims. More on that in another post.
2. Students should experience some face to face contact via video conferencing where possible. Lessons should be scheduled at the same times to give students (and their families) some semblance of routine in these trying times.
3. Video conferencing should ideally last for 10 minutes at the start of the lesson to establish the task and answer questions. There should be a 5 minute call at the end of the lesson. I shall write about some other methods in a further post.
4. Expectations of work produced should be reduced, perhaps to half. Expectations of how much students should think should remain the same, if not more (Ok, that last sentence is my idea…).
What responsibilities do schools still have?
With some countries passing laws stating that contracts can be retrospectively adjusted and with all international schools under potential threat, we must establish clear expectations of their teachers.
The ideal situation is that teachers are vocational and enjoy setting and responding to what the students produce. Where teachers are unable to video conference due to responding to the realities of lockdown life, some effort is made to connect with students via video conferencing or chat.
What about the Haves and the Have Nots?
Access to internet bandwidth is arguably a right in 2020, with labour placing this responsively as one of their pledges in their failed 2019 election bid. Students and teachers who cannot access video conferencing will face increasing difficulties in connecting with teaching. I will write later about text-based solutions for students and teachers who suffer intermittent wifi.
What kind of learning do we want to promote in students? Academic or Functional?
I will consider this question from the point of view of an English teacher.
A prime ambition of academic thought in literature is to defamiliarise the world around us, for our students to perceive anew that which seems mundane and functional. The table at which we sit can become not just a place to store our possessions but a metaphor for how we organise our inner-life. One method of defamiliarising the world is to problematise it, to ask difficult questions about what we do and why we do it. Why is my table so messy right now? Through problematising the world we aim to not merely mark worksheets about thought but instead to deepen and enrich our perceptions of life, hopefully uncovering and creating richer truths along the way.
The truth, alas, is that academic learning does not always lead to functional learning. Problematising the world can leave people indecisive in the face of the near-infinite possibilities of interpretation. Problematising can also promote dislocated thinking that seeks no temperance from the minds of others. See Alex Jones of Infowars or David Brent of The Office for visceral examples of this solipsism. In the corporate world, or even the survive-a-COVID-lockdown world, academic thought risks becomes not just irrelevant but potentially detrimental to decisive action.
In comparison, functional learning teaches us to be decisive. Find formulae that tell us how to respond to situations and apply them. Seek efficiency and ease, those prime virtues of functional learning. Emotionally, such functional learning can be very motivating for both students and teachers, and many schools are happy with the setting and production and marking of work in an entirely linear and ultimately clear fashion.
Unfortunately, functional learning does not always lead to learning that is useful. Responding to literature with close-analysis (the kind of analysis promoted by GCSE British exam boards) does not require whole-text understanding or even reading stamina. Functional learning also promotes learners (and parents, teachers…) who prize learning which is easy. Learning that is difficult or arduous to perform, or learning that feels clunky and vague to express, is failed learning under a functional model.
A moderation between functional and academic learning is ideal. I would argue that a significant bias towards academic learning is most ideal, especially for students for whom English and literature is their favoured subject. I will address one model of a happy medium at the end of this post through my recent experiences of learning guitar…
What is the reality underpinning classroom teaching in 2020?
I chose to work in my current IB school because I can create and pursue a curriculum that prizes academic thought. Parental expectations in an international school are that students aspire to elite universities across the globe. Almost all our parents operate at high levels in the corporate world because those jobs give them the income to send their students to our school. Those parents operate in a largely functional world whereby problematising projects can lead to massive financial costs and potential job insecurity. Academic thought, however, is still prized as long as it does not interfere with functional thought and occupational success. Therefore, the teaching of academic thought (critical thinking) must be interlaced with the promotion of functional thought (clarity of expression and action). That’s fair.
Unfortunately, I have heard of very different expectations in schools across the globe in my network of sixteen years teaching. Some schools still require setting bookwork for every lesson with a massive workload of marking to prove accountability. Some schools forced to stay open to care for vulnerable children, or those of essential workers, are watching films and setting activities to keep the children placated.
In all these scenarios, with the exams now cancelled, what should students do in this ‘free’ time?
Schools and teachers have a chance, largely unprecedented for many, to plan short courses for students to learn something both academic and functional. We do not need to carry on simply delivering lessons and PowerPoints as we might have done for a terminal exam, but rather we can promote courses that stimulate academic thought above all. In doing so we can become learners ourselves once again.
An example of a teacher as a learner — learning guitar
I am spending some of my lockdown time learning guitar theory. In doing so I watching many excellent teachers on YouTube. Of course, all my adverts are now videos for guitar courses. Universally they promote one message:
If you aren’t learning guitar quickly and easily, then you have a problem.
Free courses cannot help you learn quickly and easily.
Only my paid course can help you learn quickly and easily
The secret of my paid course is that it is linear
Where was I before lockdown with my guitar playing? I had been learning guitar for a long time. I can perform live happily enough and improvise some pentatonic scales, but my musical knowledge is generally weak. These past weeks I have been teaching myself how scales work through various books and sporadic videos. In doing so, I am discovering how chords are made, how to hit the key intervals of scales, how the minor scales differ from the major scales. This has not been easy.
Previously, I had used shortcuts to simply move patterns up and down the fretboard without knowing how they work. I wondered why a ‘C’ note wouldn’t sound ideal over a ‘C’ chord when jamming in ‘G’. I had no idea why.
In learning to play guitar better, I am realising that creating scales for myself means I know them better. I realise that, for whatever reason, coming back to something better overnight means I know it better. I also realise that I need to balance both functional learning (small wins by learning guitar licks and scale diagrams) and academic thought (a deeper and more subvocal sense of how the guitar works).
Through the experience of learning guitar theory, I hope my teaching benefits too. I intend to employ motivating signposts of functional learning in a wider and more difficult journey of academic thought. And in doing so to nurture rockstars of learning!