Version prepared for May 6 Workshop (includes Part 1)
The LearnIn reference model provides the framework to understand the most significant relationships among the agents/acting person(s), activities, systems and processes relevant to support learning in a given environment. It seeks to provide a common understanding of key concepts and to facilitate communication, learning and developing solutions across different settings. The reference model explains the underlying conceptual framework to non-specialists. It promotes understanding of a cluster of problems relevant to find good solutions but does not pre-define a specific solution to these problems. The LearnIn reference model is flexible enough to be applied to different environments and it does not make assumptions about technology or platforms. Most of the key concepts used in the Learning reference model have been introduced already in the UNICEF Training of Trainer Modules on Inclusive Education (overview, see Introductory Module).
Providing education in the time of COVID-19 requires: (1) a coordinated response with an emphasis of facilitating actions to ensure that the needs of everyone affected are addressed; and (2) immediate actions by teachers, even if education systems are not ready yet. Societies (MoE as representing society) establish, provide, organize and monitor education; and within this framework, schools and teachers do their everyday work. In times of crisis, governments may not be able or intentionally decide not to maintain the operation of schools. This manual seeks to help individual teachers as well as groups of teachers to reach out to their students and their parents without waiting for a coordinated development of an alternative digital or a parallel education system that is not relying on physical presence and contact. There is a need to empower teachers to initiate learning as quickly as possible, but with the possibility of later-on coordinating and synchronizing new practices.
The manual provides support to plan, implement and reflect on teacher actions related to specific situations around the Corvid-19 crisis, and is designed to address issues that will remain after the crisis. It builds on a common framework to help transform knowledge represented here into activities in different contexts and situations. It exists now as an outline of key issues and will be iterated based on the experiences in the countries.
The concepts and organization of information used for this manual are aligned with the UNICEF Train-the-Trainer Modules on Inclusive Education. For further reading, you may want to consult the Introductory Module to learn more about the background and contents of the Modules.
May 4, 2020 – Version to prepare for workshop on May 6
Learning is understood as an activity: An agent/acting person(s) (the “WHO”) engages in a knowledge domain (the “WHAT”), to contribute to their capability (the “WHAT FOR”) of acting successfully in a specific context (the “WHERE”), by using the most effective mental, physical or technological tools (the “HOW”).
Learning occurs when the activity leads to a transformation either of the agent/acting person(s) (e.g. sense of identity, beliefs, attitudes), the knowledge domain (e.g. understanding of problems, conceptual knowledge, etc.), the context (ability to be effective in different social and physical contexts), or the tools (e.g. problem-solving skills, learning strategies, mental models). This transformation should be oriented towards making the agent/acting person(s) a more effective problem-solver in the real world – to achieve a more fulfilling, responsible and empowered life.
Generally, much attention is given to “knowledge domains” (content component of a curriculum, subject like mathematics, theme or topic) and to tools (paper & pencil worksheets, textbooks, digital learning pathways). But unless the knowledge domain and the proposed tools are aligned with the agent/acting person(s) (teacher, teacher educator, parent), with the purpose or the long-term learning objectives, and with the specific social and physical environment or context, it is unlikely that learning will lead to a sustainable transformation of attitudes, skills and competences - and ultimately to the capabilities of the agent/acting person(s).
In this Manual, the learners are the principal focus, not knowledge domains or tools. The “Right to Education” is understood as the “Right to Learn” - even in the absence of formal education. The manual is addressing educators with formal or informal experience of teaching, highly qualified or without qualification. The three parts of this Manual address the three phases of the CORVID-19 education crisis. Each part follows the same structure: (1) “Situation Analysis” to provide a common understanding, (2) “Key issues and questions” to be understood and addressed, and (3) “Responding to the challenges” to develop good practices to address key issues.
The LearnIn Community engages teachers as learners to provide actionable knowledge. Actionable knowledge means that teachers are able directly to use what they learn to help solve “real world” problems. We are mindful of the fact that teachers may hold different premises about what “learning” is and may not be familiar with the notions of “active learners” or “constructivist” approaches to learning. We are working with the following metaphors of learning to help clarify this issue: (1) Learning as knowledge acquisition (focus on WHAT and HOW), (2) Learning as knowledge sharing (focus on WHAT and WHERE), and (3) Learning as knowledge creation (focus on WHAT and WHAT FOR).
The LearnIn pedagogy is focusing on learning as an activity and therefore sees the learner as an active agent/acting person. The agent is the person who learns, the term may also refer to a group of people. Meaningful learning addresses the needs of the learners, takes their experiences, abilities and interests into account. Learners have to gain access to knowledge, to participate in knowledge sharing processes and achieve a transformation of learning capabilities (access, participation and achievement) to sustain them through life-long learning. While the ultimate goal of LearnIn is to improve the learning of all children and youth, its primary focus is on promoting teachers’ capacity to initiate, guide and evaluate learning for all students.
Teachers are the primary agents/persons to facilitate learning of children in formal education settings, like public schools. The term “educator” is used to refer to any person in a “teaching role” or any person mandated to or wishing to support learning of children and youth, with or without formal training. It applies also to parents or caregivers who have an impact on children’s development and learning. Agents working in Ministries, Universities or NGOs have an indirect impact on children's learning, for example by designing new curriculum, introducing national testing schemes or funding teacher’s capacity building activities.
Teachers traditionally view themselves as independent agents with considerable autonomy at least in their classrooms. In many countries, teachers work in isolation and are unaccustomed to collaborative practices in classrooms, peer feedback or team building activities. A school system with a traditional top-down approach to the implementation of reforms, can lead to disenfranchisement of teachers, and as a consequence also of students. Only teachers that experience a sense of individual and collective self-efficacy are able to explore new approaches and practices and become agents of change.
Effectively addressing issues such as fighting exclusion or achieving equalization of opportunities for all children in a community requires close collaboration and coordinated actions of different stakeholders across organizations and sectors (e.g. health, education, social). Teams, working groups or communities of practice need to achieve collective self-efficacy, rather than be passive implementers of policies, regulations and administrative procedures. Teachers need to assume a “growth mindset” to help their students to become active learners. Learning is about looking into the future to explore talents, learning opportunities, and new problem-solving strategies - rather than stare into the past to sort children into achievement levels based solely on test results.
The LearnIn community nurtures teacher identity, teachers’ skills and competencies and seeks to strengthen personal as well as collective teacher agency and a sense of self-efficacy. LearnIn does not provide ready-made solutions, on the contrary, it builds on the premise that only solutions that are aligned with needs, interests and strengths of everyone involved will ultimately be sustainable. LearnIn seeks to achieve not only learning as knowledge acquisition, but also learning that transforms and expands agents’ mindsets, the capacity to learn, and the ability to coordinate actions related to Pedagogy, EdTech and Policy and Administration to overcome learning barriers. LearnIn helps to create opportunities where teachers can experience “expansive learning” as a result of effectively collaborating with colleagues to help develop and transform their own practices.
Capability is the quality of being capable in all senses necessary to lead a good life. To achieve capability is ultimately what life-long learning seeks to achieve; for what people live and learn. The concept of “capability” synthesises acquired competencies, a sense of agency or authorship, the ability to make use of available resources, overcome barriers and experience not only competence, but also personal autonomy and social belonging. Competence is the quality of being competent to solve specific problems or deal with the issue at hand. Becoming competent means acquiring knowledge, skills and dispositions that are seen as important to be effective in terms of long-term growth and development. Performance is the quality of being able to perform a certain task or activity.
Ultimately, the national curriculum aims at achieving capability, which is described through long-term goals of education in ways that are aligned with the nation’s society, culture, economy, religion and language (to name but a few). These abstract expectations of future citizens are operationalized along competencies (majority of today’s curricula) or along contents, expected behaviors or skills. In competency-based curricula, competencies are operationalized along observable and measurable performances. Performance in a specific task that may or may not be a valid indicator of competency.
Traditionally, teachers and parents believe or are made to believe that performance reliably predicts or proves competence and that only children achieving high performance levels will one day be capable citizens. Children and youth unable to perform activities or tasks exactly as prescribed by teachers are considered failures. Teachers and other educators may hold the view that only high performing students are able to be effective learners. As a consequence, autonomy support and social inclusion are neglected, because the importance of the ability to self-regulate, to make positive choices and to successfully interact with others are underestimated. By narrowing the curriculum and increasing control, learning is reduced rather than enhanced. In addition, teachers turn to the past to explain student failure rather than looking forward to develop personalized pathways towards capability. Goal-setting is guided by low teacher expectations, rather than by the vision of a good life.
LearnIn focuses on competencies and how different competencies are consolidated to enhance capability of leading a good life as a teacher, student or parent. LearnIn is based on the premise that there is not one predefined path towards becoming competent. And that sometimes making mistakes or disrupting discussions accelerates learning more than good behavior and expected performance. Because a good life is also dependent on relationships to other people, collaborative learning is important. In addition, personal interests and motivations are key drivers of learning. A sense of autonomy and self-determination enhances any learning experience and assists agents/acting person(s) in developing strategies that work best for them.
Learning is always about something, and when it comes to human learning, this can be just about anything. “Knowledge domain” describes what we learn. Throughout human history, available knowledge has grown to address problems and challenges inherent in attempting to live a good life. Knowledge has developed into different disciplines or fields and subsequently, disciplines have developed into specialized domains or sub-disciplines. The overall knowledge domain of LearnIn is “Inclusive and quality education for all”, a knowledge domain that runs across Didactics, Philosophy of Education, Human Rights Legislation, Special Education, Psychology, Sociology, Political Sciences, Digital Learning and Informatics, Management and Leadership, to name just a few. It draws from all knowledge domains relevant for the three LearnIn pillars: “Pedagogy”, “EdTech” and “Policy and Administration”. Another critical knowledge domain is how knowledge is best created, structured and shared to become effective. LearnIn uses “Communities of Practice” to develop “networked expertise” that is relevant in different domains and environments.
Every day, teachers are confronted with complex social and human problems that need to be addressed in their classrooms, but that often originate outside their sphere of influence. Some students may be inattentive, depressed or hungry as a result of social disadvantage of their families. Children with disabilities benefit from social participation in regular classes, but may not be adequately supported in their learning. Often, applying knowledge from one domain (creating sustainable relationships) may be in direct contradiction to knowledge from another domain (increase time engaged in subject matter learning). To overcome such contradictory situations, teachers need to think about their thinking.
Traditional learning of teachers, for example in initial teacher education focuses on subject knowledge for higher grades and on methodological knowledge for lower grades. As a consequence, subject teachers and class teachers focus on different knowledge domains when seeking to solve problems together. Parents may be more concerned with solving their everyday problems than promoting academic learning. Students may be more focused on avoiding further failures and disappointments than to expand their knowledge on Mathematics. This is likely to lead to misunderstandings and may result in conflict or uncooperative relationships.
LearnIn supports knowledge acquisition, knowledge sharing and knowledge creation needed to address complex problems that can only be resolved together. It proposes a common language and structure that will be refined and aligned with the needs and interests of its community. LearnIn opens the scope of knowledge and supports the development of meta-cognition needed to use knowledge for problem solving. Meta-knowledge is knowledge that runs across different knowledge domains to develop an understanding of how it can be developed, integrated and made actionable.
This Manual will grow with its use and as the LearnIn community develops new knowledge, good practice examples, materials and procedures. It is the shared “knowledge object” to integrate knowledge and to make knowledge visible. In a first phase, the focus will be on the following knowledge domains to address the current Corvid-19 crisis: Supporting students out of school during lockdown (Workshop 1), Welcoming students back to school (Workshop 2), Designing students’ personalized learning paths (Workshop 3). Later, these knowledge domains will be expanded to adopt a more general focus on specific groups of children with no or limited access to education.
In general, the term “context” refers to the physical, social, cultural, linguistic and political environment in which an activity is carried out. Context refers to “where” something is done, for example where learning occurs. These circumstances create the setting or set the scene for any human activity. Teaching and learning are only fully understood if the context is taken into account. Narrow or proximate contexts refer to the immediate environment and what immediately precedes and follows the activity. Broad or distal contexts refer to the wider and expanded environment and a long-term perspective on what precedes and follows an activity. The idea of “proximal” and “distal” environments that impact on teacher and learning activities is the foundation of understanding complex systems. Ecological systems theory distinguishes between micro-systems (classroom context), meso-systems (school in local community) and macro-systems (national education context).
One of the key components of good teaching practice is the creation of enabling learning environments. The primary context for formal learning is the classroom environment, but teachers also use other environments like museums or nature for learning. The physical arrangement of the classroom and the social climate in which learning occurs have a deep impact on participation and learning. Rules and regulations developed in the broader context of the national education system influence teachers’ actions, beliefs and expectations. The family situation of children affects their ability to concentrate and adapt to teachers’ styles of interaction. In other words, distal contexts have an impact on proximal contexts. It works also the other way around: changes at grass-root level can have a lasting impact on schools and education systems.
Traditional learning environments are classrooms with fixed seating arrangements, inflexible time schedules and limited opportunities to create positive learning environments where all children feel welcomed and are able to build relationships and become active learners. A strict classroom management is necessary to keep all children on the same task at the same time. Students who cannot follow the curriculum as presented by the teacher, fall behind and are at-risk of exclusion. Learning environments beyond the classroom are not considered effective or only secondary to the classroom. Traditional classrooms are simply assumed to be the best learning environment even without proof that these arrangements do enable all learners to learn.
LearnIn draws attention to the importance of learning contexts, both for the learning of teachers and of students. By experiencing learning in different contexts, online and face-to-face, teachers not only acquire new knowledge, but more importantly, expand their own repertoire of creating learning opportunities in diverse contexts. The context of learning includes visible and invisible components. For example, attitudes and expectations of teachers create learning environments that are open, supportive and facilitating, or narrow, fixed and incapacitating. LearnIn aims at supporting teachers to assume a growth mindset with the premise that every child can learn and develop competencies and capability. An ecological understanding helps identify barriers to learning, also from beyond the classroom.
Every learning activity is deeply embedded in a context and may be enhanced simply by improving the learning environment. Yet, even the most elaborate learning environment may create barriers to learning if teachers or students do not feel comfortable or lack the strategies to make use of available resources. Collaborative learning contexts, such as communities of practice provide opportunities for exploration. LearnIn supports the development of enabling learning environments, online and offline.
“Tool” is a general term for any means, strategies, devices or procedures applied, especially for learning and teaching. Tools describe how something is done, for example how learning is achieved. When specific tools, materials and devices are combined, they make up an approach or methodology. Textbooks, paper and pencil are the traditional tools used for teaching and learning. 21st century tools include digital communication and learning devices used in the classroom or at home. Tools may be used by individuals or groups, or even by nations. The national curriculum for example is a tool to transport societal expectations related to students’ knowledge, competencies and values to teachers and into the classrooms. Tools can be used for immediate action (e.g. scissors to cut a paper) or for extended activities (e.g. interactive tools for collaboration and documentation).
Basically any means used to carry out an activity or a task can be considered a tool. Simple tools may be readily available in most contexts (e.g. paper and pencil) while other tools (e.g. learning software) require specifically designed learning environments and high level digital literacy in teachers and students. Also, language is an important tool for learning, for communication and for gaining access to knowledge. Mental models are internal representations of how certain problems should be addressed or how to learn. These models are tools as they mediate between learners and the knowledge domain. One important role of education is to transform mental models, preconceptions, assumptions and beliefs and expand the capacity to learn.
Traditional teaching relies on a limited set of tools and the belief that one approach to learning fits all students. It guides students through fixed and predefined learning paths and does not take into account different learning styles or preferences. Traditional teaching does not respond to specific learner needs, for example it does not provide alternative tools or materials accessible for children with disabilities. Policies increasingly aim to achieve inclusive education systems, challenge teachers’ and parents’ beliefs about how children learn best. New tools are developed to guide teachers’ practices (e.g. protocols for individual educational planning) and students’ learning (e.g. materials adjusted for low performing children), but often the overall activities of teaching and learning are not adjusted to integrate new tools. In addition, such tools may contradict or interfere with achieving overall learning goals (e.g. achieving student autonomy and a sense of belonging). Tools may also be used for unintended purposes (e.g. computers to play games rather than learn) or even unwanted purposes (e.g. teaching to the test to boost results, thus narrowing the curriculum).
LearnIn draws the attention to the fact that tools are only effective when teachers and students know how to use them. Tools need to be part of the learning activity and contribute to expected learning outcomes. Administrative procedures need to match collaboration style and teachers’ workflow. Also, it is relatively easy to set up computers in the classroom, but this does not ensure that they are used as effective tools for learning. Learners and teachers need to be empowered and tools aligned with learning styles in order to support learning and teaching. Teachers and learners have to transform their overall activity to make the best use of new technology.
LearnIn does not only provide tools, it also provides an integrated methodology and learning opportunities to become familiar and comfortable with using these tools. The LearnIn manual not only suggests new techniques and tools, but also supports teachers and learners to use the available tools more effectively.
The current Corvid-10 crisis highlights the issues and challenges of meaningful learning when formal education is not available. Currently, this is the situation experienced by teachers and their students in many countries around the world. The right to education is no longer safeguarded and education systems struggle to find ways to reach students and ensure continuation of learning. The current crisis also threatens the livelihood of families, disrupts everyday routines, creates tensions between family members and causes psychological stress. The restrictions imposed on individuals and civic life have far-reaching consequences on communication, relationships and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.
While this is a transitional state for most families, for some it is a permanent concern. Many disadvantaged families and vulnerable children experience this sense of exclusion and isolation over extended periods of time or even permanently. In many countries still today, not all children have access to formal education and remain out of school. Children on the move, due to inhumane living conditions or armed conflicts are out of school or experience multiple interruptions to their education while seeking asylum. The education of children with disabilities or chronic health problems is disrupted whenever they are made to attend segregated schools or need to spend time in hospitals. Other families and children are socially or geographically isolated, and many barriers need to be addressed to achieve school attendance.
The problems experienced by teachers, parents and children in such situations are complex and interdependent and the situation of each parent, teacher and child is unique. All may be confronted with conflicting needs and goals, for example teachers may strongly wish to reach all children, but may experience stressful situations themselves, caused by conflicts at home, by uncertainty related to their professional responsibilities or lack of time and resources. There are no easy or ready-made solutions to supporting students out of school. But there are some key issues that need to be addressed and resolved:
The current Corvid-10 crisis blurs the roles of teachers, parents and students as it blurs the line between professional and personal life, between leisure and learning. Students may be more knowledgeable than teachers in using communication devices while parents suddenly find themselves in the role of a teacher. Watching television becomes an educational experience, possibly followed by an assignment prepared by the teacher. The kitchen may transform into a learning environment and siblings become learning communities. The new situation holds many challenges, but also opportunities.
Teachers, parents and students share the uncertainty and novelty of experiencing these extraordinary circumstances. If guided by the same vision, this threatening situation can be turned into a unique opportunity to deepen relationships, gain a better understanding of learning and identify new tools and contexts to support learning for all children and youth.
Students cannot engage in learning activities unless their basic well-being is ensured. Teachers’ first task is to reach out to their students, (re-)establish relationships and ensure that the basic needs such as physical safety, nutrition and emotional support are met. Only then will children and youth be ready to learn. The following questions will help you to find out what your learners’ situation currently is:
Teachers generally have access to students’ private contact information. If the information available is not adequate, complementing it will be one of the first tasks. Any method available to contact families should be explored and successful channels should be used to initiate contact. Teachers should ask for support by others if necessary and provide clear instructions as to which information they need from parents and students.
In crisis situations, formal learning is nobody's first concern - not that of parents or children. Without daily contact, you simply do not know whether the children and parents are experiencing so much stress that they are unable to actively participate in learning activities. The only way to find out how children are feeling, whether they are safe and looked after, is to interact directly with parents and children. Two-way communication (e.g. Telephone, Online Meetings) is preferable from one-way approaches (e.g. Emails, letters).
Neither parents nor children will be ready to engage in learning unless their well-being is secured. The impact of school closure may be very different depending on the specific living situation. Not all parents may be able to explain to their children what is happening and what children should expect. Parents may lose their income or important resources may not be available. Some families may experience stress and spending much time together may increase incidents of domestic violence and mental health problems. Using the internet holds its own threats (cyberbullying, display of violence or otherwise traumatizing content). It is important for teachers to be aware and to support students’ and parents’ sense of self-efficacyand well-being.
Students, parents and teachers may experience disappointment when events they were looking forward to are cancelled. This can be a very depressive experience for all and students may lose their motivation to work, especially when cut off from their best friends and favorite activities. Without motivation, teachers will not be able to force students to learn from a distance. To use external motivators like the attraction of digital environments and build up intrinsic motivation by taking students’ interests and talents into consideration, will help initiating and maintaining learning. Engaging in online activities together with other students and frequent positive reinforcement by parents and teachers will be helpful as well. While being positive about the future to make students hopeful, abstain from making promises that you are not able to keep simply to motivate students now.
Maintaining consistent routines and practicing healthy habits are even more important in times of crisis. Make sure parents and children understand the need for routine (e.g. waking and sleeping times) and structure (e.g. a place to study). This will help students to feel safe and embark in learning. Start with assigning manageable learning times that can be expanded, but should be stuck to. Contact families at a pre-agreed time of the day or week and stick to it. Encourage students to decide everyday what they will do the next day. Make sure, children schedule time for recreation, exercise and meals. Make sure children are aware of basic knowledge related to hygiene and physical distancing.
Times of crisis and extraordinary situations are threatening the progress in academic learning due to other concerns that require attention. If children and families are not ready to engage in academic learning, even the best materials and assignments will not contribute to learning. Children learn at different paces in any setting, but home-based learning will increase these differences. The absence of structure (e.g. class schedule, breaks) and instruction (lessons prepared by teachers) is a challenge for teacher, parents and students. But it is also an opportunity to shift the focus from content and tasks to goals and achievements. This will allow teachers, parents and students to develop learning plans to set priorities and keep track of students’ learning paths. The current crisis also highlights the shared responsibility for learning and how goals can be reached through collaborative problem solving.
Teachers’ expectations are predictions of future student achievement and as such have a powerful impact on students and parents. Students’ expectations guide them every step they are taking on their learning path. To help everyone involved in developing high expectations is therefore one of the most important objectives of teachers. Teachers should help students and parents to see the learning opportunities the current crisis offers and develop visions about what the child can learn that will be useful for his or her entire life. It is important to support children and parents in adopting a growth mindset, emphasising not on what the child can or cannot do, but on how he or she can learn and grow. And that these achievements are worth the effort: learning from mistakes is more effective than doing routine tasks.
One of the consequences of interrupting school-based learning is that teachers are no longer physically present to teach towards achieving intended student outcomes. Teachers are forced to communicate their expectations and intended goals to students so they are able to self-regulate their learning with the assistance of parents or others. A common understanding of expected outcomes is the starting point of any collaborative effort. Teachers need to transform their own content- oriented thinking into student-centered goals and find a way to convey the key expectations to parents and students - rather than give instructions. Rather than giving feedback on what did not work well, teachers should “feedforward” which means focusing on the development in the future, e.g. help develop learning paths, identify challenges that can be addressed and goals that are achievable.
Teachers tend to over-emphasize performance goals and to view learning as a byproduct of improved performance. The disruption of school-based learning gives teachers, parents and children an opportunity to experience that the opposite is true: Increased learning capacity is the key outcome and improved performance only one of several indicators of learning. Meaningful learning goals aim at expanding the learning activity of the student and helping students to become more independent and effective learners and problem solvers. They pick up on all aspects of the activity of learning, including learning about self and own well-being, learning about becoming a more effective goal-setter, exploring new tools and strategies and making use of unknown learning environments. Also, parents and students may well be preoccupied with other problems and may resent the fact that teaching and learning duties are handed over to them. Try to identify goals that are meaningful to students and their parents alike, for example real-life problems that they can solve together.
Because teachers’ classroom planning approach is no longer helpful, the focus needs to shift from what teachers plan to teach to what students plan to learn. Once overarching goals have been identified, working or learning plans can help synchronise activities between teachers, students and parents. Successful goal-setting includes steps and components that help achieve the goal. Consider different domains of learning (e.g. work habit goals, subject area goals, behavior goals, knowledge goals) or components of future competency when drawing up the learning plan. Encourage students to develop their own working plans, possibly together with parents as this saves time for the teacher and increases engagement of parents in learning of their children. Goal-based learning supports self-regulated learning as students can choose their learning paths, approaches and environments to reflect their current situation.
A learning plan will only guide learning if everyone is using it to support learning, not only to hold the child accountable. Formative assessment is most powerful when it guides students towards a meaningful goal. To keep track of goals and goal achievement means to make learning visible, to provide feedback so students when goals are achieved and to document learning achievements. Students can monitor their progress and if this information is shared with other students, they can provide peer feedback and contact other students to learn from their learning experiences. Learning achievements can be made visible by sharing pictures, videos, audio files or other means.
Once students are ready to learn, teachers need to decide what the student should learn. Since teachers are not physically with the students to lead them through the lesson and parents will neither have the time or qualification to become substitute teachers, the topic, competency domain or knowledge should be of immediate importance to the student. Students’ motivation to learn can only be maintained if what they learn is meaningful and relevant for them. The crisis provides plenty of opportunities to practice and improve life skills (e.g. ability to self-regulate, managing uncertainty and conflict) and for learning by doing (e.g. apply mathematics, languages, biology to everyday situations). This requires teachers to follow students rather than the other way around. Although the temptation is to simply “send” students to a learning platform or continue with the classroom plan, this will not work unless students are able and willing to focus on the content and use it as an opportunity to learn.
Students’ interests and talents are powerful drivers for learning, and especially in times of crisis, it is important to emphasize strengths and interests of students. When a subject or topic connects with the students’ interests, the engagement in learning will be much deeper and the learning outcome more meaningful. Students’ interests and talents can be explored by offering choices on what to learn. But not every student has the ability to self-regulate their learning, so for some students it may be more effective not to offer too many options, at least not in the beginning. An in-depth analysis into learning opportunities around students interests and talents can help broaden teachers’ minds about what can be learnt that is relevant to the curriculum. Asking students about how their engagement with their favourite hobby or pastime contributes to learning and the acquisition of skills and competencies in the curriculum may well increase the scope of what teachers thought possible.
All meaningful learning starts from where we are at the present moment, connects with our experiences and helps us to take a step forward in our journey across life. To respect students’ current and past experiences is a precondition for initiating meaningful learning. It is therefore important to help students understand their current situation. Learning that helps to manage and improve students’ situation will have a lasting positive impact on their lives. Learning may start with everyday situations of students and their families, like cooking, cleaning, supervising younger siblings or simply experiencing boredom or loneliness. Used to their fullest potential, these experiences promote the acquisition of many competencies relevant to the curriculum. Sometimes teachers do not see the learning opportunities beyond the classroom, so this is also an opportunity for teachers to broaden their understanding.
Self-directed learning becomes a necessity in the absence of teachers and classrooms. Especially younger children are unable to self-organize their learning and need to be guided either by teachers, parents or both. But teachers have the tendency to cut content, knowledge or topics into a series of step-by-step tasks and if students don’t understand one step, they risk not achieving the overall learning goals. The impossibility of guiding students in the same way when learning at home, may broaden the teacher's scope of how learning can be organized and help explore ways in which students choose assignments from the different subjects or areas of the curriculum. Ownership of learning is more important than refined didactical approaches, which is especially important when using learning platforms or other digital resources with predefined learning steps. Teachers should offer both, open assignments and pre-described assignments to see how students are managing. There are many paths to building skills and competencies as intended by the curriculum.
Providing meaningful learning experiences to all students seems to already expect too much of a regular teacher - who now may have many other things to worry about besides their students’ learning. Situations like the Corvid-10 crisis sends everybody into unknown territory and hopefully on a steep learning curve. And clearly at this point, facilitating meaningful learning is more important than documenting it. But when teachers prepare assignments for their students to engage in, they can do so with documentation of learning in their mind. Students can keep diaries of their learning and document their learning in a student portfolio. With student-driven approaches to documentation, teachers can save precious time to be invested in providing feedback and encouragement.
In times of crisis, there is a natural wish to know more about the current situation; the Corvid-19 crisis is also topic and knowledge domain to be explored. Students may have questions that they can use to interview their parents or teacher. Students can be encouraged to communicate with their peers and exchange information. Active listening approaches used by teachers help gain insight into children’s thinking and understanding of the current situation which can help to avoid misconceptions. Digital literacy may be one of the most prominently discussed domains of competencies linked to the current crisis, but there is much more to learn from it. Knowledge around sustainability of resources, health, economic development, biology are all important knowledge domains, both for parents and children.
Unlike in the classroom, teachers do not have control over the learning environment of their students at home. Some students may have enriched environments where they can engage in many ways of learning, while others may not even have a place to engage in quiet activities such as reading or writing. But teachers can try to help students and parents to improve available spaces, resources and interactions to create a positive learning climate. Observing students learning in a different environment can be an enlightening experience for teachers. Some students may be difficult to manage in the classroom, but thrive in a self-directed learning context, while other students who enjoyed following teacher instructions seem to be at a loss. Knowing students’ living environments will also help teachers adapt classroom assignments to where students are learning during the lockdown of schools.
Before assigning tasks to students, teachers need to find out if students have the necessary infrastructure available to them. Students need space and time to engage in learning activities, people to provide support or keep company while learning. Availability books and other learning materials, computer or other electronic devices, internet, access to a garden, terrace, cellar or workshop open up possibilities for learning. For example, sharing drawings, descriptions or photos of students’ learning space at home with teachers and other students helps students to reconnect and exchange ideas, materials and devices to make sure all students are in contact with teachers and friends. Teachers can draw from this information to help students find the best place to study in their home environment.
Physical space and available infrastructure are important, but a positive learning environment also requires supportive relationships, a sense of safety, clarity about rules, and trust. Teacher-student relationships may seem difficult to maintain, but they are more important than ever in times when students feel isolated and left alone. Peer learning and opportunities for exchanging experiences and creating collaborative learning environments should be encouraged by teachers. Teachers can provide basic information and tips to parents on how to create positive learning environments for their children.
Any environment offers learning opportunities, but teachers may need to think outside the box of traditional classroom instruction. Physics, chemistry and biology experiments can be carried out in kitchens and bathrooms, cooking offers opportunities for mathematics and reading, Problems encountered in daily living can be explored, addressed and solved. Student activities like playing video games can be reflected upon and used for learning, for example by preparing a presentation on the students favorite video game. Routines and habits can be reflected upon, shared with other students via available communication channels. Tips and tricks to improve one’s home environment, learning to collaborate with family members and manage stressful situations all contribute towards learning. Students may take over the role of the teacher and develop tasks or assignments for other students to choose from.
Assignments developed for the classroom do not necessarily work in a home environment. Written instead of oral instructions can easily confuse students or lead to misunderstandings. Uncertainty will arise when teachers present assignments through different media or communication channels. Some students may benefit from short video demonstrations or instructions or an audio message. Assignments that substitute classroom learning cannot be compared to “homework” that is meant to enrich or repeat learning. Using the principles of Universal Design for Learning can help teachers to adapt learning to student needs at home and help students use their home environment in the best way possible.
Digital learning is a complex learning activity and to be meaningful, digital content, tools and learning environments have to be aligned with overall learning objectives. If teachers seek to promote collaborative learning, tools used have to allow for that. If teachers want to ensure that all students are able to use digital learning effectively, they need to help students understand how digital learning environments are different from classroom or home environments. Some students may frequently use social media and easily manage communication tools, but still be unable to use these tools as part of a learning environment. Digital skills should not be mistaken for digital literacy or the competence to use digital content, tools and platforms successfully.
Tools that are available and easy to use in the classroom may not be available or helpful to support learning at home. For example, even if a computer is part of the home environment, children may not be able to access or use them. Students may or may not be able to use textbooks at home and lack of reading skills may create additional barriers. But rather than feeling blocked and giving up, students should be encouraged to explore using tools that were previously unknown to them. The uncertainty of not knowing what works is an opportunity to try out without fearing failure. Students can successfully try out new ways of practicing, of representing ideas or of developing products that show their skills.
Means and tools able to ensure easy communication are of key importance for learning at a distance. Some teachers may have established communication channels with parents before the Corvid-19 crisis and are able to use these to keep in touch. For other teachers, this is an opportunity to find ways to communicate with parents and students that works for everyone involved. Cultural acceptability, local customs and availability of communication devices will be critical in deciding about which communication channels are adequate. Teachers may take advantage of the intensified need to communicate at a distance to support students communication skills or by making communication a subject of study. New modes of communication can be tested, like home-school messaging or a file sharing system to provide students and parents with easy access to learning materials, instructions or checklists.
When thinking of tools to support learning at a distance, teachers may only think of computers, software programs and applications. Sending a letter or card by postal mail, dropping assignments in designated boxes to be picked up and returned, distributing pens and papers to students are simple ways of enabling learning at a distance. Teachers need to take the students’ perspective to try to find out how their learning can best be supported. Some children may need to learn more about self-regulation skills and strategies, others may need to improve their learning strategies. Simple checklists and lists with learning tricks may help students to become better learners. Tools have to be fit-for-purpose and easy to use. It may not always be easy - neither for teachers, parents nor students - to gain clarity about the advantage of using digital tools. Important learning time will be lost if students use inadequate materials and e-tools that are limiting rather than expanding learning.
Collaborative learning is a powerful tool to enhance learning for all participating students. Students can work collaboratively on the same project or product, while acquiring diverse skills and competencies, benefiting from the strengths of other students and acquiring social skills at the same time.
Which tools are used for collaborative learning depends on the age of students and availability of communication devices to share their questions, insights and developing their product.
Some digital tools are simple to use, but are not designed to support more complex learning, while other tools allow for complexity, but are too difficult to be used by students without support. Another problem is that rather than using a tool to learn, students solely focus on how to manage the tool. Online learning platforms and online information resources like Wikipedia are potentially great tools for learning, but they can also be barriers to learning. Teachers should not assume that students who know how to find information on the internet are also able to engage in deep online learning experiences. Teachers may need to invest time to develop digital literacy, the ability to use information and communication technologies for learning.
Parents can be wonderful facilitators of learning, but they may also create unnecessary barriers, for example when teaching their children in ways they were taught in school many years ago. Parents may focus more on completing concrete tasks and become inpatient with their children when they are not performing at the expected levels. It is important to share thoughts on how to best support students and provide parents and students with methods or approaches to guide and evaluate learning (for example by giving adequate feedback). Parents can be introduced to learning tools, scaffolding methods and effective ways of asking questions. If there are several children in the family, parents can be helped to create meaningful learning situations for mixed-age groups of children. Again, simple checklists or tools can be helpful for parents who would like to support their child, but do not know how.