Version prepared for May 20 Workshop (includes Part 2).
The current Corvid-19 crisis highlights the issues and challenges of transitioning from the home to the school environment under complex and potentially threatening circumstances. As countries are reopening the schools after the lockdown, teachers are in a difficult position. They need to welcome all students back to school without really knowing what they experienced at home during the last weeks or months. Have all children received emotional support when they were scared and lonely? Were they able to maintain learning at a level necessary to participate again in classroom learning? An additional worry is the implementation of state regulations to keep students safe and minimise the still partially unknown risk of transmission between students and students and students and teachers. Furthermore schools may be confronted with parents who think it is not safe to send their children back to school, while others are of the opinion that schools are too slow to return to the regular schedule.
While the disruption of formal education is a unique situation for most children, for some it is a permanent threat or a repeated experience. Many disadvantaged families and vulnerable children experience anxiety and expect problems when thinking about formal schooling. The gaps between home and school life seem insurmountable, children experience a sense of inadequacy, alienation and insecurity as they transition between the two estranged social worlds. Either the family and school environment or both are unable to convey a sense of security, of being effectively involved, or of belonging. Families with a non-mainstream lifestyle, belonging to a ethnic minority or living in poverty may be unable to foster a positive identity that helps children overcome social adjustment difficulties. Children willing to adjust to school life and actively participate in learning are confronted with discrepancies between home and school culture, often leading to identity conflicts.
The weeks and months of transition between lockdown and regular schooling in the classroom are full of uncertainties. Nobody really knows how to best proceed, which practices are safe and which regulations are really necessary. Conspiracy theories, prejudices and irrational beliefs creep in and fuel distrust that may have been latently present before the crisis. Decisions taken by governments and school authorities are scrutinized and questioned to an unprecedented degree. A culture of distrust, alienation and exclusion is potentially threatening the relationship between parents, teachers and students. The crisis has exacerbated many challenges that teachers and parents were struggling with already before, for example lack of adequate support or the ability to self-manage of students. A latent sense of failure of being unable to provide necessary resources for learning may now be exposed by the crisis.
The current Corvid-19 crisis may be a serious threat to quality education for all children, but it is also an opportunity. The crisis has highlighted the need for collaboration and coordination between institutions and individuals. We have experienced that we all have to take responsibility for our own behavior and respect the safety needs of others. Education is not just a cognitive, it is also a social process. Parents, students and teachers alike may experience guilt for not having been able to fulfill one's duties or life up to one's ideals. It is easy to look for someone else to blame for things that have gone wrong. But we all have the choice to try to understand the other’s social reality, respect it and build bridges between home and school, between what was and what will be. There are some key issues that need to be addressed and resolved in transitional phase between lockdown and establishing regular education in the classroom:
Ministries, local authorities and teachers are under pressure to evaluate the learning lag and gaps. Future employers and institutions of higher education are worried that students will not meet their quality standards due to the loss of learning opportunities during the Corvid-19 crisis. The impulse to test children should be restrained where ever possible, at least for younger students and vulnerable students. Before testing, students need to be welcomed back to school and re-establish the sense of belonging and participation.
Times of transition are critical for student well-being and ability to engage fully. The discontinuity between home and school experiences are difficult to overcome, even in the best of circumstances. Teachers need to be prepared to manage a broad range of emotions from happiness and relief to come back to the classroom to anxiety, desperation and guilt. Some children may fear the questions of teachers or peers about how they spent their time. Some children may have not moved much for the time of the lockdown, may have eaten too much, may have gone through traumatic experiences: Younger children may not have fully understood why they were denied access to people they loved and outdoor activities. The primary challenge now is not to assess learning and categorize children into successful and failing students, but to first ensure that all children feel welcomed and valued independently of how what they learnt or did not learn during shutdown. The following questions will help you to achieve this:
Anticipating that some students will encounter difficulties is an important part of getting ready to welcome children back to school. Vulnerable children and children struggling with learning before the lockdown will be at risk of not being able to come back to school, either physically or emotionally or both. Especially for vulnerable children and their families, it is important to ensure positive transition experiences. Teachers may need to initiate the transition process weeks before the first day back in school. It may be important to not only do a needs assessment, but also a risk assessment to understand the situation of vulnerable children.
Families will have spent many weeks together with their children once schools open again. They may look forward to sending their children to school again, or they may be afraid of exposing their child to unnecessary risk. They may hold plans not to send their child back to school, or they may encounter logistical difficulties if schools start with a half day regime to keep the groups of children small. The transition process requires preparation, transfer, induction and consolidation. Adopting a child-centered approach will help families to put their child’s best interests at the centre and develop a shared vision and strategy with the school.
Especially vulnerable children are now at risk of dropping out or being left behind, especially if schools set performance criteria against which students are assessed. Testing may be done with the best intentions to identify children lagging behind, but children who fail to fulfill performance expectations will feel rejected. Children first need to feel accepted and recognized as having value and being respected simply for who they are and not for how well they are able to perform. A positive feeling about one’s own identity is needed to engage in learning. Teachers do not need to love all their students, but they need to respect them. All children have the right to develop their talents and potentials - whether they filfill the teachers’ expectations of a good student or not.
Students may have experienced much uncertainty during lockdown and may have been confronted with stress, illness or even the death of loved ones. Not knowing what awaits them, they may be afraid of returning to school, especially if security measures have been put in place. There may be many questions, but it may well be that students don’t want to talk about their feelings. They simply want to return to the school life they were used to prior to the crisis. Some students may express their uncertainty through anger and aggression, others may withdraw. By anticipating difficulties and planning ahead, teachers can prepare for different reactions, stay calm and project confidence, clarity and calmness when their students need it the most. The teacher can help students to focus on what they can control rather than on what they cannot control.
For some students, the challenges they face when back in school may seem almost insurmountable. Conflicts with other students, performance gaps or the fear of failing are brought back to the classroom. Children may again feel the difficulties of bridging contradictory expectations by parents and teachers or a general sense of helplessness. The feeling that everything remains the same and nothing can be done to make schooling more meaningful will soon give away to misbehavior, truancy and underachievement. The key to ensuring engagement is intrinsic motivation. Students must feel that they have a degree of control over what they do (autonomy), that they feel capable of successfully completing an assignment (competence) and they must feel connected to others and cared for by others (relatedness). But most importantly, they must perceive what they do as interesting or purposeful. Tapping into student leadership potential is an effective way to transform a passive, disengaged consumer into a partner in a learning community.
Participation means being engaged emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally in meaningful learning. After weeks of disruption of school life, most children may simply want to return to their previous routines, see their friends and enjoy their favorite school activities. Teachers will feel much the same way. But both teachers and students will find the school environment changed, classroom routines disrupted and friendships changed due imposed restrictions during lockdown and beyond. Some students might have longed to come back to schools, while others would have preferred to never return. Rather than immediately focus on academic learning and push forward to reach the achievement goals set out in the curriculum, it may be worthwhile to spend time to achieve full participation of all children. Children may have experienced crises or may have been exposed to violence and first need to feel safe and welcomed again. Others may have enjoyed the autonomy and resent limitations placed upon them in the classroom. Children will have acquired their own rhythm of learning and followed their own schedule. It will take some time to bring all these experiences together and this should be the primary goal in the days and weeks after returning to school.
Especially in uncertain times after the lockdown, it is paramount that children feel safe and welcome. The new rules, different modes of interacting and restrictions on personal freedom children may feel estranged from their teachers and peers. Reflecting on the three components of participation (belonging, autonomy, competence), teachers need to ensure that students have opportunity to express their fears, develop a sense of autonomy in navigating the new situation and know how they should behave to comply with new rules. There may be a need to create smaller groups of children to meet government regulations related to Corvid-19 arrangements. Students may be afraid of getting infected and passing on the disease to high-risk group members in their family without knowing. Welcoming students back to school should be celebrated and marked as an enjoyable experience. The communication of new rules should exude the spirit of “we can do this together for all of us”. Teachers should try to check for non-verbal signs to identify children who do not feel safe in the classroom.
Once students feel comfortable and safe, improving participation should be the main goal and objective of teachers. A sense of competence ist strengthened by clear instructions, clear expectations and the announcement of clear consequences. Teachers should make sure to let the children know that having missed out on learning does not lead to being excluded from classroom learning, on to the contrary, an extra effort will be made by everyone to leave no child behind. Some students may need more guidance in structuring complex tasks while others will need more autonomy to explore their own learning paths. Creating opportunities where students can lead activities and assume responsibility for their learning and the learning of their peers helps to bring in students’ interests and preferences. Belonging or relatedness is achieved by engaging students emotionally by valuing their contributions. To connect as a teacher to what is valued by the children and their families is an important entry point to expand the capabilities of the child.
Teachers who are confident also help students build confidence. Teachers who believe in their ability to reach and teach all children are an important role model for children that may have lost their confidence and do not longer trust their own ability to learn. Regular feedback that appraises student’s work and activities rather than the students themselves provides guidance necessary to become confident. Setting attainable but challenging goals and encourage students to move forward on their learning path. Students who may have fallen back in their learning may be discouraged when comparing themselves with other students. Personal learning goals that are meaningful for students will help to focus on learning rather than becoming discouraged. Engaging students in learning that achieves positive self-image is the precondition for self-confidence.
The Corvid-19 crisis or any other event resulting in a prolonged student absence bears the risk of disrupting learning. Back in school, students may be distracted and encounter difficulties to adjust to classroom learning. Teachers can help students to adopt a broader perspective by providing occasions to highlight the months before absence and remind them of all they have learnt and experienced together. Teachers may use viualizations like drawings or mind-maps to put the crisis in perspective of a student’s school career to enable them to look forward and feel confident in their learning. Teachers may suggest for students to imagine themselves looking back at the present time in two years.
Learning is a social process that requires the active participation of each learner. The Corvid-19 crisis has disrupted the relationships between students. Teachers should plan to celebrate being together again and invest in relationship-building - of course within the restrictions imposed by the current crisis. When students are back in school is the best time to foster communities of learning and to initiate a new approach to learning as a participatory experience where learning from other students is given more emphasis. Working collaboratively can be a strong motivation for students to achieve the best results. In addition it frees valuable teacher time to provide targeted support to students in need of special attention.
Teachers may be tempted to directly focus on curricular learning and try to catch up to ensure graduation or good test results in the final exams. Such a strategy would likely lead to a big proportion of students feeling overwhelmed, inadequate and fearful of their future. Although it is not fully in the authority of teachers to allow students first to come back to school, overcome possible traumatic experiences, familiarize themselves with the new rules and regulations, teachers should try to accommodate students' needs as much as possible. Students have their entire life to catch up on what they have missed in the last few months, but if they are treated like problems, they will feel disempowered. The uncertainty of qualification needs to be addressed, but with the students’ best interests at the center of all considerations. Focus on resolving conflicts, strengthening emotional resilience and ensuring participation should be at the center of teaching when students return to the classroom.
Teachers need to not only adjust the classroom environment and routines, they also have to teach students about how to change their own behavior to keep everyone safe. Especially younger students will have a hard time keeping the necessary distance to their friends and remembering the new routines. Parents may be afraid of sending their students back to school, therefore it is important to inform both parents and children about the security measures put in place and to explain the rationale behind alterations to the school routines. Security measures are in place to keep everyone safe; the emphasis should be on collective responsibility for the wellbeing of everyone. Students should be encouraged to ask questions and teachers should answer as best as they can, and clearly indicate where knowledge is not yet available. The Corvid-19 crisis is an opportunity to foster an inquisitive and experimental approach to problems and to illustrate the construction of knowledge by bringing experiences from different people and countries together.
Emotional competence is essential for successful learning in the classroom. It is about the ability to recognize, understand and respond to emotions of oneself and others. Self-regulation of emotions is a key component of successful learning. To assume the perspective of others helps develop empathy and respect. Vulnerable children are at a greater risk of not being able to express themselves, to overcome traumatic events or the manage stress experienced in school and at home. To foster positive emotions by building a sense of pride and belonging within the school can help overcome difficult situations at home.
For the continuity of learning it is important to reflect on children’s experiences during lockdown and to make sure students fully understand the reasons for the closing of schools. By encouraging students to share their experiences they engage in self-reflection about what helped them to learn and in which situations learning was difficult. Teachers can help students to find a closure to difficult experiences while cherishing good experiences and learning from them for the future. Students need to know more about what they experienced and this can be a great opportunity to motivate them and encourage them to keep learning. By sharing their experiences and how they overcame their insecurities and uncertainties, teachers and parents can become powerful role models.
Teachers need to know what their students have or have not learnt during lockdown. Assessment of learning is broader than testing students against performance standards. Rather than focusing on what students have not learnt, the assessment practice should focus on what students have learnt. Assessing learning needs to go beyond the content of the curriculum or the performance level expected of students at a certain grade level. The focus should be on what students need to learn next, not what students have learnt in the past. Students should be given the opportunity to reflect on their learning through self and peer assessment to decide on what their next learning should be. The focus should be on competencies to solve problems rather than getting the right answer. Students should be encouraged to consider cross-curricular competencies, competencies that support learning, like learning habits, self-regulation skills or communication skills. Students may have developed creative approaches to learning by using digital learning environments or other digital resources.
Traditional classroom learning is built on the premise that all students acquire all skills at the same speed and at the same time. With this expectation, teachers will find it difficult to adjust to the increased diversity of skills, learning styles and preferences to become engaged in learning. Teachers may try to pinpoint problems that certain students have and thereby spending much of time that does not contribute to learning. Diverse groups of learners have a high potential of creating new knowledge and deeper understanding. Mistakes create valuable opportunities to develop a deeper understanding and critical thinking. Each student has strengths and talents with the potential of being powerful drivers of learning. This requires a deeper understanding of the learners than provided by performance tests. It also requires the willingness and understanding of teachers to create rich, engaging and motivating learning opportunities for all students, not only for the top 20 percent of students.
There is no shortcut to curricular learning if more basic learning needs are not addressed. Children should be encouraged to engage in learning activities that are meaningful to them. Competences in mathematics can be developed by analyzing results of horse races or football scores just as well as going through the math assignments in the worksheet prepared by the teacher. Good teachers are able to understand the essence of what needs to be learnt and understood and present the problem in a way that students can relate to. In addition, students may have engaged in complex problem solving during lockdown without understanding the linkages to the objectives of the curriculum. Preparing a complex meal, mediating between quarreling siblings, or sticking with a long-term project like completing a 1500 piece puzzle are great achievements that can easily be linked to competencies defined in the curriculum. To highlight and celebrate these achievements is a recognition of student learning and should be used as the foundation upon which to build future learning.
Students will have had many opportunities to use electronic media and digital tools. Being able to operate these tools should not be mistaken with digital competency. Digital literacy implies the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create and communicate information and knowledge. It requires technical, cognitive, emotional and social skills. Advanced digital literacy also means that students are able to use complex learning environments online to advance their learning and understanding. Internationally, there are several competency frameworks that could be used to assess and promote digital competence, or such a framework may also exist at country or school levels.
During lockdown, teachers, parents and students were forced to explore, use or develop new learning environments. Learning spaces were expanded to homes, cyberspace, neighborhoods, depending on the specific lockdown regulations in a country. New environments have been discovered for learning, some may be even more attractive and more supportive of self-directed learning. Teachers, students and parents had to explore new ways of structuring learning and interacting with each other. Some children may have even thrived in homeschooling and benefited from learning environments adapted to their specific needs, while others may have experienced learning difficulties in a disruptive or even hostile environment. Teachers may have a strong impulse to simply go back to their former teaching habits. This would be a great opportunity missed. They should try to combine “the best of both worlds” and thereby ease the transition from home to school environments.
Teachers and schools need to prepare the reopening of schools well in advance to ensure they are able to create a safe environment for students and teachers. A whole school approach is needed to develop a coherent set of rules and adjustments within the existing state safety regulations. Some teachers and students may be part of a high-risk group and will require special protection. A comprehensive protection framework needs to be developed that takes all spaces and activities into consideration. Rules and adjustments need to be reasonable and enforceable and children need to be able to understand them. Vulnerable children may need special attention, for example students that receive school meals, using transportation services or may be at higher risk for bullying. Once students are back in school, it is important to carefully plan the first week to ensure children understand and are able and willing to follow the new routines.
Students may have spent weeks at home with very little contact to the outside world. In the best of cases, teachers were in constant contact with families and children, ensuring that children learn and are not feeling overwhelmed or isolated. If teachers for some reasons have lost sight of some of their students, this needs to be addressed before children return to school. Teachers and parents should discuss potential difficulties that the child may encounter and teachers may initiate student-student contact if possible while students are still at home. The discontinuity between learning at home and in the classroom should be discussed, also the modalities of restarting classroom learning. Some countries may start with smaller groups, two shifts or using new spaces for learning to comply with state regulations. This may create additional problems for parents with several children. Schools should consider offering child care outside teaching hours to ease the situation of parents who have to go back to work themselves.
Homeschooling by parents may have been challenging, raising the esteem for the professional work of teachers and giving parents a deeper insight into problematic learning habits of their children. Many teachers on the other hand may have been confronted with staying at home with their children and experiencing the difficulties of learning at home. Extra-curricular activities may have been discovered as successful learning opportunities and both teachers’ and parents’ understanding of learning may have broadened and deepened during the weeks away from the classroom. Digital learning environments and digital communication channels may have been established that can be used now to create a learning ecosystem that reaches way beyond the classroom. This new learning and communication ecosystem should be maintained and cultivated as an enrichment of classroom learning. Teachers may use these experiences to build new or stronger partnerships with support systems, e.g. resource centers or specialists to create a coherent learning environment for all students.
Digital learning and using computers, TV or other media is generally attractive to students. For children with hearing impairments or attention problems, personalized learning with the use of adapted devices may have worked better for them than traditional teaching methods. Some students may find it difficult to leave the digital world behind and return to traditional classroom teaching and learning approaches. Rather than seeing this as a problem, teachers should grasp this opportunity and find out more about what works for which student and how digital learning can enrich classroom practices. Students might be invited to a show and tell session where they bring their devices and explain to other students and the teachers why they worked for them (or not), what they specifically liked about using these devices and where in the digital world they found the most useful resources for learning. Teachers should talk to students about successful strategies to identify information, gain insights, evaluate the quality of the information and use online resources for learning. Good practices developed by students should be implemented in the classroom.
One experience that most students will have missed during the weeks at home will be the interaction and collaboration with their teacher and the other students. Despite the safety measures and the physical distance that will most likely be respected during the coming weeks or months, students should be encouraged to learn from each other, develop positive relationships and help create a collaborative learning environment. A welcoming, inclusive and inviting learning environment for all is essential for the trust, confidence and sense of belonging necessary to learn without fear of failing.
Electronic tools and digital devices may have easily dominated the lives of many teachers, parents and students while working or learning in “home office”. In the absence of adequate tools, all participants may have had to improvise and find alternative solutions. The “how” to learn may well have been the primary concern, and looking back many will realise that they were on a steep learning curve. New ways to communicate may have been explored and established. It would be a waste of time and effort, if workable modes of learning and communication were not to be transferred and reestablished in the classroom. But some teachers, parents or students may have struggled during these weeks to access learning materials, possibly due to lack of digital learning tools or because families and teachers were unable to remain in contact and address these issues. Communication problems that already existed before the lockdown may now stand out as critical problems that need to be resolved.
Given the current situation, schools need to develop a transition plan, especially if schools do not immediately resume their schedules and all activities. The needs of parents and students need consideration as some may be in precarious situations, especially if children remain at home unattended for extended periods of time. Even if parents and teachers had little contact before the lockdown, there is a need now to find out how students are and what they need. Existing communication channels should be used and possibly new ones established to remain in close contact during the transition phase. Although not all existing problems can be resolved immediately, it is important to share information proactively, and share the uncertainty of the child’s future learning rather than blame each other. Everyone involved should restrain themselves from asking for quick solutions at the cost of one party or the other. And most of all, students should not be blamed or be put at a disadvantage simply because they did not have adequate opportunities to learn.
Students’ ability to self-regulate, to not give up when encountering difficulties and to reflect upon their learning strategies is a key competency of any successful learner. Adjusting to change is important, as is handling frustration or maintaining calm when encountering problems. These skills can be learnt or even may have been developed by students during the self-learning process at home. Teachers often think that students need to bring these skills to school rather than consider it their responsibility to help students acquire the necessary strategies and mental tools. Managing stressful situations, regulating one’s emotions and adopting positive learning is supported by classroom rules that are developed through a participatory process together with the students. If emotions become barriers to learning, children may need psycho-social support, but teachers can assist students to use mental tools to regulate emotions and fears. Incorporating movement and allowing children to take short breaks has a positive effect on self-regulation skills.
Left on their own, some students may have developed unusual, but effective strategies to overcome barriers, manage lack of motivation, disruption of learning, use of electronic devices and other ways of learning that teachers simply never think of. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn from your students and have other students try out the same methods. Reflecting on learning strategies applied during lockdown and evaluating their effectiveness is an important component of becoming a more effective learner.
Most children will have used some electronic devices of digital tools during lockdown. If children used these tools successfully, teachers should consider allowing students to keep using these devices. Some schools may even have a policy of “bringing your own device”, especially if schools cannot afford to provide these tools to all students. In any case, teachers should consider the continued use of digital tools in their classrooms and expand on learning opportunities available to all students. Teachers may develop a concept of blended learning based on experiences made and shared by students and parents. Integrating technology in the classroom will also give disadvantaged students an opportunity to familiarize themselves with online learning and benefit from the knowledge and experiences acquired during lockdown. If the school is unable to buy the necessary equipment, it may engage in some fundraising activities. Before doing so, inquiries need to be made whether such an initiative is welcomed by the education authorities and parents.
Assessing learning is only the first step to support students individually and help them along their learning path. Diversity of learning requires innovative ways of teaching and learning, similar to ways in which students learned at home. Teachers and students may have even established new routines to provide feedback and support the next learning activities.Some teachers may have developed workable systems to keep track of all students which they could share with colleagues to implement as a permanent system to be used even in the classroom. Such tools are important as they allow teachers to overview self-directed student learning. A procedure may be developed following the experiences during homeschooling to define meaningful broad learning goals, set milestones such as first collecting information, then developing a project plan that makes learning visible and define the concrete outcomes or products against which success can be measured.