Version prepared for June 3rd Workshop (includes Part 3).
The Corvid-19 crisis has affected the lives of everyone who resides in a country hit by the pandemic. Nobody really knows what the long-term effects will be in terms of economic, social and educational costs. There is a fear of a second wave and some restrictions around freedom of movement and freedom of assembly are likely to remain in place for some time. Social distancing and hygiene measures must still be observed and public places have to prove that they are able to protect people. Countries need to balance the need to protect human lives with the prevention of economic, social and educational disruptions and the respect for human rights. In times of crisis and uncertainty, social and educational systems need to ensure continuity of services, while at the same time being under stress and experiencing shortage of staff. Vulnerable groups and marginalized populations require special protection as they might be more acutely impacted by the illness or its secondary effects. Concerns expand to the communities in which children live, requiring coordination and communication between schools and community representatives.
Experiencing stress and uncertainty while trying to settle down in an unwelcoming classroom with new rules to adhere to, physically separated from friends, teachers distancing themselves from students; this is a new experience for many students. But for some children, experiencing social distance in school is a permanent concern. Children with disabilities or disadvantaged family backgrounds share the experience of being treated as a potential threat to the wellbeing of other students. Parents and teachers fear that they have a negative impact on overall achievement levels of the class and a bad influence on other students’ behaviours and attitudes. Their social position at home and in school is often precarious and if problems arise, they are the first to be identified as being the cause. In the best of times, these children have a higher risk of being exposed to mental health problems, domestic violence, economic and social deprivation. In times of crisis, they are the first to experience marginalization or even exclusion. For example, Roma settlements across Europe were hard hit by the Corona virus because of cramped living conditions, limited access to information and health services. Many were put under quarantine during the Corvid-19 crisis, some used as scapegoats. This could easily happen again if infection rates are rising once more.
The Corvid-19 crisis has worked like a magnifying glass on the shortcomings of societies: digital and socioeconomic divides, the lack of basic services for vulnerable populations and the precarious life situation of undocumented migrants or refugees. But it has also put a spotlight on pro-social behavior where neighbors spontaneously organized support to help the vulnerable. Many schools and teachers reached out to their students beyond their duties to make sure they had food and kept learning. They experienced the healing power of relationships and the helplessness that spreads in the absence of such relationships. Teachers thought of alternative ways to reach their students and tried out approaches they would have never considered before. Many schools took a leap to innovate teaching and learning that they never thought possible. To get children to learn at all became more important than insisting on a specific task to be completed at a specific time. Formative assessment took priority over exams and teachers started to look for learning opportunities readily available in the children’s living environment. In other words, teachers were forced to recognize the diversity of situations of their students and tried to make the best of it. They sowed the seeds of inclusive education.
Traditional education is not geared towards managing diversity, rather the contrary is true. Education systems are designed to provide schooling to homogeneous groups. The underlying premise is that teaching the same content at the same time only works if children are of the same age, at the same level of expertise and knowledge and able to learn at the same speed. This may be an efficient way of teaching basic reading and writing skills by teachers with very limited training in classrooms with fifty or more children, but it is certainly not the best way of learning. Standardized teaching methods led to the exclusion of children unable to adjust to this regime and the rise of special programmes and special schools. Due to the Corvid-19 crisis, the diversity of achievement levels is likely to increase. Education systems may be tempted to build up more special services to cater to the learning needs of children identified as “special”: children with disabilities, children with mental health problems, low-achieving children, Roma children, migrant or refugee children. Or they may seize the opportunity and increase teacher capacity to teach diverse groups of children. Inclusive, fair and high quality education systems are outperforming segregated education systems around the world. But inclusive education systems are only successful if they adopt a learner-centred approach:
During the Corvid-19 crisis, many countries, ministries, schools and teachers have taken decisions against segregation, for example by abstaining from grading and allowing all students to go on to the next grade. In the absence of a classroom, teachers were forced to think from the perspective of their students.They started to develop individual learning plans for all students and developed a new understanding of how to best support students in their learning. They gained insights into families and situations as never before and witnessed how the presence or absence of support affected student motivation and learning. Teachers may have been surprised by watching some children thrive and benefit from distance learning. In short, teachers started to experience learning together with their students. And this is exactly where designing personalized learning pathways needs to start from: the students' learning situation.
When designing personalized learning pathways, the learner is at the centre. Every learner is unique, with a unique potential to learn, unique talents and with a unique contribution to make towards the learning of others. Personalizing learning does not mean that students work on their own or in isolation, it means that every learner is perceived as a unique contributor to a community of learners. But learning is not possible unless children and young people believe that they are able to learn and that their contribution is valued. A positive identity, resilience to overcome difficulties and a sense of agency provide students with the necessary strength to tackle the uncharted challenges of learning. The following questions will help you to foster these characteristics in your students:
Resilience is the ability to manage stressful experiences, deal with adversity and thrive in the face of change. It is the ability to recover from traumatic events and grow in the process. Resilience is not inborn, resilience is built through reliable relationships that provide support and convey trust in the capabilities of the child to overcome difficult situations. Resilient children will bounce back from the disruption caused by Corvid-19 and continue to learn. A sense of connectedness or belonging is an important protective factor and contributes towards resilience. Social and emotional learning helps students develop self-awareness, self-management as well as social awareness, all are critical to develop resilience.
Due to the Corvid-19 crisis, teachers have been exposed to their students’ home environment and family situation like never before. They may have gained new insights into the way children live, their parents’ expectations and the support students have received or not received during lockdown. They may have gained a glimpse into the conflicts children are exposed to when trying to bridge the different cultures at home and in school. Positive identity development is key to becoming a confident learner. Especially children from minority backgrounds or children with disabilities are struggling to conform to rigid group norms and expectations. Teachers who are emphatic of students’ conflicts around their identities can make all the difference by acknowledging the huge effort required by students to keep a balance between where they come from and what is expected of them in school. Teachers should support students to express themselves, rather than repress their thoughts, impulses and ideas. Whatever they are, students’ current sense of self marks the beginning of the journey into broadening their horizons and acquiring new knowledge.
Students cannot become active, confident learners unless they believe that through learning they can transform themselves for the better. As long as students believe that their family background, their disability, or their lack of intelligence is their destiny, such beliefs will impede their learning. Not only students but also teachers may hold such views about their students. Fixed mindsets trigger self-fulfilling prophecies: beliefs that children with low intelligence are not able to learn leads to low teacher expectations which is expressed in setting low goals, less challenging assignments and little effort by teachers to guide students through difficulties. Adopting a growth mindset means believing that effort is more important than outcome and that mistakes are an opportunity for learning rather than a reason to feel ashamed. Mindsets can be explored with children by talking about the nature of intelligence, knowledge and learning.
As mentioned earlier, expectations are powerful predictors of the future because they subtly influence our interactions with others. Students’ causal attributions of why they do or do not learn successfully in school have a direct impact on their achievement. Optimism or pessimism about students’ own future achievements are significant factors. Pessimistic explanations see the causes of current troubles as permanent, pervasive and personal, while optimistic explanations focus on temporary, specific and changeable causes. Teachers and parents may hold the same pessimistic view thus making it practically impossible for the child to be optimistic about their learning. Optimism is learnable if teachers help students understand and reframe pessimistic explanations.
Personalized paths will only work for students who are able to actively engage in and regulate their own learning. Students need to be encouraged to ask questions, compare previously acquired knowledge with new knowledge and exchange ideas with others to deepen their understanding. Active learners engage emotionally, cognitively and socially and take responsibility for their own learning by critically reflecting on what they have learned or where they are in need of support or instruction. To be an active learner, children must do more than just listen. While out of school during lockdown, some students may well have developed into active learners. Other students should be helped to benefit from their experiences.
The purpose of education is to help students continue successfully on the path of lifelong learning, to become responsible and contributing citizens and last but not least, to become themselves. The Corvid-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of resourcefulness, flexibility, social and emotional competences as well as the ability to problem solve. The crisis has reminded us of the importance to respect other people’s private space while at the same time standing together as a community. The crisis has also raised questions about how to prepare children for an uncertain future. What do children need to learn now to be able to make the best of their lives in the future? Surely they need to feel basically good about themselves, get along with others, feel like they belong to a supportive community and that they are able to contribute to what matters to them and others. Teachers should support this process by helping students develop not only skills and competences but also a sense of agency. The following questions may be helpful to explore key issues:
Every person can become their best self, but they cannot become someone else. The Corvid-19 crisis has questioned much that we had taken for granted. The uncertainties ahead of us now are quite substantial, as is the future of students. So how can we support children to become themselves and become effective contributors to society if there is no way of knowing what the future will hold? We can safely say that students will fare better if they are empowered, self-reliant and able to make the right choices. Teachers can support these qualities by providing students with opportunities to try out different social positions, develop mindfulness, learn to see things from different perspectives and explore the world around them.
Being able to get along with others and to collaborate when exploring uncharted territory, are without doubt key capabilities to tackle the challenges of the future. Collaboration amongst students to support learning seems counterintuitive to many teachers. They believe that group work holds good students back and does not provide weak students with the necessary professional guidance. And they suspect some students of cheating and benefiting from the work of others. Contrary to these beliefs, students learn best in learning environments where collaboration is encouraged and all students are able to contribute towards problem solving. There is not one specific method or strategy to be implemented here, it is about enabling all students to be actively engaged and have a voice in what happens in the classroom.
A strength-based approach seeks to develop and support existing strengths and capabilities as opposed to focusing on problems, concerns or deficits. It separates problems from the person and seeks to strengthen students to enable them to overcome existing problems. Talents are special sensitivities or aptitudes to develop expertise in domains where children experience a sense of enjoyment, of total immersion in a task that makes time seem to fly by. Traditionally schools only provide special programs to expand talents when they coincide with key curricular content and goals. Only good students are believed to be talented and other students are denied exploration opportunities. Teachers need to actively look for moments when students experience a sense of “flow”, inspiring them to develop a vision of where this feeling could take them and what they might achieve in the future. Family members or close friends are often the ones who see the potential of a student long before teachers do. With a vision of what one wants to become, the hardship of learning seems that much lighter.
Children learn through action, by being engaged in experiences and by interacting with people. But how can teachers support students to do all of this more effectively? By putting learning at the center of teaching rather than achievement, teachers shift student attention towards their ability to learn. Teachers explicitly talk to students about learning strategies and what it means to be an effective learner. Learning is not a side product of good performance, it is rather the other way around: performance may be an indicator of learning, but it does not necessarily prove that a student is a good learner. Effective learners are intrinsically motivated to explore, critically monitor their own learning behavior and are able to manage frustration, lack of motivation and seek help when needed. Teachers can support students to develop agency, to assume responsibility for their own learning and to take initiative rather than feel helpless.
One of the most important outcomes of education is students able to learn on their own in preparation for lifelong learning. Helping students to develop interest in learning, to assume responsibility and ownership of their learning as well as to set high, but realistic goals are necessary ingredients for children to remain active learners beyond their time in school. Without positive expectations of what they can achieve, students are unable to self-regulate their learning. Low expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies and create vicious circles that are hard to escape. When students are actively involved in goal setting, they become partners in learning, knowing and understanding what is expected of them. Teachers may have to assist students in breaking down broad students’ goals into realistic steps. For example becoming an actor depends on a person’s ability to read the script of a movie and memorize it. And to be able to do this in the future, it is important to now learn how knowledge can be best memorized. To transform long-term goals into mid-term goals and illustrate how the current assignment contributes towards them, gives meaning to daily chores and helps students to think about their own learning goals.
The curriculum is there to facilitate student learning, not the other way around. It is for this reason that today’s curricula around the world are competency-based; they put the students’ learning at the centre of teachers’ attention. A competency-based curriculum should be flexible enough to allow students to learn at their own pace, but with clear indicators of what they should have learnt by the end of their schooling or when transitioning to higher levels of education. By focussing on competencies rather than on student performance, students are given the opportunity to express their abilities in different ways. The concept of competency includes cross-curricular components and reflects the ability to solve problems rather than to reproduce knowledge. With the world changing at an increasingly fast pace, no one knows exactly what knowledge will be needed in 20 years. Therefore, it is best to prepare children for lifelong learning and to be able to solve the problems of the future, whatever these may be. If learning content is no longer the key concern, personalized learning paths seem a good alternative to fixed lesson plans. The following question may help to explore key issues around developing a student-centred curriculum.
Especially vulnerable children may not be ready to learn according to the curriculum once they are back in the classroom. They may be hungry, distressed or worried about not being able to keep up with their classmates. Teachers can help students with the transition from home to school by starting the day with a ritual that brings all students together as a community. Also, some students will need support to acquire foundational cognitive skills such as focussing attention and managing stress. To teach mindfulness means integrating social and emotional learning into everyday teaching practices and to make students more aware of what they need to do to be ready to learn. Learning is most effective when it connects to what students already know, yet takes them beyond the frontier of their knowledge and experience. Vygotsky called this the “zone of proximal development”.
If students are unable to access the curriculum, they will not be able to learn. If students’ interests, characteristics, values and cultural heritage are not respected or are represented negatively in textbooks or other learning materials, they will become disaffected and estranged. The curriculum can be made more accessible by choosing stories, examples or topics that are meaningful to all students and do not use derogatory language when referring to minorities or people with disabilities. If students struggle with reading, the learning content should be represented in other ways, for example allowing students to listen to the information rather than having to read it. Digitalisation provides many opportunities to make the curriculum more accessible, especially for children with disabilities or learning problems. Digital learning platforms offer alternative formats of learning, to access the same content in different formats. Using different representations of the same content will deepen understanding and help students become critical thinkers.
According to Bloom’s taxonomy, to be able to retrieve or remember information is only the first level of knowing. Simple tests often do not go beyond this level and do not provide teachers with information on the depth of understanding a student has developed so far. Students having acquired the relevant understanding are able to explain the subject matter to other students in their own words. As many teachers will have experienced themselves, to have to explain something to others is the real test whether one has actually fully understood. Only then is knowledge successfully applied to solve problems and subsequently to reflect on the outcome to further enrich the knowledge and use it to create new knowledge or to transfer knowledge to totally different situations. By setting out complex assignments that require students to draw on their expertise and understanding of different topics or subjects, teachers can observe and students can document the way they address and solve these assignments.
Problem-based learning is one approach to help students get involved in complex tasks that requires synthesizing knowledge and applying it. Problem-based learning helps develop competencies and agency by setting a challenge in front of students. Problem-based learning as well as project-based learning set mid-term goals and require students to make a plan, define short-term goals or follow different steps suggested by the teacher. Students get engaged in classroom conversations that enables them to discuss, argue and explain rather than simply respond to questions. Students should be encouraged to document their thoughts by visualizing the different learning steps. By developing complex and stimulating assignments that pick up on students’ interests, teachers encourage students to develop a deeper understanding of the subject.
The Corvid-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of digital literacy and has motivated many countries to accelerate the incorporation of digital learning into the curriculum. One of the ways of doing this is to represent classroom assignments digitally, for example on learning platforms. There are so many platforms that it may be difficult for teachers and students to decide which one to choose and how to combine electronic resources with traditional classroom learning. Some countries have developed learning platforms that are directly informed by the national curriculum, but even this does not guarantee that digitally presented assignments are superior to teachers facilitating student learning. Learning management systems allow teachers and students to design personalized learning pathways. Teachers and students need to acquire the necessary skills and competencies to monitor learning.
Environments can facilitate learning or they create barriers to learning. Physical barriers are affecting students with disabilities, for example if there are stairs without elevators or if toilets are too narrow to be accessed with a wheelchair. But learning environments can also create social, emotional and cognitive barriers for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Positive learning environments provide diverse spaces to meet the diverse needs of all students. The social climate created by teachers should encourage students to get everything they need to learn, for example opportunities to drink water or take a short break during a lesson. Learning environments that are created together with students will give them a sense of ownership and responsibility, for example caring for their own plant or looking after an animal (if permitted by school rules). Child friendly schools make all children feel safe and welcome. The learning environment creates a climate where everyone is respected and where every child has the opportunity to contribute and be part of a community. This community should expand beyond the classroom to create an atmosphere where bullying vulnerable children and humiliating children simply for being different is not tolerated. The following questions address the key issues:
Many schools still today look rather like military barracks than like places that welcome students to learn, become themselves and feel at home. But even these schools can be made into spaces that provide diverse learning opportunities for diverse student populations. If teachers assume the perspective of learners, if they consult with students on how to make their school more child-friendly, much can be changed with little effort. Anonymous school yards can be transformed into different sections to provide environments where children can engage in group activities, games or gardening. Empty spaces under staircases can be made into learning studios, hallways can be populated with plants or used for group discussions. The classroom - if space allows for it - can be divided into different sections, where students can come together to listen to the teacher and discuss, where they can work individually, or private spaces where they can withdraw and take a short break. If students are actively involved in creating these spaces, they will be able to make use of them.
Many students see making mistakes as shameful and as a sign of being stupid. Teachers can reinforce this view or they can help students to accept mistakes as an opportunity to improve their understanding and deepen their knowledge. Classrooms that exhume an atmosphere of learning as a competition and place value primarily on students according to their achievement levels are likely to create a climate that does not encourage admittance of mistakes. But avoiding mistakes will hold children back on their learning because mistakes and error are essential for learning and improving. The same is true for teachers. By acknowledging their own mistakes and learning from them, teachers set an example. And by sharing mistakes with colleagues, they can take a proactive approach towards improving their teaching through peer learning. A climate in which mistakes are welcomed does not mean that students who make mistakes are better students than others who do not make mistakes. It is about creating a learning environment that expects students to make mistakes and proactively uses these mistakes to deepen understanding. In such classrooms teachers encourage risk-taking and the exploration of different answers or approaches, and they restrain from giving easy answers to complex questions. Good questions are seen as important as correct answers.
Many teachers understand formative assessment as feedback that is given during the learning process. But if such feedback is mainly oriented towards what the student has learnt already rather than on what the student should learn next, it is not substantially different from a summative test done at the end of a learning sequence. In addition, a teacher's best intentions to inform student learning by providing feedback will be in vain if from the student’s perspective it is perceived as a judgment of their abilities or lack thereof. Assessment for learning is not something done by teachers to students, it needs to be built into the culture of learning. The classroom climate has to be developed in ways that supports not only teacher feedback but also peer feedback and self-assessment. Assessment for learning encourages asking questions, especially around “why” students should engage in a specific activity. The focus of feedback is on the task, on how it is best tackled or what students should expect as a good result. Expectations are expressed and made visible to guide students in their learning. Feedback to improve teaching is sought not only from colleagues, but also from students and parents.
Many students will have gained experiences navigating digital learning environments, and some may have enjoyed online learning very much. It would empoverish their learning experiences if, once back in the classroom, these learning opportunities were no longer available. Blended learning has been widely used in higher education in many countries, but is not yet common in lower grades. Blended learning creates opportunities to personalize learning once students acquire the necessary skills to navigate the internet or online learning environments without losing track of their own learning objectives. Especially disadvantaged students, gifted students or students with disabilities who otherwise do not have access to learning opportunities addressing their specific needs will benefit from blended learning environments. Support available locally by teachers or teaching assistants can be complemented with experts online to create personalized learning environments that powerfully improve learning.
In the 21st century, collaborative learning does not stop at the walls of the classroom, learning communities can be established between students and teachers in different schools, communities or even countries. During the lockdown, many students will have experienced online communication using electronic devices and communication software. They may have communicated with their teachers and peers, but possibly even with other adults or children who were willing and interested in sharing experiences and supporting learning. These contacts can be nurtured and developed into learning partnerships that extend beyond the classroom. Contacts can be established with other schools, in the same country or countries where children speak one of the foreign languages students learn in school. To prepare and hold a conversation online can be a great incentive for students, especially if children share the same interests or other characteristics. There are many ways to interact with others digitally and some partnerships between students may even be established for an entire semester to encourage virtual learning communities that work on the same topic or project from different schools.
The diversity of learning pathways, the successes and failures, the experience of blockages and breakthroughs that students encountered while learning out of the classroom will be impossible to collect and analyze by teachers. But all students will have gained insights into their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning. Some may have developed brilliant strategies to overcome apathy or invented new ways of learning that teachers could never imagine. All students will have experienced what it means to have to learn without support. Some may have given up, others may have found a way to overcome difficulties. There is much to be learned from these experiences, and some strategies invented by students in the absence of help, may benefit other students as well. Teachers on the other hand have experienced how easy it is to lose track of student learning once the security of teaching the same content to all learners is taken away from them. At the same time, most teachers are aware of the fact that teaching the same to all students does not mean that they all learn the same. Learning is a very personal activity and not easily tracked. The following questions may help to explore key issues around strategies to assume a more individualized approach to supporting all learners in the classroom and beyond:
Students’ learning often remains hidden behind a worksheet that only records the number of correct answers or in classrooms where only students who know the answer are invited to share it. By the end of the lesson students may have already forgotten which answer they provided and why the teacher considered it important, correct or wrong. Unless learning becomes more visible, students and teachers have a hard time understanding where they need to go next to follow students’ individual learning pathways. Allowing students to anticipate what they will learn when the teacher introduces a new topic provides teachers and students with important information on prior knowledge and potential misconceptions that students may hold. When comparing preconceptions with acquired knowledge, students learning paths become visible, not only for them but also for teachers and parents. Mind maps or concept maps visualise current understanding of students and guide teachers to support students in their learning. Memory aids, word cards and tools to organize student projects along a problem-solving cycle, help to to not get lost in details and stay on track.
The curriculum is every teacher’s key tool to guide students’ learning as well as their own work. The curriculum provides guidance to develop lesson plans, develop learning materials and prepare tests. Most teachers are familiar with creating “individual educational plans”, but only for students who are not able to follow the regular curriculum. To design personalized learning paths for all students with the premise that they will all achieve the competencies set out in the curriculum is a novel thought for most teachers. Most teachers generally believe that knowledge acquisition happens in a logical sequence embedded in the curriculum and that students only progress in learning when taught with state-of-the-art methods. But the more finely teachers pre-define a specific learning path, the less accessible it will be for students who do not learn exactly the way envisaged by their teacher. The key challenge in designing personalized learning pathways is to provide enough guidance, but not to prescribe fixed learning paths.
For most students using digital tools and devices is fun and learning “boring stuff” is made enjoyable if it is embedded in a game. Learning through watching videos or listening to podcasts allows students to concentrate on what is important to them and follow their personal learning paths. Videos modeling social skills may be more effective than teachers telling students what they need to do. Making pictures or videos via smartphone cameras can be used to make learning more visible and to share information with other students and parents. Students can create their own books, presentations or portfolios using open access software available on the internet. Online learning materials and libraries provide students with almost unlimited access to knowledge.
Assistive technology has become more affordable and accessible with increased digitalization of schools and legislative pressure on computer and software providers to make their products accessible for everyone. Electronic representations of learning materials enables students with low vision or students with learning or physical disabilities to convert materials into accessible alternative formats. By using easy language, children struggling with reading or language comprehension are empowered to acquire knowledge and concepts without being at a disadvantage. Software that helps students to correct their spelling and grammatical mistakes allows them to focus on content rather than avoiding mistakes.
Self-assessment helps guide students on their personalized learning pathways. It can be combined with peer feedback, especially when children learn in collaborative settings. Self-assessment is a powerful learning tool as well as an important component of student assessment. It can be used to identify learning gaps, track learning progress, take decisions on which learning path to follow, to set realistic and achievable goals and to stay involved and motivated. It fosters self-reflection and personal responsibility for one’s learning. Self-assessment should be informed by reliable and valid indicators of the competences that students and teachers are aiming at. These criteria can be developed cooperatively between teachers and students in the beginning of a learning sequence. Teachers may design reflection sheets based on these criteria that students can use at different stages on their learning paths.