Have you ever observed trees flex and sway in a strong wind? Or have you paused to count the growth rings in the trunks of trees which have been cut down? Trees need wind sway to activate their natural adaptive process which, in turn, strengthens their trunks and roots. The effect of wind can even be visible in their growth rings, the size of their leaves, or in the structure of the wood itself! Like trees adapting to wind, human minds adapt when stretched to their capacity. When we let go of what cannot be, we make space for new energy and new desires, adapting by bringing our understanding of past situations into the new. This is the process we are currently experiencing in our education system with a chilly COVID-19 wind blowing hard… how will we adapt?
Letting go of traditional school
Search the internet or social media and it is easy to find complaints about education these days. The sudden and drastic switch to distance learning has left many parents and teachers frustrated and overwhelmed. Families are attempting to juggle working from home, along with organizing childcare and schoolwork supervision for older children. Since schools have laid off educational assistants, tutoring falls to parents or siblings. Older students are expected to work independently. If the number of devices or the Internet bandwidth is not available to accommodate so many users at home, problems multiply. Online learning has greater disadvantages for those students who already have many other learning challenges.
As this new distance learning is quite different from the traditional school model, likewise, it also varies from a traditional homeschool situation. When homeschooling, parents plan curriculum and arrange learning activities within the cadence of their family life. They are responsible for the learning, but also have authority to adapt assignments and workload as necessary. The current distance learning has handed parents responsibility for learning without authority to adapt it to their unique context.
The initial escalation and emergency are over. While governments seek to re-open, and we are eager for that, we are also anxious about a subsequent wave of new cases. It will now require careful planning to balance safety and freedom in the educational setting. While school leaders must protect students and staff, they must also work to prevent the severe burnout and mental health issues that are possible due to measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus.
Staff and students need the psychological safety of structure and routines and honest communication in response to their questions. Our sense of wellbeing is affected by our emotions. Once emotions are evoked, they need to find expression in healthy ways. People often have delayed responses to crises. Without a safe space to process, emotions can come out as undesirable behaviors and consequences. Opportunities to process emotions pave the way for adaptation, and successful adaptation results in resilience!
Making space for new innovations
Just like a tree can sprout again and grow new branches when it is cut down, so innovation can sprout from the traditional.
- Distance learning or hybrid models must provide opportunities for in-person learning. This can occur in smaller groups and can accommodate online options, either synchronously or asynchronously. Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario leads the way with their Hy-Flex system which incorporates all of these instruction modes. In a recent interview, higher ed futurist Ken Steele discussed this with Dr Jenni Hayman, Chair of Teaching & Learning at Cambrian. Dr. Hayman explained how well in-person, synchronous and asynchronous students can interact with instructors and each other. She also highlighted the importance of the ability of individual instructors to leverage the technology. This demands more of the teachers to plan course delivery and to master the technology.
- Daily schedules should be flexible or shortened to allow children to come to school in smaller groups. This could minimize the requirement for social distancing over lunch and recess.
- Organize activities around small groups in order to increase a sense of belonging instead of isolation.
- As schools step into providing online learning, they must think about managing the user experience. For example, some learner management systems provide for separate web pages for each teacher or each course. It then becomes important that students have a consistent and predictable experience across all teacher or course pages.
- A greater emphasis on tutoring and one-on-one instruction is crucial. By providing students a way to post questions privately, online instruction may be a positive change for those not confident enough to ask questions in the classroom setting. However, lengthy response times will undermine the students’ confidence, both in the system and in their learning. Educational Assistants can provide valuable support to teachers by ensuring students’ questions receive rapid responses.
- To address inequalities, bursaries or financial aid programs should address technology gaps by providing tablets, notebook computers or age appropriate learning devices. Our local public school division has extended free Wi-Fi coverage to their parking lots for students who lack Internet connection at home.
- Emphasize fundamentals in early and middle years. Reading, writing and mathematics are the foundations of learning. Students will be better prepared to catch up in following years if their basic skills remain strong.
- Distance learning should provide weekly assignments and due dates rather than daily deadlines to allow families flexibility to adapt their work/schoolwork schedules.
- Recognize that many important learning opportunities have been discovered in the kitchen, in the garage, and in ordinary family life experiences during this pandemic. Find ways to leverage that new knowledge.
- Invest more in school counsellors, and welcome open discussion about mental health and healthy methods of coping with anxiety.
- Welcome spiritual perspectives of faith versus fear.
Our children’s growth is like that of a tree. Each year there is growth that will be visible in a ring of the trunk. Some years of ideal conditions, the ring will be relatively large. In other years of high winds, the ring may be narrow or oddly shaped. But the challenges of the season will develop a strong root system which, in turn, will make it more adaptable for the future. COVID-19 will impact immediate learning. However, successful adaptation and the resulting resilience will have a positive impact on future learning and other difficulties our children will face in life.