By Andrew Mitchell

Recently in a side project from my day job, I was involved in some conversations (video conferences) with colleagues and friends in China. Our new working arrangement in the Corona enforced reality of 2020. 

And we are not alone… Carlos Perotta of Monash University, puts the number of students facing this new reality across China at 180 million from primary through to tertiary level. With universities often best placed to utilise online environments, secondary and primary schools are having to adapt on the run. (Since drafting this article yesterday, Italy and a host of other countries and schools can be added to this statistic). There are, of course, many systems and off the shelf solutions already available or in place. However, because of this ‘enforced’ shift to online learning, our teams are  playing catch up with respect to the building skill sets. Many schools are already embracing this in many different ways, but let’s be honest it’s the beginning and we are all feeling a little out of our depth. The storm has hit and we are still looking for our raincoat.

I was listening to the recording of the first meeting as the time difference between Europe and Beijing meant I had missed the live meeting. The team were discussing how we see ourselves as teachers in this new online environment? What have our successes and struggles been? 

“… Hang on, wait… Am I on mute? Just a minute… let me share my screen, can you all see that?”

And there we have it, in a nutshell.. we are all learning how to do this as we go, out of necessity, doing our best to ensure positive and authentic learning takes place, despite the difficulties and despite many of us being relatively new to this. So our conversation inevitably focussed on what was difficult, what wasn’t possible, how do I convey mathematical notation, are they engaged? I see the student’s TV on in the background, and mum is there doing the ironing! 

Ok, I made up the last two, but I can imagine these also being an issue.

In the next part of the discussion the group was asked, what are the positives? 

… Silence …  Was it a bandwidth issue… maybe Colin was still on mute? No, everyone heard the question, unfortunately these positives were difficult to pin down. Reluctance to share perhaps? Modesty? There are positives, right? 

Fortunately some ideas did begin to flow…

Johanna: “Actually, I’ve been checking in with my colleague English teacher before and after the lessons, we feedback on what worked and how things went, we plan the next steps together.” 

Colin: “I find myself using more video content from other sources, where in the past I would have given a mini-lecture, I now try to spare my students having to look at my face for more time than necessary.”

These conversations were the beginning of something great, actually focusing on how we teach.

Time ran out and we were left to reflect.

Colin and I started to rethink our starting point. We need to find the opportunity in the storm. What do the teachers really need? Support? Reminding of their strengths, of where they can take teaching and learning?

I believe that this enforced shift in the method of delivery allows us to refocus our role within our educational ecosystems. Because change in schools is so often limited by the existing systems. Because timetables and ringing bells reinforce the production line model of education, it’s difficult to change practices let alone mindsets. How can we change the approach, when the approach is not supported by the current system?

Wait a minute, share screen, unmute! 

This current situation is an opportunity. It is a moment in time where we can have teachers think about their practice external from their current system, and perhaps an opportunity to reframe their role with some powerful approaches to teaching in mind. The International Baccalaureate organisation defines these approaches as;

Teaching based on inquiry. …

Teaching focused on conceptual understanding. …

Teaching developed in local and global contexts. …

Teaching focused on effective teamwork and collaboration. …

Teaching differentiated to meet the needs of all learners.

My next real time conversation with Colin picked up on this point, how can we best support staff with online teaching and learning – what does this mean for us? For them? We threw around ideas about what it means to teach. Not just to teach online, but to teach. I often go back to a question raised by Will Richardson ‘What are the conditions required for powerful learning?’ For us having the right mindset is essential. Reflect on what we have achieved, today. What does not work, yet! Develop practices and habits of mind where we see our own practice on a developmental growth curve rather than fixed.

We can perhaps use these approaches to teaching and a growth mindset to help create the conditions for powerful learning Richardson is concerned with. The role of teachers as facilitators of learning really can come to the fore. We can ask powerful questions about our teaching and professional conversations can be framed with these in mind. 

Ask yourself outloud or, create and answer these types of questions:

  • How can I, or am I, teaching and modeling inquiry skills? 
  • What are the key concepts or the big ideas for this learning engagement? 
  • Why is this unit worthy of teaching? (What would mum in the background doing the ironing think? How does it connect with the real world?)
  • How can we collaborate as teachers in non traditional ways, not limited to timtabled collaborative planning time? (Johanna gave a great example of this already) 
  • What does differentiation look like in an online learning environment? (Colin’s video content delivery allows his students to watch the content again and again).
  • Can I give other examples?

It’s my contention that learning is too often confined to train tracks, learners are passengers, with a few limited points where direction can be changed. These changes are always predetermined, and initiated by someone or something external.

However, learning should be like riding a horse, there are trails to follow, but there is also choice and autonomy. The direction and pace are determined by the relationship between rider and horse. The learner and the learning should determine the end destination. And the role of the teacher? Suggest some trails to follow, check the saddle and feed the horse!

So our new reality, online learning, reimagining our role? After the storm has passed, how about we become stable masters, and pathfinders? But give learners and learning free rein.

Works Cited

“Education; Technology in an Age of Pandemics (Revisited).” World Bank Blogs, blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/education-technology-age-pandemics-revisited.

Iborganization. “What is an IB Education?” International Baccalaureate®, www.ibo.org/.

Perrotta. “Coronavirus Quarantine Could Spark an Online Learning Boom.” The Conversation, 24 Feb. 2020, theconversation.com/coronavirus-quarantine-could-spark-an-online-learning-boom-132180.

Richardson, Will. From Master Teacher to Master Learner. Solution Tree Press, 2015.

Ross, John, et al. “Race on to Create Online Courses for Virus-Stranded Students.” Times Higher Education (THE), 13 Feb. 2020, www.timeshighereducation.com/news/race-create-online-courses-virus-stranded-students#survey-answer.

“A Different Approach to Scaling up Educational Technology Initiatives.” World Bank Blogs, blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/scaling-up.