Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Home, School, Two Weeks In...

As I write this, the news of school closures in the UK have just come in. I have been tracking the situation here in Italy and been in constant communication with colleagues back home. These are unprecedented times for most of us and I am, as ever, incredibly proud of how brilliant, resilient and strong schools have been in these weeks of uncertainty.

I previously shared an initial view from Italy when our schools closed and now that we are two weeks in here, I felt it worth sharing some observations of being at the receiving end of distance learning from a parent and child’s point of view. I write these as the parent of a learner going to an international school here as well as from conversations with other parents across the age range, British colleagues and Italian teachers and their pupils in the state sector here.

Here are the key observations I can offer up two weeks in.

1.       Don’t overdo the online learning if that is your suitable and main option for your learners
Nobody needs six hours at a screen, checking the screen, uploading on a screen, playing educational games on a screen, writing onto documents on a screen, hanging out on a screen, doing PE or arts subjects from a screen. The novelty has worn off quite rapidly. There is delight in doing anything that isn’t IT based. It’s a long day to be effectively tied to a device.

2.       Build in social contact and down time
An Italian colleague was telling me this morning that they phone up a few of their students each day in rotation to talk to them in person and that they organise an online hangout for those who can access it every other day to just say ‘ciao’ and basically make fun of each other. There is a lot of use of WhatsApp class groups for a bit of communication and keeping in touch. Various online meeting platforms are being used to the same effect. All the children I have spoken to miss their teachers and friends desperately. Teachers and communities here are organising online pub quizzes, bingo and virtual coffee breaks. Human contact beyond the home is something you realise you underestimated for far too long.

3.       Calibrate pace and volume of learning
Learning at home is a different experience and that ‘feel’ of being in school can’t be recreated. Not being in a classroom with their fantastic, witty, watchful, reactive teachers or in the multi-dimensional purpose-designed learning environment of their school means that learning happens in a different way. Trying to do too much, too quickly, without being in the room with that learner to take the temperature of their understanding might cover a lot of curriculum, but it doesn’t become embedded learning and knowledge. Schools, subject teams and teachers here are starting to see this and to reset the pacing of their planning.

4.       Learning Needs and Support
I’ll relate this on a personal level. My son is dyslexic, his processing for spelling, copying and his confidence for writing need a lot of support and he freezes under time pressure. He is 10. At school, he gets this from his great TA. At home right now, that’s me. It takes longer to complete tasks, so we cannot keep to ‘by the end of the lesson’ turn in deadlines for real-time online learning. I am adapting task types and response formats, helping with drafting, re-drafting and doing some scribing. I am able to do this in terms of time because I can be hugely flexible with my own work and am an experienced teacher. If I just left him to it, his learning would undoubtedly regress. I am communicating regularly with his fantastic teacher and his TA so we make adjustments to how time is allocated to different subjects in the day or decide what he can skip to focus on some key target areas of his learning. I absolutely understand the privilege of my own situation and I know that this is not the case for lots of other children and parents out there. I worry about the capacity schools have to support the specific needs of some learners, but not their expertise, organisation or planning.

5.       Home life and expectations of parents
We don’t usually spend this much time together, all week. We are learning to work and learn together in the same space. There is all the usual daily stuff that needs to be done, a working day to get through, a school day to complete. It can get terse. It can be lovely. It is tiring. It is bonding. It is an extraordinary experience. We need time to be a family and not pretend that we are all at our ‘9 to 5’ because…we aren’t. Parents who are working from home are doing just that and might be under a lot of pressure right now. They mostly don’t have the time to support or monitor their children consistently through the day. Many fellow parents are finding it really hard to ‘home school’, particularly with primary phase children and are terrified of getting it wrong. Many parents don’t have the luxury of supporting their child’s learning through the day. It is causing a lot of angst and a lot of family friction. Frequent, reassuring and open communication are really helpful, both to parents and learners.

(Teacher parents I’m in contact with who are being expected to fulfil both those functions in real time throughout the school day are exhausting themselves, working even harder and for longer hours on top of everything else. In Italy, the government has ensured that schools are able to keep on their regular supply/PPA teachers to cover for colleagues who fall ill, have to look after family members or to give them additional planning and preparation time in this unusual situation.)

I’ll end by saying that you have nothing to prove to the vast majority of parents. After even a day with their children learning at home, they will have an even greater appreciation of what you do day in, day out. We don’t need to be blown away by your cutting-edge use of technology or the cleverness of different modes of online teaching and learning. We want to feel that our children are still learning but we don’t need you to throw everything at them to show us that you are all over this. We know you are. We trust you. We’d quite like you to keep safe, stay sane and look after yourselves and your families, because that is what we are all trying to do right now. Most of all, we want to say thank you. Grazie.

Insieme ce la faremo. Together, we can do this.


Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Lessons from Italy

It’s been enormously interesting watching educators based in international schools leap into action with distance, online teaching and learning this week in Italy in response to school closures. There has been great collaboration and the sharing of advice and resources on Twitter, with the growing interest and needs of colleagues in other countries opening up excellent discussions about how to approach this problem. These schools are, by their nature, well-resourced and have a narrower, wealthier socio-economic profile to their student body in relation to the state sector, as you’d expect. Their rapid response to school closures has drawn interest from the media and it is good to see their use of technology and imaginative teaching highlighted and shared as exemplary.

In Italian state schools, the use of digital means to continue learning is patchy, much as it would be in the UK or elsewhere. This has more to do with scarce resources rather than a lack of teacher skill or knowledge, although years of low funding for digital learning and equipment obviously has its own impact. INDIRE, the Italian government body that looks after teacher professional development, has been running daily webinars and distributing dedicated online resources, many of which have been generated from lead schools in a national project researching effective digital learning.  In its crisis preparations, the government had already put in place deals with online platform providers so that schools could access their resources for free if schools closed.  

There are lots of news items showing Italian teachers video-conferencing lessons to keep in contact with their students, while everyone tries hard not to lose the power of those classroom relationships. My conversations with Italian teachers and parents this week paint a picture of distance learning mainly taking place through tasks being emailed or sent by text to students and their parents. Learners provide their own textbooks in the state sector here and course books are the norm, so these resources are more universally available to them, unlike devices or internet access.

At the moment, some regions will have had schools closed for nearly 2 months by the time we get to the current opening date of early April. For some international schools who have scheduled Easter holidays at that time, the return to classes will be a couple of weeks later than that. With the entire country in lockdown now, children will have not only missed the day to day routine and contact of school, but also opportunities to socialise, take part in group activities or get together with family and friends. The social media tagline of #iorestoacasa, ‘I stay at home’, is the summary of the collective effort to ‘flatten the curve’ of the virus spreading. It’s being taken very seriously. Italy has an ageing population who have been most affected by the virus and even the President cited the need to protect the nation’s beloved grandparents from unnecessary contagion.

All of this has been experienced by me partly as an inquisitive educator and recent senior leader who happens to have relocated to Italy at this interesting time, but largely as a parent of a child whose school has closed. I think that there are some observations that might be useful to consider for anyone planning for school closures elsewhere.

·         Children of any age learning remotely relies somewhat on the supervision of an adult, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on how old they are. Not all will have parents who will be able to be at home to guide them and help them keep on task. Also, if parents are able to work remotely, they will have pressures and expectations on them for their output (including teacher parents) and might not be able to give much or all their time to supporting their children’s learning. So, when designing distance learning solutions, it’s worth thinking about how independent you realistically expect your learners to be and how you maintain equity for those who won’t have adult support or supervision or who usually get additional support in class.

·         The obvious... Not all children have laptops, devices or internet access available to them at home. They might have siblings who also need these and who might take priority because of age or exam preparation. Not all children have spaces to study at home and they might be trying to learn in a full household of people who don’t normally spend that much time together and are finding that stressful. Not all children have a supply of stationery at home and it might not be an affordable unforeseen purchase. Not all children have somewhere to go and play, let off steam or get some fresh air where they live, nor might they have books, sports equipment or board games to ‘take a break’ with. You will know your community and its families. You will know what is possible and how accessible you want the learning experience to be so that nobody is disadvantaged or feels it more acutely.

·         Learners are losing the social time that comes from travelling to and from school, having breaks with their friends and just being children in a school’s social setting. All those minutes add up to hours of enriching human contact and relationships every day, beyond their home setting. While it is admirable to provide a full school day of learning, the reality is that normally that time is split up by all of those things and even lesson or class transitions. We refer so much to effective learning and how we load it, let’s not forget that there is a limit to how long children are going to learn with any lasting impact if they are overloaded in our efforts for them not to ‘miss out’ or prove how great we are at providing distance learning.

·         If you are using it to provide some or all remote teaching and learning, there is an endless amount of technology out there, some of it incredibly intuitive, some of it harder to get to grips with and some of it just a bit too ‘out there’ for some people, both teachers and learners. It’s worth checking and asking ourselves if the time invested in using the technology actually enhances the experience and my perennial investment question, is it making any notable impact on a child’s learning or providing any efficiency for the teachers? It’s easy to get caught up in our own inner-geek and lose sight of what is actually worthwhile.

·         I know that many in the UK are already asking questions of the DfE about what will happen for children on free school meals if schools close and of course there are similar concerns about children we are involved in safeguarding or assisting with any number of complexities in their lives. The answer to this is not entirely in our gift and there are no easy solutions to report from Italy other than keeping lines of communication open for learners, parents, carers and communities is vital. Even with no personnel now allowed in school buildings, the government here requires phone calls, emails and texts to be diverted to staff working remotely, who still carry the same responsibilities for liaising with the necessary bodies if they have any concerns about a child or their family.

·         Finally, clear, concise, timely and compassionate communication from school is incredibly important when you are a parent wondering how in the world you are going to manage children, work, life ‘stuff’ and a rampant virus. Knowing that the school is offering to listen and support as it usually does, that there is someone who will try to help you navigate it all or have a motivating chat with your reluctant home learner, these make a huge difference. This also goes for giving notice of any changes to plans or even to manage expectations of when things are likely to happen.

There are already positives arising from this situation in Italy. There is a sense of collective effort, of working as communities, of looking out for each other, following a set of common rules for everyone’s benefit and showing care and kindness to others. Sounds like almost every set of school values I’ve ever seen displayed. Good luck everyone, however this affects you, your colleagues and your learners. You'll know what to do.