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.