These ideas are offered as the result of our experience in International College Hong Kong, a private not-for-profit secondary school. Hong Kong was hit early within the global scheme of things with school closure and a shift to online learning. They are offered not as an ideal or perfect solution, merely as the result of honest and creative attempts, with all attendant mistakes and missteps, and in the hope that they might provide inspiration and ideas to others as the same situations accrue.
So use these as the basis for a meeting, to criticise and improve on, to argue with and interrogate, to skip problems and borrow and adapt solutions. And good luck.
Begin with pedagogy
Every school should always have at their core an ongoing engagement with some basic questions: what does it mean to be a school? What is learning? What is the role of the teacher? What is community? What is the meaning and purpose of education?
In times of crisis, these questions become more urgent.
What does it mean to be a school when the building is closed? What is learning in the face of this stress and pressure? What is the role of the teacher now they are remote and online? What is the value of community now it is fragmented and virtual? What is the meaning and purpose of education in this extreme situation?
These are not questions with one answer. They are prompts for continuous reflection and the answers are ongoing lived responses. For example, we decided in phase 1 of our response that the purpose we should serve and our role in our community was to provide continuity in what looked like a temporary closure of just a couple of weeks. As the closure became a longer term “new normal” our responses to the same questions have changed. For example in what became phase 2 the answer to the question: ‘what is the role of the teacher?’ has become more about teachers as role models for resilience, as mentors and connections in a sometimes lonely time, as anchors and beacons for those students and community members who need it.
In designing our response to the longer term closure from outlined in Phase 2 onwards below we drew on the pedagogy of our model of Free Learning. This is an approach where students chart their own learning through a varied map of challenges and experiences.
This allowed us to develop a new approach to online offerings that drew on a model the students were familiar with and that had a philosophical underpinning we were aligned with and could build on. Indeed we have at the back of our minds the idea that on our eventual return to ‘normal’ schooling, we should be aware that students have an even greater ease now with self-directed learning and being agents in their own decision making and engagement with education and that we should build further on this in school-based teaching.
It’s a Lived Curriculum
So what we teach and what students learn – it is all part of a lived curriculum. A changing, messy, negotiated collection of thoughts and ideas, concepts and engagements in which the students learn from teachers, teachers learn from students and we build together in response to a changing world. Our mission towards our students says we: “offer an experience that best prepares them for life beyond school.”
That life beyond school right now is challenging and lonely and frightening for a lot of students. The curriculum therefore must reflect that reality. As mentioned above much of it is designed to give the students agency and ownership in a time when much of the world feels out of their control. We have looked for ways to engage the students in joint projects and to get them outside and into nature – although again these units and approaches have had to change in response to the situation on the ground.
We focused early on the idea of Prison Workouts as ways to get students keeping fit in their small apartment spaces.
We have been regularly blown away by work students have done in response to the online tasks we have constructed. We have changed our plans in dialogue with their thoughts directly expressed or evident in declining or increasing engagement. Parents and community members have suggested and modelled strategies that have become pivotal. In some ways, this lived curriculum has been in a more tense dialogue with the mainstream curriculum than is the case in ‘normal’ times. The sense of what students need, our sensitivity to their moods and the more general mood of the nation and world around us all, the perception of parents, all play a part in negotiating and navigating the curriculum.
So….Adapt and develop
Changing circumstances require changing responses. Changing your mind is a mark of intelligence as long as it is done thoughtfully.
For two weeks we moved the entire curriculum online. Teachers put work on our online school information management system (a bespoke open source platform called Gibbon, developed at our school but which is globally available and now used by many schools worldwide) and were available to or directly taught students through video conferencing and other online channels. The balance developed for different staff according to their comfort with the tools- for example I was a slower adopter- for the first week I focused on the planning of independent lesson materials and was available to students by whatsapp and email. By the second week I had joined faster adopters in teaching through the zoom platform. By week three I had mastered zoom breakout rooms and polling.
A development we introduced in the second week was an Online Deep Learning day.
Deep Learning is an existing initiative in school that allows for the timetable to be collapsed and students to choose between different day long or several day-long offerings designed by teachers to dig into a particular passion or project.
In this case the Senior Leadership Team designed a day with three projects to engage all students in Years 7-9. With one teacher managing an open zoom room as support and teachers monitoring Padlets as the platform for submitting work, we found five people could manage an online learning community of nearly 250 students and all teachers could take a break to catch their breath and focus on Y10-13 learning.
Morale in the broader staff team was immeasurably helped by the clear perception that the leadership team were in this with them and willing to take an active role in shouldering a big part of the burden.
Our Learning Support Assistants quickly learned to use Zoom and other channels to stay in touch with the students they support and offer the same kind of 1-2-1 or small group work engagement through BreakOut rooms and similar structures.
Feedback from staff and students made it evident that long hours in front of the computer completing a full school day was unsustainable. Phase 2 responded with a different design. We started the morning with a live streamed workout, then two lessons covering maths and literacy followed by a second workout and a language practice session. For maths and literacy we leaned heavily on structured online offerings such as IXL and NoRedInk.
Thereafter the rest of the day had a staff member always available to support students who could choose from a curated list of activities presented through Symbaloo as links to a set of google doc plans. We labelled these Flexible Learning units. In addition, there was a Drop Everything And Read session built into every week where students and teachers would gather online just to read in each other’s (virtual) presence and indeed this Drop Everything And…. structure has become a feature of the Flexible Learning Symbaloos with curated playlists, meditation sessions, art prompts, hikes, workouts and the like mixed in.
We quickly realised it was necessary to share the planning documents with all parents too as they were integrated, keen to help their children and keen to see that the teachers were working hard to provide a valuable service.
Obviously no change makes everyone happy and we did face criticism from some parents who wanted to know that there was an inescapable structure for their students as they felt the students could not stay on task without that constant supervision.
In an attempt to invigorate the offerings and to address this we began in the third week of Phase 2 to offer micro-lessons. These were structured as 30 minute drop-in sessions in which a teacher would introduce one of the Flexible Learning units and answer questions from students. These have served to build up some momentum for the Flexible Learning Units and in particular when offered at the start of the weekly ODL.
As I type this we are heading into the 12th week of shutdown and as the Easter Holiday has passed, motivation is flagging for many students. We started the final week of term with a more fun based day of 30 minute games and quizzes to which parents were invited too. Again this was aimed at invigorating and building the community and also making teachers visible to parents. Again the Senior Leadership Team lead this, keeping pressure off other staff.
After the Easter Break we are planning another change, again in response to changing circumstances and shaped by soundings in the school community with the current structure largely continued but with some direct teaching built back in to support those students who are finding the freedom of Flexible Learning too difficult to manage.
Tutor time will be built back in every day and will allow tutors to check in with students more directly about the choices they are making. Students will still be able to choose Flexible Learning Units but can also then be directed or direct themselves to two additional choices: a macro lesson which will be a four hour long project led by a member of staff, or an activity called Unpacking The Day in which they will be led by a staff member in accessing an iteration of The Day- a website we use with some frequency.
In preparing staff for this new phase the Principal issued the following advice:
I suggest constructing MACRO LESSONS as a series of stepping stones, taking students from their starting position at the beginning of the lesson to a position at the end, where they can clearly recognise the progress that they have made. Progress might be gauged by an artefact created, insight reached, knowledge learned, skill accomplished, fitness gained, or a combination of any or all of these.
For navigation purposes and peace of mind, students should, at the outset of the session, be given a clear sense of the overall goal and the number of steps involved. This might be shared as a downloadable document.
Each step will consist of a fairly limited teaching point.
This will lead to an activity on which a deadline is placed for completion. Students disperse to complete the activity (and any associated extensions/supplements), and then return once the deadline falls.
The activity would ideally be conceived so that it can be completed well enough to cross successfully to the next stepping stone without too much difficulty, but with sufficient additional challenge built in to occupy meaningfully those who require less time for completion and who can process more and/or more sophisticated content.
Following live instruction from the teacher, for each step there would ideally be a short pre-recorded how-to video made available to students via a link in Zoom chat, which they could access for further advice and support, if needed.
The cumulative effect of all the separate stepping stones will be an appreciable journey with which students can feel satisfaction.
UNPACKING THE DAY
The opening advantage for those planning UNPACKING THE DAY sessions is that all the materials are available in advance, gathered and curated by The Day’s staff. Nonetheless, preparation and planning are essential.
The initial choice of which topics to engage with will obviously be important. One aim of sessions should be to alert students to the wealth of material on the site. Deliberately choosing entertaining and immediately stimulating topics will be an advantage not just for the session in hand, but because it will encourage students to revisit the site under their own steam.
If using recent editions the dependability of links to external is likely to be high. This might not be the case if using archived editions, so these will need to be checked in advance.
Archived editions will need to be vetted through the context of ongoing events. Ensure that topics and materials do not read unfortunately in the current climate of anxiety.
I would recommend having at least three different topics vetted and prepared for each session. Preparation will include a clear idea of which exercises are to be tried, what resources to be accessed, and what outcomes are to be expected. There is nothing to stop teachers from identifying or creating their own supplementary materials to enhance those offered by The Day.
We already are planning that, when we receive the signal from the government that reopening is imminent, we will return to the phase 1 structure to re-orientate students to the return.
Ensure early and honest communication
For many institutions, the process of engaging with the wider public or their stakeholders has been a minefield.
The school has focused on sharing all information received – other than that labeled confidential. We have admitted what we don’t know, explained our thinking and asked for both understanding and comments. We have surveyed parents and students which has given us a vital temperature check, cues for engaging with particular parents, ways to preempt certain concerns and has given the community a sense of being heard.
We have carefully followed many social media and specifically education based feeds to be able to take soundings of the mood in order to judge and calibrate our communication to best reassure, recruit and reframe perceptions. Social and mainstream media will frame parental expectations and can easily become a local or larger movement that pressures authorities at a time when they are already stretched and vulnerable. Our communications as school leaders can help to bring different perspectives to bear and connect parents with real human stories at a time when the human connection is lost.
Students will be scared and tired, lonely and bored. Parents can realise how little they know their children- particularly at a secondary age. Parents are stressed and worried themselves. We have had a vacillating number of students registering and joining different sessions and we have debated at length the approach we should take to those who have chosen to base themselves in different countries during the outbreak or those who are not so engaged. Some parents have reached out to us to seek support in tying their children to a routine. Some parents have criticised us for not ‘controlling’ their children more effectively.
In our responses to all of these we have tried to be realistic. Again, our collective starting point has to be that these are unprecedented and challenging times for everyone. Our responsibility and our experience is collective. Teachers are human, children will get bored, parents will find their own offspring challenging and not everything will work perfectly.
Here’s one possible model
Symbaloo has been our venue for collating and sharing content. The ability to visualise the scope and nature of the content on offer and to colour code- in this case by timescale as explained in the “start here” link- makes it arresting and powerful as a signal also to parents of what is on offer.
Teaching Base: Google Docs
Google docs has enabled online collaboration and sharing of plans easily across different groups and managing permissions has been crucial to allow the right groups to edit and access depending on need.
Support Base: Zoom
Zoom has been pivotal in maintaining contact with students. We use to teach and present content, to support and counsel students but also have found that many students just like knowing someone is there and so will work in silence but online to feel connected.
Planning Base: Gibbon
The school runs an open source bespoke information management system called Gibbon, written by our Technology Co-ordinator. We have used it as a way to normalise and regularise these odd arrangements by ensuring planning is shared, links made and assessments uploaded and communicated in the normal way.
Assessment and Evaluation Base: Padlet
Padlet has proven to be an invaluable tool for the larger scale Flexible and Online Learning projects. It can provide a central resource for sharing planning, a place to ask frequently asked questions and build a support bank and then a place to share finished work that is easy for teachers to access and comment on.
For example in the Online Deep Learning days and with the Flexible Learning units we have two methods for the submission of work. Some work can be emailed to a central email address which all staff can access and so comment on work. The second has been a sequence of Padlets to which students submit work and staff again can manage specific work repositories. In both cases we are maintaining a gallery to which work can then be submitted and shared.
Remember it’s HOW you teach
How you teach your students is crucial. We are role models and exemplars to the students for good or ill, and at a time of difference and crisis like we are in now, that is even more important. If we can demonstrate authenticity, honest care and concern, resilience and determination then we provide a model of that for our students. If we communicate stress and an inability to cope then we make it clear this is not something easy to cope with- nor something that the skills, values and attitudes that school holds dear can equip you for.
So… look after your staff
Part of the point of HOW we teach being essential is that we are in this situation together- a community of education. That means staff need to be cared for in a time when as individuals, as professionals, as family members and friends, they also are at risk and facing challenges. The Senior Leadership Team split the whole staff team to check that there was someone checking in with every staff member regularly and a couple of times along the way we have surveyed staff to take a temperature check on their mood. As mentioned above the SLT have tried where possible to take some of the burden off staff and this has repaid itself doubly in terms of giving them the time to plan and adapt but also in terms of their appreciation and sense of being in this together. Ultimately the success of our response thus far is built on a dedicated, talented and caring staff team.
Accept the bewilderment
These are uncharted times and we need to find our way to support and work towards that without pretending we have answers and certainties. Many of us are lost and frightened, confused, baffled. For those of us who are not, there is no real comfort in the idea that their fears have been realised. For some false hope is what we seek, for others it is easy to revel in the anxiety and doom-spreading. For some we revert to selfish and thoughtless behaviour due to the stress and desire to protect ourselves and our own.
There is no easy answer and accepting that the challenges and uncertainties are real is a crucial step in facing them with grace and honesty. For a lot of thinkers in education and other spheres, this is a general truth- that as a human community we face challenges and do not have a clear path available to us to address these. Bewilderment, uncertainty are natural responses to these times and honestly embracing them opens us to the possibility of finding, co-creating spaces to make valuable meaning together.
Practice moments of care
We have noticed in many of our interactions with students online that the specific topic of the lesson or purpose of the support session is peripheral to the students’ need to have a human connection. These moments of care, of human connection, are central to our role as exemplars, as leaders where we can be that in the broader community. Where we can model the sense of accepting these bewildering times but continuing to show resilience and care, to adapt to changing situations and still provide support and education to our students.
Looking ahead to the eventual end of this pandemic, these moments of care will serve all of us well as we look to transitioning students and staff back into a normal routine.
The pandemic is a learning process for all of us. The constraints it has imposed on us all are opportunities for creativity and learning. They have to be if we are to emerge from the experience more able to cope or prevent such global incidents in the future. For students and staff returning therefore it will not purely be let’s get back to normal. We will have learnt and grown. We will have maintained relationships, shown and benefited from our care for each other. The online learning opportunities will have had benefits and changed our relationship with technology and students’ agency in line with the philosophies we have built them on.
There will be joy in renewing face to face contact and opportunities and requirements to build on what we have learned, particularly as we make our contributions to the generation that will inherit this new world.