The strongest message is to learn from what went well during COVID, and ensure we do NOT return to the old ‘grammar of schooling’.  We should be collating and sharing all the excellent examples of learning away from school, and asking how we could introduce them into the regular school day – and give up some of the old ‘grammar of schooling’ and move to the ‘new normal of learning’. 

Esteeming teacher expertise

We truly now should esteem the expertise of teachers – unlike parents with 1-3 children in the home class, teachers have 20-30 at once, can motivate them (mostly) to engage in activities that the students at the start do not know to do (you don’t go to school to learn that you know). Teachers know how to make the struggle of learning joyful, can provide feedback at the right time and in the right way to each student (and not permit children to continually ask “is this right?”) and teachers do not ‘do’ the work for the students – and they do all this for 200 plus days, for at least 5 hours every day.

Teachers know where to go next for each student’s learning, how to balance the breadth and depth of the ever-varied school curriculum, and they invest in after school work of marking, preparing, developing resources, going to professional learning and meetings. As parents, how exhausted were you each day!

Many schools ran dual systems of students in front of them at school, and working one-on-one and with groups at home, undertaking refresher courses on how to use the government required learning management systems, and are now preparing for the recovery period – all while their health was at more risk than for most of us, nary without a grumble, and with an elan and positive disposition. 

We should truly esteem this expertise, and make teachers’ this year’s Australians of the Year. Yes, health care workers will be competitors, but more Australians have been affected directly by teachers. Maybe both teachers and health care workers as joint winners.

Learning how to learn

The experience for many was less ‘distance learning’ and more ‘home schooling’. It was not students receiving lessons over the web and doing them, as it entailed parents being involved in the teaching.  Perhaps it is no wonder than the average performance of students who enter home schooling is about 75th percentile – parents are often only willing to home school the brighter students.

So what do these brighter student have which makes it easier – they know how to self-regulate – that is, they know when to apply various strategies, they know when to hold out distractions, they know about their thinking skills, and they know how to self-evaluate. Teachers love these students too – and tertiary institutions depend on their students having these skills – otherwise they are lost in the large classes (N > 100+), they cannot do their assignments, and do not know how to interpret what is needed or how to interpret the feedback, cues and real messaging from the lecturers. 

Surely we need to deliberately teach students these skills. They would be most evident to parents during the home schooling (where your children over reliant on structure, demanded crystal clear directions, and sought lots of feedback that they were right, or could they work through messy structures, work out what the directions really meant, and strived for feedback more about where to next).

Students in schools that already teach these skills would have less hassles and indeed thrive during the COVID and recovery – many of our Visible Learning schools have contacted me to say, that this work on teaching self-regulation is now really paying off right now.

A new grammar of schooling

Our current ‘grammar of schools’ is teacher talk a lot (80%+ on average), ask all the questions (200+ a day), and dominant the flow of lessons. Yes, this works. There is also a conspiracy in that above average students want more teacher talk, teacher questions, and teacher control – they know how to play this game.  But there are many who want to be taught the skills of self-regulation so they can join the others in understanding really what is wanted, understand what the intention and success criteria are, and know what to do when they do not know what to do. This COVID crisis will help identify the students who need these skills – so identify them and teach them these skills.

Some students learnt and felt so much safer at home and have liked the flexibilities of this experience.  I have had long correspondences with some parents with children fearful of school, with autism, with high levels of self-regulation (some gifted, many not), with experiences of bullying and they thrived alone at home.  How powerful to think how some parents could be involved in the new grammar, maybe not just at home, but within schools. We have so much to learn from this experience of involving parents as true partners.

In secondary school, many are now better prepared for tertiary studies - in most tertiary courses the classes are large, lectures filmed, much distance learning, and high dependence on students being self-regulated.  This is their ‘normal’. 

The best preparation for this is not small classes, lots of teacher talk, attending to compliance with the teachers’ ways, doing tasks to the class timetable, waiting for the next instruction and task. The evidence points to the power of success for those prepared to work in classes of 200, alone and with friends more than with teachers, and with higher levels of self-regulation. 

We must collate the positive learnings from COVID. AITSL, for example, has developed a Facebook group where teachers can reconnect, and I would hope add many ideas about the learnings, what we can take to the ‘new normal’ and  I encourage teachers to join. 

I know of one WA high school where teachers are writing short essays on their learning and they are most impressive (Go Clarkson). If you have no where to send these ideas, send them to me. Yes, we can discuss the negatives (and there will be some) but we should embrace the positives. 

If I know anything from the research on previous outages (hurricanes, earthquakes, strikes, wars) it is that we forget the good things and hustle face back to the comfort of the old.  We have a chance to truly make a difference to the quality, the teaching, the learning, the outcomes of schooling by using this unexpected ‘experiment’ to bring a ‘new normal’ in teaching and learning.