COVID-19: The Make or Break Work Experience

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

One worthwhile aspect of this period of lock-down is that it has allowed many of us plenty of time and space to reflect. In his new Podcast, 'Rethink', the musician and environmental campaigner, Jarvis Cocker discusses how we can work together to improve people’s lives by sharing the earth’s resources and working towards making the world a better place for everyone. Long-lasting, beneficial change across society is at the forefront of many people's minds as the lock-down eases and the ‘new normal’ emerges. The question arises: What will that mean for the world of education, especially for students and teachers?

As lock-down forced our schools to close in March, I had a sinking feeling, How was I supposed to teach myself how to work remotely from home? This was particularly poignant given that my laptop is older than my Year 7 students! Despite being IT proficient, initially I felt overwhelmed by the challenge of learning how to use ‘new technology’ with only remote assistance from IT colleagues.

My experience precipitated me to consider what IT issues our students maybe facing while home learning. I discovered that some of them did not own the necessary equipment. This was swiftly resolved by school providing them with laptops with the internet connection paid for and set up.

While many schools were ready to launch home learning in March, including through online learning platforms, this was not necessarily the case for other schools. For the first time it was necessary for me to provide online teaching resources. Through this experience I also discovered that many of our secondary age students did not know how to access, open, or write an email. There appears to be a mismatch in student engagement with different forms of digital technology, for example, many students seem reluctant to communicate through email whereas they will readily socialise online. Therefore, significant numbers of students have struggled to access e-learning, for some there was a sense of confusion and anxiety. What is even more striking was the resilience, expertise and confidence which is required by students to access the tasks provided by well-meaning teachers.

At the beginning of lockdown, I was thrilled to discovered the Fieldwork Studies Council (FSC) were offering #Fieldwork Live and online webinars for teachers, as well as providing free training in follow up fieldwork activities. I decided to use these materials as a springboard to reactivate my ArcGIS account and Survey 123. With my new-found resilience, I embraced the challenge to provide meaningful learning which was accessible to every student in my care. The Institute of Fiscal Studies Report ‘Learning during the lockdown: real-time data on children’s experiences during home learning’ states that at least 55% of secondary school age students were spending more than one hour a day participating in off-screen activities. The fact some of these activities were probably outdoors reinforced my determination to target the learning tasks accordingly. Thus, we designed a coastal management project and sent it by post and by email to the students. Then something wonderful happened…

It was a Monday lunchtime, my phone started pinging ... followed by ping, ping, ping, and yet more pings. I thought there must be a national state of emergency. To my surprise and delight, I received photographs from six students documenting the arrival of a large barge carrying rock armour from Norway to right outside the homes of some of my students. They were keen to share this news. GCSE geographers were choosing to report live geography to me ― their teacher!

For me, this was a wonderful and encouraging example of my students engaging with a community issue. They are all too aware that they live on the fastest eroding coastline in Europe. The extension of existing defences has been a long-fought battle. In reality, for them, it signalled the longevity of the very existence of their family homes and businesses. For those teaching geography elsewhere across England and Wales, the situation is a golden opportunity to update case study knowledge and begin to debate the issues associated with hard engineering. Taking time to reflect on students initiating sharing their observations, insights and knowledge must be the key to how we ‘Rethink’ the student/teacher learning dynamic.

As we consider more students returning to the classroom, we must consider the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers. According to the Department for Education, the gap could have widened by 75% We must also consider those students who have found that home learning has helped them to understand how they learn best, something we may not have valued before. Could a blended form of learning help some of our harder to reach attendees bridge the divide and get back to face to face learning? For our most able this could be having the independence to work in their own space, or to explore extra-curricular interests that enhance their curriculum knowledge? Or most importantly could we see a return of creativity to the curriculum at GCSE? Geography lends itself to outdoor learning, investigating a hypothesis can develop student creativity, problem-solving, independence, confidence, and more importantly, resilience.

For those who influence the way students are examined, secondary school leaders must surely reflect on the practice of using Key Stage 2 SATs data to inform GSCE target grades, but also the practice of terminal assessment which was adopted ironically to bring the British system more in line with our European counterparts! The geography examination has lost the tiered paper, leaving many students feeling the burden of overwhelming content and the inaccessibility of higher tariff questions.

I feel for those students who are due to take their GCSE exams in July 2021. They were the first cohort to do the current Key Stage 2 SATs and now they are the first cohort to be assessed against a fourteen week gap of face to face learning! As a consequence, it is imperative that we plan meticulously while being consistently calm in our approach to our students alongside working with our colleagues to help our students feel supported. It would be wise to avoid endlessly discussing what the students have missed out on.

Let's rise to the challenge! Good luck everyone, the ‘new normal’ awaits.

Sarah Harris-Smith

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