About a year after I wrote a blogpost reflecting on the influence home schooling had on parent’s consciousness of student learning, Sydney (Australia) went into another lockdown.
My nine year old daughter had been wishing for another round of ‘Covid-learning’ for some time. She had thoroughly enjoyed her initial experience of learning from home and the autonomy of controlling her own learning throughout the day. The school had issued a weekly schedule of tasks to engage with and each day, she would work out which tasks she’d tackle, and in what order. We fit refreshments and recreational breaks into the day around work and learning activities. Often, she was so engaged with her work that she continued on learning tasks ‘after school’ of her own volition.
Above: Learning from home noticeboard for scheduling and keeping track of tasks (2020)
With another round of lockdown upon us, she went into remote learning eager for the agency that she had experienced the first time. However, this time things were different. As many parents had requested more structure, more worksheets and more all-class ‘lectures’, remote learning looked more like a typical school timetable. Starting each day with roll call, the day would unfold with a series of successive whole-class Zooms for different subjects, punctuated by recess from 10 to 10.20am and lunchtime from 12.20 to 1.15pm. This time round, rather than exercises with space to infuse imagination and creativity, tasks were now more straight-forward and direct.
On the first day, my daughter missed a few Zoom classes when she had gotten engaged in her work. Missing one class would mean instructions for the next task were missed. With each day pre-scheduled into 40-minute blocks there was a need to focus on showing up and less opportunity to settle in and engage with the work. Most Zoom calls were all-class teacher directed with few opportunities to engage with other students in smaller groups.
Disillusioned with this new form of home learning, my daughter rapidly disengaged and decided that she now hated Covid-learning. Often ‘in class’, multiple computer windows would be open at the same time, concurrently chatting with friends and playing online games. In her previous experience of home learning, my daughter wanted me nearby in case she needed help. This time round she wanted us out of the room so we wouldn’t pick up on her multi-tasking. We encouraged her to get through her work so she could move onto other educational endeavours she would rather engage with, however this time round, she felt that the timetable constrained when things should be done, leaving little time or enthusiasm beyond 3pm each day for other more self-directed learning interests.
Above: Multi-tasking during a class presentation
It’s been sad seeing a nine-year olds high hopes for an engaging learning experience be dashed and for curiosity and engagement to go out the door. However, we also recognise that this iteration of remote learning has been a huge success for many of my daughter’s friends. For me, these different sides of the coin reinforce a few things:
- We often hear that in learning, one size does not fit all. If that’s the case, then whether face-to-face or online, how do we break from the pattern of one teacher in one room with multiple students all doing the same thing at the same time? How do we harness the affordances of the physical and/or virtual space to support the varied learning needs of students?
- Technology offers opportunities to support more differentiated learning. If used merely to reinforce traditional schooling structures, the multiple affordances offered by technology to support and track student learning remain latent.
- As well as being a place to support student social, emotional and academic needs, schools enable parents the time and space to engage with work. Even if we do desire more varied pedagogical practices to engage student learning, the challenges of juggling working and learning from home can direct us to default to what is easiest to get the job done.
These issues point to a need for new ways of thinking about schooling which consider the perspectives of teachers, students and their parents/carers. If Covid has reinforced for us that traditional modes of schooling is disengaging for many of our learners, then how can we improve learning for the betterment of all students? What things do we need to refine? And what do we need to change permanently?
Covid-learning is an opportunity for us to reflect and take stock of how we want to move forward. However, to shift our mental models, Economist John Maynard Keynes noted, “the difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in the old ones which ramify, for those of us brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds” . We need to invest the time and space to deeply reconsider what education could be and how we might go about it. The only thing holding us back is the past.
Dr Fiona Young is a Studio Director at Hayball, an Australian architectural practice with a strong focus on research in school design. Fiona’s research bridges the design and use of affordances of innovative learning environments.
 Young, Cleveland and Imms (2019) The affordances of innovative learning environments for deep learning, educators’ and architects’ perceptions. DOI: 10.1007/s13384-019-00354-y
 Keynes, J.M. (1961) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan & Co., p. viii
For decades educators have talked about the need for differentiation “in the classroom” and your daughter’s experience of online learning illustrates the continued importance of that not only in but beyond the confines of classroom walls. The shift in the school’s approach leads me to wonder the extent to which parents, informed by their own experience of school and fear for their own children’s education, make good changes so much harder to implement. Thanks so much for your personal case study, Fiona.