School, well, education is not just formal learning

I’ve changed the title of this post about four times to try to reflect my thinking! Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about this since March 2020, which is unsurprising really given my professional role and also because I have four school-aged children. But it wasn’t until yesterday that a few things really clicked into place in my thinking about the differences between school, in this case, and learning generally. I guess they have been rumbling around in my head for months, certainly in relation to my work but I hadn’t thought about them about school too, and feel that now I can start to articulate some of them.

Remote school from the sofa

Yesterday was the first day of all four children learning remotely with Mike and I supervising. It went ok, all things considered. The children coped better than me, I was cross and upset about having to do this at all. And also yesterday we had confirmation that university staff could be considered critical workers, prompting a conversation about whether we wanted to act on this or continue with remote schooling (I’m not calling it home education because it isn’t!). Thinking about whether or not to send the children to school really crystallised for me the challenges of where we are at with the delivery of education online across all sectors. I should add at this point that I am aware that I am hugely fortunate to be even thinking about this as a choice as so many people cannot. Despite the logistical challenges of remote schooling for the foreseeable future (I’m pessimistic about any post-February half term return to be honest) we have decided to keep the children at home.

There are a number of factors behind this decision but the main one is that “school” in the normal sense is so much more than just the formal learning. Its the connection with friends, its the development of an appreciation of diversity, meeting people from different backgrounds and with different approaches, its the serendipitous nature of playtime, its the interactions with the teachers, the art projects, the science, PE lessons, trips, lunches, school uniform, being out of the house at a particular time, the classroom environment, learning to function in a big organisation, how to cope with rules, friend politics, the journey to school and so on. So little of the school experience is based on the actual formal learning. If you think back to your school days, how much of the actual lessons do you remember? I remember more about the trips or school dinners than I do about the actual maths lessons, except that one where they gave out the test results in grade order, lowest last, which was mine. And of course, so much learning happens beyond school too.

Different learning

The substance of the formal lessons can be delivered online. And it is. My kids are hugely fortunate in that the schools are organised and the staff are working so hard to make the experience as good as they can. It must be exhausting for them and they are doing an amazing job. Yet, so much of that rich, wider experience is inevitably lost with everything being delivered online. The logistics for the schools are hugely challenging. I’ve noticed how hard it is for my children to engage with some of the lessons without all those other cues that signal to them that they are in a formal learning environment. Yet, they can see their friends online and reaffirm some connections.

This is similar to the situation we find ourselves in at universities. Yes, we can deliver the lectures online, yes we can publish content, but how can we recreate some of the pastoral and full student experience online? How can we foster serendipitous connections when scheduling a teaching or meeting session? How can we ensure our students are engaging and asking for help when they don’t understand? How can we break up the online learning with a variety of activities without overburdening our students and also ensuring everyone has equality of access to opportunities? How can we elicit responses from the majority of students to our questions and prompts?

Answering these challenges involves training, planning, support and time, which may well be in short supply at the moment! Its so hard to see so much of the education experience being stripped down to the minimum because of the necessity of situation we find ourselves in. We are all trying as students, parents and teachers to create some of the additional enrichment activities but as in so much of our lives there are many things we cannot do. I do not think there is an easy answer or a perfect way to remote school or deliver education under the current circumstances, and I have been working with online learning for twenty years! It is all hard. We can hope that however we design our learning and support that it is motivated by a desire to spark a love for learning and a natural curiosity in our learners, whatever their age. So that this experience makes our learners value the whole learning experience when it returns. I am hopeful that we will learn and grow from this extreme situation to create better learning opportunities in the future that harness our innate desire to connect face-to-face with the possibilities of technology. But for now, I pause to reflect on what is lost and what is gained so that this can inform that future, when it comes.

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