Last week the Premier confirmed that all students will return to classrooms on Monday 25 May 2020. Whilst we are looking forward to another step that takes us closer to our schooling norm, we also know that many of our girls can’t yet return for a variety of reasons. For them, learning from home will continue.
Over the past few weeks I have reflected on the feedback provided by teachers, parents and students. There is no doubt that adjusting to the new learning environment required all members of the community to adjust. It is also clear that many of our students were able to thrive in a virtual classroom whilst others found it more challenging.
The move to remote learning also required us to think about what it means to learn in the 21st century. What is clear is that learning today is not just about knowledge acquisition. If this was the case, all teachers would need to do is provide handouts and internet links. Jack Ma, a Chinese business magnate, philanthropist, internet and technological entrepreneur, suggests that in the digital age it is pointless to relentlessly focus on knowledge acquisition. He states, “We cannot teach our kids to be smarter than a machine. They can’t compete!” Instead he asserts we should focus on sport, music and art as well as values, care for others, independent thinking and teamwork, all things, he suggests, that make us better than a machine.
The Girls Grammar approach to online learning reflected these values – we continued to provide opportunities to engage in the range of curriculum offerings, we incorporated opportunities for students to engage with each other and collaborate on projects and, through our wellbeing activities as well as our Care teachers and classroom teachers, we continued to personally connect with our students. We endeavoured to ensure that the holistic education we offer onsite, remained evident in the learning activities we provided for home.
Although five weeks did not provide us with time to collect data to see how students performed academically in a remote learning environment, research would suggest that online classes aren’t as effective as face-to-face learning for most students. A study conducted by the American Institutes for Research and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found lower results in the online setting. Students assigned to the online option also rated their class as more difficult than did their peers assigned to the face-to-face option. Studies from New York University and the RAND Corp also found evidence that online courses were less effective. The studies found that whilst some students did do better in online courses, on average, students’ performance is lower, particularly for students who struggle academically.
It is not surprising that face-to-face teaching is generally more effective, particularly in schools like Girls Grammar that value relationships as vital for academic success. Students who struggle in classrooms, where teachers can monitor their reactions, quickly see the work and check in regularly, are more likely to struggle online. Disengagement in particular can be difficult to monitor and address when the teacher and student are not in the same room.
Regardless of the environment, however, quality teaching is the most important in-school factor influencing student achievement (OECD, 2005). The quality of teaching outweighs the impact of any other school education program or policy in improving student performance (Jensen, Hunter, Sonnemann, and Cooper 2014). Quality teachers understand what students know and what they don’t know. They know how to help them learn new material, how to engage them, how to ask questions that allow them to monitor understanding. They are able to provide opportunities for students to collaborate, to problem-solve and to apply their knowledge to new situations.
As we transition back to the classroom, I’d like to acknowledge our teachers and thank them for preparing and delivering high quality remote learning for the first five weeks of Term 2. They invested time and energy into their own learning to ensure that the girls were provided with more than just content. They provided a number of ways for students to access their learning as well as for students to maintain social connections, with their peers and with their teachers. They also individually monitored students to check their understanding and engagement, to gain feedback on students’ progress and to adapt lessons aimed at maximising student outcomes.
Without doubt there is a lot that can be learned from the experiences of the first half of Term 2. I am thankful for the way our community has approached learning from home, but I do look forward to when all our girls can be back in the classroom, a learning environment that ultimately is better for learners.
Mrs Deanne Johnston