The need to reconsider our teaching and learning

It took less than a month to move from hearing about a virus in a distant part of the globe, to being under strict stay-at-home orders along with billions of people from around the world. Among the many essential services and jobs that are being disrupted, one of the most concerning for most people is the education of their children. Experts warn that this pandemic may not simply disappear, but may ebb and flow, leading to expectations of possible disruptions occasionally in the future. How do we as teachers use this opportunity to reflect on our teaching and learning practices, and consider what such disruptions imply for education as we know it?

Over the past few years, many schools have adopted a 1:1 device policy for the students, and several huge investments have been made by school to upgrade the technology infrastructure within their buildings. This has led to more use of technology within classrooms, better connectivity within buildings, and better communications within the school community. These did help increase teacher efficiency, manage grades and attendance, track homework and classwork submissions, improve teacher-parent communication, and facilitate a host of other system level processes. However, these improvements were never instituted to make learning easier from remote locations. The technology use for learning was more of an additional activity, rather than a thoughtful and deliberate exercise in harnessing the power of digital tools to enhance student engagement and improve understanding.

Technology tools developed for education have the potential to re-invent traditional classroom practices as we know it, and to reorganize the entire schooling experience for students. This day and age calls for us to move from a schooling culture which revolves around reinforcing basic skills in maths, language and science, to one that is characterized by a culture of deeply involved learning, that transcends the formal classroom to homes and other informal learning spaces. Technologies in this case, can be used as a bridge between formal and informal learning. Teachers can and need to enhance their pedagogy to move from rote learning to more collaborative learning environments. Learning from the student end should include knowledge-building, cognitive engagement, and activities aimed at developing 21st century skills. These can be achieved through the use of online discussion boards, student generated content, peer feedback and evaluation, and collaborative learning. Many online technology tools have been developed specifically to meet such needs of a collaborative learning classrooms. However, these were not used, or grossly underused by our schools simply because there was no pressing need to do so. Given the situation we are in now, this is a good time for us to explore these tools, figure out how to integrate this into our classroom practice, and eventually prepare students to be better learners.

This pandemic has highlighted the need for students to be prepared for disruption and change. To keep their education progressing, students need to take ownership of and be directors of their own learning. This implies that as teachers, one of the most important things we need to teach our students is how to teach themselves. We need to help our students develop the capacity to learn and grow and become better at being independent, and we need to help them develop learning and innovation skills that they can use in the future. In other words, we need to educate now to enhance the learner?s ability to function well in the future in this rapidly changing world.

Once this phase of the pandemic is behind us, we as teachers need to reorganize school work and homework to better engage the affordances of technology, to help students pursue deeper learning rather than memorization of materials, help them develop essential 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and re-invent our classrooms to be seamlessly integrated with the help of technology so that student learning can continue both inside the classrooms and from home.

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Betty Chandy
Director for Online Learning at PennGSE Catalyst

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