Twelve things Covid-19 has taught us about education and schooling

School is more than a physical building. It is the fulcrum which draws us together on a daily basis

School plays a fundamental role in our broader society, supporting children to thrive and flourish in a holistic way. Photograph: iStock

School plays a fundamental role in our broader society, supporting children to thrive and flourish in a holistic way. Photograph: iStock

 

As the school year draws to a close, it is an opportune time to reflect on what we have learned about education and schooling over the past few months. While there is a sense that everyone is fed up, the uncertainty of what is to come with the physical reopening of schools weighs heavily on many people’s minds.

The physical closure of schools during the lockdown has presented many challenges. It has evoked a range of responses initially characterised by an appreciation for our teachers and the work they do, to a more recent rhetoric of criticism and frustration that teachers and schools are doing too much or not doing enough. It is the stuff of rock and hard place.

Many children have struggled for a variety of reasons. They miss their friends, teachers and SNAs and, no matter how hard we try, a Zoom call with 30 children quickly descends into dis/organised chaos filled with the joy of seeing each other and the frustration of not being able to speak and interact with friends in a really dynamic way.

Dr Deirdre McGillicuddy is a mother, a primary school teacher and assistant professor in education at University College Dublin

It has been well documented by organisations such as the Children’s Rights Alliance that children who are particularly vulnerable within our society have been especially impacted by school closures, including those living in poverty, children who have additional needs and those who require specialised support and care.

Very quickly the digital divide has emerged, with profound implications for students who don’t have access to the technology, wifi or digital literacy required to engage with online schooling. Many students are grappling with additional care responsibilities limiting their ability to engage in learning.

School defines the fibre of who we are as Irish citizens and how we understand ourselves, and our rights

There are symbolic occasions along the educational journey that are considered rites of passage, moments of transition, marking and celebrating with the wider community how our young people are progressing within the education system. Children will now engage in transitions (such as into primary school, from junior to senior school, from primary to secondary school) missing out on the traditional celebrations, preparations and rituals. This is no more evident than marking the end of primary and secondary education where graduation ceremonies bring communities together to celebrate young people’s achievements and to prepare them for this formative step into the future.

So, what has Covid-19 taught us about education and schooling?

1. School is more than a physical building. It is the heart of a community. It is the fulcrum which draws us together on a daily basis. School plays a fundamental role in our broader society, supporting children to thrive and flourish in a holistic way. It defines the fibre of who we are as Irish citizens and how we understand ourselves, and our rights, within the broader globalised world.

2. Relational and socioemotional dynamics comprise the fabric of schooling. Schools and classrooms are fundamentally embedded within the complexity of the relational. Teachers care deeply. The work of teachers and SNAs is deeply embedded within the relational and emotional work of building, nurturing and supporting relationships. These relationships are so important in supporting children’s learning and holistic development through a pedagogy of empathy. As hard as many have tried, this is extremely challenging to replicate through the school virtual learning environment. The work of curriculum cannot be effectively realised when detached from the relational.

3. Education and schooling is innately pastoral with care and empathy at its core. This has most recently been evidenced in the outreach activities of schools delivering food parcels, resources and social and emotional support to children and their families. Much of the work undertaken by teachers and SNAs in our classrooms is embedded within this ethic of care and empathy. Schools are particularly conscious of supporting children’s wellbeing as they transition back into the classroom in August.

4. Performativity holds higher status than process. John Dewey, a prominent educational reformer, stated that “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”. Yet the evidence of what has been achieved by our students and teachers is measured using performative aspects of education. This ranges from the use of predictive grades in the Leaving Certificate to evaluating interactions and portfolios through online platforms. Although there is an increasing emphasis on continuous assessment, it is still summative assessment which garners most weight and power in deciding children and young people’s trajectory within the education system.

5. Deis is an essential resource for supporting our most vulnerable communities. This scheme has, without doubt, proven its worth during the pandemic. Schools working under the Deis scheme have supported children and their families, not only in terms of their engagement with learning, but also in terms of providing food, pastoral care and emotional support as communities grapple to cope in this profoundly changed environment. The widening gap in attainment that will emerge from school closures will be profound, impacting not only in terms of learning and socioemotional outcomes, but also in terms of future life experiences and opportunities. Greater and sustained investment in Deis will be required to further support schools as they negotiate the pandemic with their pupils and communities.

We cannot assume children have equal access to resources to engage in learning at home

6. Collaboration between schools and support services is crucial. Schools are at the epicentre of our children’s lives. Outside of familial and care networks, schools are where children spend the majority of their time as they negotiate their childhoods. They become important sites for identifying and supporting any additional needs pupils might have. In order to ensure cohesion to support the needs of children it is imperative that there are adequate support services available and that they adopt a collaborative and integrative approach with schools.

7. Schooling at distance is highly problematic. Notwithstanding the above discussion, engaging children in school work at a distance creates a deep educational chasm. Not only does it divide teachers from pupils, it serves to create fractures in how we understand teaching and learning within our broader society. Classrooms have suddenly become public property, a free for all, open to critique based on assumptions rather than on deep pedagogical understanding. Connectedness plays an integral role in engaging children in learning in school and yet the screen often becomes a barrier between the learner and their wider learning community. The more removed the emotional and relational aspect of learning, the greater the distance between school and the learner.

8. Daily interactions are fundamental to learning in school. Children’s friendships and their relationships with their teachers and SNAs are critical to supporting their positive experience in school. The greeting at the door, the smile on the corridor, the high-five, the positive affirmation, the nod of reassurance all play an important role in signalling children’s sense of belonging and achievement in school. These informal interactions are as important as the structured lesson planning and delivery of resources. They contribute to children’s sense of learner identity while building their confidence for engaging in the classroom.

9. Learning should be fun to foster creativity and innovation. Engaging children in fun, self-directed activities allows them to explore, take risks, build confidence and learn new skills ultimately fostering their creativity and innovation. The importance of creativity and innovation has emerged as especially important for problem solving during the pandemic. It is important that we don’t lose playfulness or fun in education and school.

10. It is inequitable to make assumptions about learner access to resources at home. We cannot assume children have equal access to resources to engage in learning at home. This includes equipment (such as printers, laptops, stationary), place (a table to work at) and time to learn (especially if they have additional care/work responsibilities).

11. Technology enables and excludes learners. Technology has emerged as a really important lifeline for us all during the pandemic. It has enabled schools to contact and engage with pupils in myriad ways and on an array of platforms. Indeed, at this point in time we are all well and truly Zoomed, Seesawed, Kahooted, Padleted and Aladdined out. However, it has also served to exclude, particularly those who do not have the resources (laptop, wifi, software) or digital literacy they need to meaningfully engage. Such a paradox is inequitable and requires urgent attention.

12. A positive and open relationship between home and school is imperative. The pandemic has truly exposed the absolute importance of a positive and open relationship between home and school. New ways of communicating during school closures has established/strengthened the foundation upon which these relationships can be nurtured into the future. To do so is to enhance the learning experiences of our children at home and in school.

I’m really really really really excited about seeing you after this is all over

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it seeks to open up the conversation not only about the purpose of education, but about its value and importance within Irish society. In his recent address to sixth class pupils, President Michael D Higgins stated that “school is where we learn how to be part of a community and, most importantly, how to include others in that sense of community, by being kind and supportive and generous”.

Rather than looking to schools and school leaders for the answer, maybe it is time for us to reach out in the community, in the spirit of the true Irish meitheal, and ask what can we do to help support schools and teachers as they now face into the difficult and challenging task of physically reopening their doors and classrooms in August. Coming together in this way can only help support a thriving and flourishing school community.

In the words of my seven-year-old in an email to his teacher, “I’m really really really really excited about seeing you after this is all over”. I have no doubt the feeling is mutual.