Learning from the students in lockdown

It’s imperative that we listen to students and learn from their experiences if we are to come back stronger

Steve Boot

Associate Vice Principal for Curriculum

There have been a plethora of thought-provoking and inspiring articles written over the past few months, regarding all aspects of education, since schools were forced to change in nature from March 2020. Of course, at the centre of everything we do as practitioners should be the students. Accordingly, we should aim to capture these unprecedented times from the students’ perspectives.

In particular, we should seek the answer to three questions:

  1. What do students like about learning in lockdown?
  2. What do students not like about learning in lockdown?
  3. What are students missing most about school?

Answering these questions will provide us with an inestimable source to help us build a better, bolder and more fulfilling way of schooling that has student voice at its core. After all, to ensure that the changes this forced experiment may bring have a lasting legacy and real benefit, they need to begin and end with the students in our classroom, virtual or not!

Through the collection and analysis of student voice, we are able to get a sense of how students are adapting to learning during lockdown. It allows students to raise issues, start conversations, and express their opinions. In addition, students gain confidence, increase ownership of their learning and feel valued as they are shown that their opinions matter. However, we must also note the obstacles that the collection of student voices may bring: students may lack the motivation to get involved; the data may contradict itself; the data collected is a snapshot of one point in time from one cohort; and lastly, students may find it difficult to feel comfortable sharing feedback with teachers. Nonetheless, the benefits clearly outweigh the drawbacks – if the feedback is acted upon by schools, students can see the impact that they can have, not only on their school culture, but also on their own futures, thus resulting in increased student agency through voice and choice.

We captured the student voice through two methods; the first through a student questionnaire delivered to all students, and secondly, through students writing a short paragraph titled ‘A typical school day during lockdown’.

So, based solely on student feedback, when schools reopen – what should we lose? What should we keep? And, what are students missing most about school? Ultimately, what is the legacy that the students would like to see?

What would they lose?

1. The one-size-fits-all school day: 61% of students believe they are able to manage their study time effectively and easily to complete assignments on time. One key theme that a significant number of students positively commented on was the ability to plan a learning or study schedule that worked for them in their unique setting. Some students benefited from working in the morning, and some in the evening, some took multiple short breaks and some longer breaks. When commenting on the school day one student wrote, ‘it can get difficult to keep to this schedule, therefore from day to day it may vary… it’s usually late at night’.

So why keep a one size fits all school day? Many students feel they are benefiting from setting their own routines and work times, giving them more control over pace and place. Working when they feel most energised, focused or inspired could increase student motivation and productivity.

2. The crowded curriculum: Another theme that emerged was the view that they are receiving an excessive workload through the virtual school, and in some cases, students reported that they were being asked to complete more work through virtual school than if they had been at physical school. This is exemplified by one student who commented, ‘We are set a lot more work, [more] than what we would [have received] in class’. Another student commented ‘ In some subjects, the amount of work set is close to excessive’.

This fittingly reflects the crowded knowledge-based curriculum we are all accustomed to teaching which often limits student choice and depth of learning. Here, we need to emphasise learning over teaching. Too often we focus on remembering huge amounts of knowledge when students should be collaborating to research and record, analyse, evaluate; learning through this process and becoming self educators who become active rather than passive learners. It appears that much of what we do in the physical and virtual classroom goes against this and does not prepare students for life in the real world.

3. Fixed Deadlines: Short term deadlines during this period appear to greatly demotivate students. When asked what they would like to lose from digital school one student commented ‘The tight deadlines’, another, ‘The short deadlines for each assignment’ and another, ‘Less [short-term] deadlines to be assigned as it can be overwhelming’.

Do all activities need a fixed deadline? Being more flexible and open to negotiating deadlines can allow students to receive feedback when they feel it would be most beneficial meaning they can take more ownership of the pace of learning. On the other hand, being able to meet tight deadlines and working under pressure is deeply embedded in today’s working culture. Is there a balance here?

What do they want to Keep?

1.Blended learning: 66% of students replied that they believe a complete course can be given using a virtual classroom and 37% of students replied that they believed learning online is more motivating than a regular course. Furthermore, 63% of students replied that face-to-face contact with teachers would benefit their learning. One student summarised, ‘I think Gsuite is really useful so I would love if  that was used more, say in a way to give people extra instructions if they are struggling or have already completed the activity’. Students overwhelmingly talked about the benefits of online teacher tutorials and feedback sessions – be they live, or pre-recorded. Numerous students asked for, ‘more Google Hangouts so we can be guided through the lessons.’ Another commented,  ‘I think that [the] Google Meets we have done are good because we can directly ask teachers questions and see them explaining things.’

An emphasis on a blended curriculum, of digital educational materials and opportunities for interaction using more traditional and innovative classroom methods, would be beneficial to students. This would allow them access to lesson content and activities before and after the lesson on an online platform and provide some element of student control over time, place, path, and pace. 

2. Independent and socialised learning – As one student concluded, ‘We get to manage our own time and we get to work at our own pace’. Whilst some students replied they found it challenging to learn at home on their own, many replied that it created opportunities they did not previously have. In fact, 74% of students said they liked the independence that lockdown has presented them with and 52% of students stated that they have independently collaborated with other students during lockdown. 

Many students are displaying initiative, resourcefulness and creativity in finding solutions to the problems they are encountering becoming proactive rather than reactive learners. In allowing students to continue to develop these skills through inquiry-based group learning, students are further taking control of their own learning.

3. Learning habits – Poor time management, lack of organisation and lack of motivation are themes that came up multiple times. Students revealed, ‘…in lockdown, with no motivation, I find it… difficult to complete the work’, another wrote, ‘Finding motivation is also harder and you miss out on interaction with others’.

Therefore learning habits, such as adaptability, work ethic, time management and problem-solving, need a more prominent place across the curriculum allowing students to learn strategies to develop these skills and to understand the impact that the mastery of these skills can have on their own future. 

4. The power of feedback: Students overwhelmingly commented positively about individualised, private feedback they received through the live chat function or mail. Furthermore, 63% of students replied that face-to-face contact with teachers would benefit their learning. Additionally, two of the top five strategies students are using to help them learn at home is asking for help from a family member or carrying out independent research. Notably, asking for help from a teacher was only the fourth strategy students said they were applying.  

Therefore, why should feedback just come from the teacher? Students should have the opportunity to seek feedback from multiple sources: an expert in climate change, a politician, a nurse, or another student can provide invaluable feedback for our students. Personally, when schools reopen I will be more inclined to use the ‘ask three before me’ rule.

What are they missing?

1. Interaction with students and teachers: Although 74% of students responded to liking the increased independence, many voiced that they are missing the student-teacher and student-student interactions. In particular, students are missing teacher explanations and demonstrations, as well as being able to collaborate, discuss and compete with other students. Simply put, students are missing the classroom.

2. ‘Friends’, ‘breakfast’ and ‘table tennis’ – A vast majority of students shared the fact that they are missing their friends and teachers, especially during break and lunchtimes. The social environment of ‘play’ and the role of the hidden curriculum within schools, for many students, is where most of the essential learning takes place such as the transmission of values, beliefs and school culture.

So, what can we learn from the students during lockdown that will improve education when schools return?  Students are realising the benefits that digital, distance learning permits: increased control over the place, path, pace and choice of learning, to name but a few. Students are also missing physical school and realising the benefits that provide: interactions, discussions, feedback and socialised learning within the hidden curriculum.  The skills, knowledge and understanding that students are gaining, academically and personally, during lockdown are allowing many students to develop the skills needed to take control of their own learning and eventually, I hope, allow them to take on the world as active global citizens. Student voice, be that regarding school structures, learning environments, topics, is vital if we want to build an educational system that benefits them and will ultimately be shaped by them. 

From a personal point of view, what this has highlighted is the importance of the students being part of the curriculum and pastoral design process from the very beginning. When schools do reopen, I will be the first to sit down with students to further explore their thoughts and suggestions.

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