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Pedagogy and the corona classroom

Speakers: Donald Clark and Toby Marshall

Chair: Harley Richardson


Last Wednesday, 15 April, I attended an online meeting, entitled ‘Pedagogy and the corona classroom’ about how education can and should respond to the recent restrictions in the wake of covid-19. For what are obvious reasons by now, the Education Forum of the Academy of Ideas used the online forum, Zoom, for the first time for its discussion rather than its regular venue in London. Following the national lockdown and social distancing rules, there is an exciting opportunity to welcome more members and guests from across the country who can now log in remotely, if they have the privilege of Zoom. The format for these meetings tends to follow a similar pattern. Guest speakers offer their thoughts before audience members are invited to participate. A virtual ‘raise hand’ was always quickly spotted by Harley Richardson, who acted as Chairperson.

With the aid of two excellent introductory speakers, Toby Marshall and Donald Clark, the audience considered the benefits of the remote learning, which has been rather imposed upon teachers following the national lockdown and mandatory closure of schools. What are the benefits and drawbacks of online technologies in teaching and learning? Zoom, I think, is an excellent platform for public meetings. There were forty or so audience members who joined the discussion last Wednesday. If nothing else I think that the future of public debating will only be enhanced by such platforms as such forums now have the potential to reach a wider geographical base.

Without quoting anyone directly these are my thoughts, based on what I heard. The impact on education of covid-19 has rather hastened a trend which has been discussed for a number of years: the use of new technologies, including virtual and online learning, in primary and secondary education. Before deciding on the role of social media, online meeting platforms, intranet software and video streaming (to name just a few) in education, the question which needs to be asked again is, what is teaching and learning? This is a question that the Education Forum has been discussing for a number of years (it is not an easy one and should be subject to constant revision). I feel that a great deal of understanding about teaching and learning comes from defining what it is not. One comment at the recent Zoom meeting, made before by a member of the Education Forum, is that accessing information is not the same as acquiring knowledge (nor understanding).

I think the distinction between tools or platforms which provide information and actually lead to understanding something is an important one. Moreover, I am not sure that new technologies can, in themselves, facilitate understanding as much as they can provide information. In the internet age, information is very easy to find; it is not the same as knowledge. If information availability determines knowledge then children today should be smarter than ever before (I don’t argue that they are not by the way). Such availability should also mean that teachers are, to an extent, redundant if the availability of information is enough to acquire knowledge. A child could theoretically remain at home, read a given website, and be thereafter educated. If only things were that simple.

Take Psychology A Level, for instance, and the cognitive approach (which has led to so much useful research about how we memorise, think and make decisions). There really is a plethora of information online, and in textbooks, about the cognitive approach. The information is overwhelming. By and large, and to make matters better, the dominant information is, it seems to me, often very accurate and formal. So, if you are a student, and you want to know about the cognitive approach in psychology, you have a library ticket, you have online access and you can read, there would not be a problem, in theory, with you understanding all about the cognitive approach. Very often, despite the information available, many students find understanding the cognitive approach difficult even after two years. It is a complicated approach. The point is that the vast availability of information does not necessarily mean that the student will know and understand what the cognitive approach is; indeed, the availability of information might even make it harder to see the wood for the trees.

I think that this distinction is important because many teachers are using virtual technology to provide students with information. I am sure that most teachers are aware that this is not the same as knowledge, and yet the objective seems to be that if you can just get information to students then everything good will emerge from there. This would explain why children are being given quite lengthy pieces of work to do during the lockdown in, what might seem to some of them, one long cover lesson. Just because a child understands what to do, does not mean that they are learning something.

As I sat listening to Toby Marshall and Donald Clark, this is what I thought mostly about. If teachers don’t have a clear idea what teaching and learning is then technology will not tell you. I think that, in the current time, virtual learning has limitations for primary and secondary school learning. This is mainly because the situation (of covid-19) developed so quickly that there was little time to really decide what to do during the lockdown. At the same time there are exciting opportunities. For that reason I hope that virtual learning does not fall by the wayside only because teachers associate it, through classical conditioning, with the stress and uncertainty around covid-19 (to coin another psychology approach).

Ultimately, I think that virtual learning will prove very useful for teachers. In a year’s time, presuming that UK education is more or less back to normal, the current year 10 and 12 students are going to need extra support in preparing for examinations. True, they are all in the same boat, but the boat will have written on the side – we are worried! This is where everything being learned now about Microsoft Teams and Zoom, for instance, could be effective in supporting students through their examinations. Extra revision classes, using Teams, when students are on study leave, for example.

I don’t see a time when virtual learning can replace learning for primary and secondary education. It can offer a supporting function if teachers can identify what they want to do for students to learn. However, in order for a student to really engage and understand something, especially up until the age of 16, they rely upon, and need, face to face interaction. As people get older they become more suited to working in a ‘remote’ way. This is why universities such as The Open University and Birkbeck can successfully offer tertiary education through distance learning. Still, even The Open University’s website, brilliant thought it is, cannot impart wisdom into a learner. It does have a fantastic online Library which can help to develop wisdom.

On the subject of libraries I don’t hear much of a focus anywhere about reading as a form of independent learning during the lockdown. If UK schools had it as a central objective to create a generation of readers, many of the problems of what children should do in a lockdown would not be as pressing. Reading fosters independence, helps the development of wisdom, imparts wisdom, entertains and so on. What would be great is a UK education website, free to access, with which books children should read for particular subjects at different ages. Again, the website can’t make anyone read the books, but it can at least facilitate an expectation of what to read.

Whilst teaching and learning tends to mean the nuts and bolts of the academic curriculum in schools, of course schools do a lot more than that. An important point made in the Education Forum meeting was about the limitations of virtual learning when it comes to pastoral support. The school is a place of learning and of social interactions. This includes tutors who oversee the welfare of students – can new technologies really facilitate such support from a distance? In addition, again discussed in the meeting, there is an ethical issue about whether schools are disrupting family life by setting work and expecting parents to help tutor children. There is a danger that teachers, in a well-meaning attempt to support students’ learning, end up affecting family relationships for the worse. I am sure that no teacher wishes to intrude upon the family home in any way, but when children are hogging the computer to do homework or receiving emails from teachers about homework, it could change the way that the family behave towards one another. It is also up to parents how they raise their children in the end, within the boundaries of reason.

In my experience most teachers see new technologies, and remote learning, as an ideal opportunity to strengthen education, albeit under impromptu circumstances. At the same time, there is some agreement that remote learning is no replacement for the traditional classroom: there is a reason why the classroom format has lasted. It is hard to see how new technologies will do much more than support teachers in their endeavours. To do that, teachers need to be clear on what they want to achieve.

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