Unprecedented times and the fragile learners

November 9, 2020

Sarah O'Connor

A novel learning journey for schools and teachers

As teachers, we typically maintain our professional development by staying up to date with research and professional dialogue. Confident in our abilities to create the leaders of tomorrow, we enjoy adding to the ever-expanding repertoire that is our toolbox.

Then COVID-19 arrived and the impact it has had on health, education and the economy has been extreme. The stability of the classroom, with its rules, routines, and resources, has disappeared and required reinvention. The toolbox, that teachers had relied on to keep students engaged active participants of their own learning, was impractical. We needed to reprioritize and determine what the core of our profession was all about. Were we going to spend our energies on uniforms and presentations? Were we going to be understanding and sympathetic as we all adapted to the obviously different new environment? And the eternal question: does the camera need to be on?

Working with fragile learners – children with additional learning challenges – was a concern. In wanting to support all learners, we became aware that changing the format of education was going to impact on some students in a positive way while others would struggle. Special needs kids were at the forefront of the agenda of our concerns. How would they cope with distance learning? The idea that children would suffer due to limited access to teachers was daunting for students and teachers. The concern was significantly greater when we thought about students who already had barriers to learning.

I would need to take what I do, in close proximity, with each of child and adapt it to an online/screen environment.

Online courses, even eLearning, is not a new concept

As teachers, we would need to take and adapt the best practices to these new conditions: taking what was working for individual students and to apply to a mass audience. On a global scale, we saw schools fall like dominos into closure, and we witnessed an organic movement towards a solution that was built on what had gone before. Development of practice and policy to, what was to be consistently referred to as distance learning, was born. This would apply to all children, and those students who had explicit 1:1 teaching or who had individual educational programs in school, would need to be catered to and included.

Putting the new models and practices into rubrics has helped support the process of understanding the evolution that took place. Teachers, ever the innovators, responded quickly to the new demands. The necessity to continue to educate, to inspire, and maintain relationships with our students, albeit at a distance, was paramount. Looking to the existing resources and practices was a good place to start, but we needed to learn about what web 2.0 could offer with regards to connectivity, resources, and collaborative learning. Zoom and other compatible technologies became ubiquitous and allowed us to come to terms with the minefield that is distance learning.

The new terrain offered exciting prospects. Timidly evolving developments in online education accelerated. This created an influence within technology, as well as within education, that previously had not been taken seriously enough. Teachers began collaborating with colleagues halfway around the world in different time zones to provide students with meaningful interactive online experiences and access to workshops, webinars, and opportunities, many of which will continue long after we return to the bricks and mortar of schools.

My work with special needs students spans the spectrum on needs. I engaged in distance learning that needed to work for children with literacy difficulties such as dyslexia, focus and concentration issues like ADHD, and mobility challenges such as cerebral palsy. I would need to take what I do, in close proximity, with each of child and adapt it to an online/screen environment.

Planning and preparation were key. Adapting the plans and resources would be a challenge, but also provide some advantages. I began to look at the new resources as improved ways to engage with students. I realized the benefit of the flexible schedule and of collaborative work with parents.

One of my favorite bloggers, Dr Jenny Wathall, created a renowned and celebrated graphic on the stages of eLearning. This is a model I want to unpack further. Originating from “conceptual research, including the grounding of a conceptual sustainability taxonomy with early career student affairs educators in higher education, presents a grounded conceptual sustainability taxonomy – Alive, Survive, Strive, Thrive – for educating college students and initiating scholar-practitioner contemplation, discussion, and research” (Borland 2017). The model gives us a concrete foundation to extrapolate the past journey as we look forward to achieving the unimaginable.

I am going to outline the stages of online learning as seen through the coaching model, Alive, Strive, Thrive, Arrive in relation to my own teaching. This process has allowed me to continually develop my practice and enhance my effectiveness as a teacher.

1. Alive

And we begin – the start of our journey. COVID-19 brought uncertainty, confusion and chaos. When governments communicated with schools, they gave very little notice of the expectation that students should remain at home, and teachers were simply expected to manage. It doesn’t seem to matter how computer-savvy you are, or how much experience with homeschooling or eLearning you have: A whole school closure with a massive new teaching dogma is going to unsettle the best of us. Teachers were thrown into the firefighting stage, being alive. It was awakening to the new situation and the realization that our lives as teachers were going to completely change direction.

I utilized this time to clarify the needs of my learners. I also communicated with parents about the expectations of the learning process and outcomes. Preparation was key, but there were more questions than answers. How do we communicate with our students? How do we reassure parents that we can continue to teach? And, how do we cater to the expanding social and emotional needs of the students? Time was short and good leadership took into account the needs of the teachers as well as the students and community. Expectations were already high, and it was a case of just riding the wave, by being proactive and reactive simultaneously. Through providing forums for communication and listening to concerns of the staff and the community, the teachers and management successfully guided everyone to the next stage in the cycle: How to strive.

Tools at this stage

Forums for debate and shared knowledge in schools and the community

This looked like additional meetings but provided real-time discussions required to ground people and share experiences and concerns. As a special educational teacher, my role is to support the teachers in their job of educating students. Sometimes that looks like taking a child out of class and teaching explicit concepts and knowledge at a pace that works for the individual. Sometimes it is providing the teacher with the tools to differentiate their own practice and resources. Communicating with the teachers was essential in understanding their learning outcomes, while I could better provide ideas, strategies, and recommendations for each student on my radar. I needed to attend Zoom meeting with various teaching groups and access their lessons.

Discovery and new possibilities

This is time for research and to connect to people who had previously gone through the experience. Further, it is the time to learn from others about what was happening, what to expect and how to move forwards. For some teachers this meant getting connected. Using Facebook was an incredible resource. More and more groups with different focuses popped up. I joined so many groups at the onset, some were distance learning resource groups or partnerships in online education, and some were more specific to my cohort of learners, like the blog for SEN resources.

Impact and influence

Realizing that the impressive impact of what was coming, and there that was value in evaluating the opportunities for improvement in the educational provision. Having been through SARS in 2003 in Hong Kong, as a teacher, it was clear that the time to influence the narrative was now. Keeping education at the forefront was paramount for the students in this generation. Even more, these were exciting times that could provide enhancement to delivering education. It was going to be these connections that I had with HK teachers, that was to be one of the best resources that I would learn from and rely on going forwards.

Being prepared to take risks

With anything new comes the unknown, and a risk of failing. This was a time to build support networks and explore exciting new opportunities. To think outside the box. It was much later that I was able to realize that these new practices had enhanced my teaching and I was going to have a short window of opportunity to apply them in a regular classroom, before the second wave of the pandemic.

2. Strive

Global responses to the evo news continue to rapidly evolve. The study has

To strive, means to adapt and grow as teachers. To strive demonstrates resilience – adaption in the face of adversity – and then innovation. This stage comprised of taking the values and methodology that excellent teaching and learning was founded upon and applying it so that the culture of schooling and education could continue in a different setting.

Moving to a screen interface, you soon realize how often you use a guiding hand during a handwriting session, look for eye contact in carpet time, or walk around a room surreptitiously casting an eye over work as it is being written. Outside of the classroom, these techniques were no longer able to be employed. How interesting and devastating to realize that these connections would be lost through a screen. In order to reach out to students, we needed to develop new ways to engage. I needed to change the pace of my lessons. What would usually take a class 45 minutes could be completed at home in half the time.

If I was going to be online with direct teaching, I was going to have to treble the resources I used. The lessons had to be fun and engaging to keep the students from shutting down. I learned quickly that a student with connection/Wi-Fi issues was, more often than not, using excuses to disengage. This was connected to the importance of relationships, and it was necessary to rebuild these relationships. I had to figure out how and what jokes were going to work in this forum, and how to check in on the process of learning whilst still letting the students have autonomy and independence. I began using introduction cards with open-ended questions to start each session. This allowed me to quickly engage with the student and check on their wellbeing.

The development of pedagogy blossomed, as students became more responsible for their learning and teachers found innovate ways to provide learning opportunities that were offline. We realized that the value system that is academia can withstand adversity and even grow. Balance between screen time and non-screen activities became paramount as we discovered that the best learning took place when teachers stopped teaching. This provided students with the opportunity to learn and engage with their own learning: being present but taking a back seat. Students didn’t need the “chalk and talk” approach, they couldn’t cope with being the sole focus and being on screens, without distraction, for 5 hours a day. They needed to turn off their cameras and get into their flow. They also needed to know the teacher was there to mentor and guide them.

Sharing of experiences helped to progress through this stage to the next stage of beginning to thrive. Yet, as we all know, a cycle repeats and we found ourselves travelling back to strive from thrive many times. This was not to be a linear journey, but a spiral progression approach. One of the tools that supported this stage was social media. It was the connections on WhatsApp, Facebook, podcasts, blogs and Instagram that allowed the engagement with like-minded seekers to share knowledge and allow meaningful difference to transform education.

Tools at this stage

Awareness of problems and providing solutions

Using technology as a tool to enhance without being reliant on it, as some students have access at home, and some don’t. Sometimes the Wi-Fi plays up and sometimes websites crash. It is important to treat each individual differently, in each situation, to match their unique needs. One of my children went to a home in the country without Wi-Fi, and we were only able to engage occasionally on WhatsApp. I needed to share resources with her so that she had work to do that would be fruitful to her education, notwithstanding this situation. I asked her to write a diary, to explore nature and develop a personal project around her interests.

The role of technology

Clearly, technology was going to play a large part in the distance learning foray. Finding the more useful websites, apps and virtual meeting tools and ensuring safety of learners was paramount. We shared instructional videos on how to access the new media and devices and developed online protocols with students, such as “cameras on/off” and dress codes for online learning. Admittedly, I have worked with students in their pajamas and it didn’t impact their learning in a negative way. I have had adolescent students who needed later sessions as they were prone to sleeping in, and morning sessions were problematic.

Holistic learning includes social and emotional wellbeing

If learning is the priority, then you prioritize this. Parents don’t need to have angry or frustrated children pushing them to engage in distance learning. The stress on family life is already challenging when you are in a lockdown or emergency measures. From a psychological perspective, a happy child learns more than an emotionally negative one. We have learned to lean on counselors and psychologists to guide and bring mental and emotional support to the forefront, and to have realistic expectations of students. It is also important to incorporate physical activity and play into the routine.

3. Thrive

Thrive is when we hit our stride. We now had purpose and tools to implement new practice. Learning at this point was enhanced to a point that may even have, on occasion, superseded the typical classroom. We had adapted to our new pace and resources and were considering the social and emotional wellbeing of students. Students and teachers accepted the new expectations, and it all began to fall into place. Teachers found a groove and began to focus on improving practice. Continuous learning and professional development, as much as was expected of the students, was taken up by teachers. New terminology arose, such as synchronous and asynchronous, blended or hybrid learning, and became second nature. A comfort zone was found.

Tools at this stage

Moving from enhancement to transformation

Redefining educational practice and creating new opportunities and experiences otherwise previously not envisioned. My lesson times shortened, and I developed a more flexible way to plan sessions. I used an online calendar app to have parents and students sign up with me for sessions whenever they needed them, rather than planning sessions that suited me.

Building and enhancing a professional community

We depend upon a network that can share innovative ideas. Facebook, Instagram and other social medial platforms were more useful than I had expected or exploited before. I found myself spending more time on research and preparation than face-to-face contact.

4. Arrive

Best practice was implemented, learning was taking place, but it was not to be the end of the line. This was a cyclical process. Educational practices were continually re-evaluated with a return to strive and thrive as needed. One never really arrives in learning. Teachers and students are forever learning. I would never have thought that I could work with a non-verbal child over Zoom and be successful. But with a little thought, and a lot of preparation, we found success. My expertise and experience were required in providing the task instructions to the adults with the child. The adults were upskilled and not only did learning take place, but we all developed professionally and personally.

Tools at this stage

Realize there are no boundaries

The world is our oyster. As we continue to think deeply about education, we develop more tools to prepare the next generation of learners for the careers that are still unimagined.

Don’t think of a climbing a hierarchy

Think more of a continual wheel of learning spinning. Be always open to new pedagogy in education.

We don’t know where we stand in the timescale of this crisis. It is hard to see the end from where we stand now. This means that our tools, educational innovation and pedagogy will evolve as we continue to cater to the needs of the next generation trying to prepare them for a world still unknown. Taking stock allows us to celebrate the successes that have taken place so far, and to think about how we can change our practice for the future.

Highly effective learning environments have developed, and we have already seen the benefits that will most likely become embedded into practice. Parent teacher conferences that take place via Zoom allow parents to meet teachers more regularly and easily. Use of distance learning has already been discussed as an approach to non-school days lost due to weather or other disruptions. Interactive lessons will be more typical than the traditional lesson. Flipped classrooms, flexible scheduling, and responding to individual needs —wellbeing as well as academic— can allow teachers to be led and guided by students.

The discipline of teaching was being redirected from a teacher proselytizing in a superior role, to one where it was essential to listen to the needs of the learners, and to learn alongside the students. Change is always inevitable, and the world of education is constantly evolving. This accidental change in education brought about new dynamics that benefit academia and may be one of the few things we can celebrate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Berge, Zane. (2013). Barriers to communication in distance education. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education. 14. 374-388.
  2. Borland, K. (2017). Alive, Survive, Strive, Thrive: A Grounded Conceptual Sustainability Taxonomy. The Journal of Sustainability Education, 12
  3. Chang Whitehall, J. (2020) How have we redefined blended learning? Dr Jennifer Chang Wathall.
  4. Hodges, T.S., Kerch, C. & Fowler, M. (2020). Teacher Education in the Time of COVID-19: Creating Digital Networks as University-School-Family Partnerships. Middle Grades Education in the Age of COVID-19, 2(6), 1-10.
  5. Puentedura, R. (n.d) SAMR Model. Technology is Learning.
  6. Schrock, K. (n.d.) Resources to support the SAMR Model. Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything.
  7. Usluel, Y.K., & Mazman, S.G. (2009). Adoption of Web 2.0 tools in Distance Education. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1(1), 818-823.

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