Learning in the shadow of the pandemic

John Graham

This edition of Professional Voice is being published in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. The articles we feature either implicitly, or in some cases explicitly, acknowledge this situation and, in their own way, reach out to our readers whose professional and private lives have been upturned by the present crisis. The articles cover technology, student voice, arts education, the professional landscape of teaching, teacher education and the public education system.

In its recent survey of members working in schools, the AEU (Vic) asked respondents a series of questions about their experience of the first phase of remote learning and other issues arising from the pandemic. The bulk of survey responses date from late June and the beginning of July, not long after school staff had returned to face-to-face teaching when the virus spread was relatively limited and before the return to remote learning in Term Three. The 2,829 responses reflect the views at that time of staff in government primary and secondary schools and special settings across Victoria.

Most teachers reported that the transition to remote learning because of COVID-19 lowered their job satisfaction (62%), increased their stress and anxiety (87%) and increased their workload (85%). At the same time, an overwhelming number of teachers (96%) indicated that they had developed new remote teaching skills, including the use of technology (particularly software), online lesson presentation and new forms of staff collaboration and interaction with students. Asked what part of their remote learning experience they would like to integrate into their onsite teaching program, the most common responses were: ‘greater use of technology’ and ‘more flexibility for students to engage in self-paced learning’.

Most teachers expressed concern about the impact of remote learning on certain students. 99 per cent of teachers agreed that some students participated less than others in remote learning and 88 per cent believed that some of their students would be disadvantaged in the assessment of their achievement because of this. The main reasons for the different student participation levels reported by teachers were: ‘the home situation of students’ (85%), ‘less motivation to learn from home’ (84%), ‘the need for a more supervised/structured learning environment’ (82%) and ‘lack of access to IT devices/poor internet’ (66%). Other findings about student participation reported by teachers were:

  • Engagement of some students online was lower than others (89%)
  • Students were not able to effectively collaborate with each other (65%)
  • The gap between higher and lower achievers increased (55%)
  • Student stress and anxiety increased (66%)

Most teachers (80%) agreed that students from lower SES backgrounds were further disadvantaged by remote learning. The reasons given for this were: ‘level of parental support’ (70%), ‘difficulties with access to technology/internet’ (60%) and ‘lack of appropriate study facilities at home’ (58%).

Teachers were asked after the return to face-to-face learning at the beginning of June whether they considered that their students had made satisfactory learning progress during the remote learning phase. 8 per cent indicated that all of their students had, 72 percent said that some had, 18 per cent said that few had and 2 percent estimated that none of their students had. In special settings 26 per cent of teachers said that few or none of their students had made satisfactory progress. 91 per cent of teachers reported that, to either a great extent (29%) or to some extent (62%), they would need to re-teach students the skills and knowledge they were supposed to be learning during remote learning. Overall 54 per cent of teachers thought their students had been disadvantaged by remote learning compared to 12 per cent who thought they had been advantaged by it. While 97 per cent of teachers reported that students were glad to be back at school, they estimated that more students were positive (44%) about their experience of remote learning than negative (22%) about it.

Over half of teacher respondents thought that the Department of Education and Training had not provided them and their school with the support they needed during remote learning. In terms of on site learning most teachers were satisfied with the health and safety protective measures put in place by the Department but many expressed concern about the capacity for appropriate social distancing in their workplace.

To many teachers one of the most positive outcomes of remote learning was the enhanced recognition from the community of the work they do and of the role of schools in society. 75 per cent of teachers said that they felt there was greater recognition of the work that they do and 77 per cent thought that the COVID-19 situation had given people a greater appreciation of the value of the school as a community, and as institution in the broader community. However, when asked whether they personally felt more valued as a teacher their response was more nuanced: 52 percent said ‘yes’ and 48 per cent said ‘no’. There was also a significant gap in the response to this question between primary teachers (61% yes) and secondary teachers (43% yes).

The role of technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled technology to assume a new dominance as a medium for schooling processes. Erica Southgate’s article outlines the ways in which technology is becoming more ‘intelligent’ and less transparent as it integrates itself into classrooms and school administration. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are being used to automate a range of activities and tasks (e.g. search engines) which can be carried out more efficiently by AI than by humans. The problem is that the ‘black boxes’ of algorithms which run these artificial neural networks lack transparency because, firstly, the proprietary companies and governments which own the algorithms will not open them for independent review and, secondly, because of the complexity of their operation, which means that they are often not wholly explainable even to the scientists who develop the systems. Southgate calls for educators to “skill up on the technical, pedagogical and ethical matters related to the technology” so that they can make informed choices about the design, implementation and governance of AI in schools and exercise professional control over its use.

A second article on the role of technology in education by Steven Kolber identifies a range of issues which have arisen through the transition to online learning over the last few months. He identifies the three key challenges of online learning as: engagement with set work, collaboration with peers and connection with teachers and students. He believes the use of asynchronous video and video conferencing best meet these criteria and should remain as components of a “build back better” approach when schools return from remote learning. He also emphasises that this approach should be accompanied by the prioritisation of teacher professionalism and judgement, greater investment in teacher professional learning in ICT and “concrete measures to ensure that those students already significantly challenged by our existing system are not further disadvantaged”.

Student voice and the arts

Roger Holdsworth, who has edited and published Connect - an on-line practice journal supporting student participation - since 1979, identifies the different forms and meanings of student participation in schools. He states that: “Terms and concepts such as ‘student voice’, ‘student agency’, ‘student participation’ and ‘partnerships’ are stretched or used interchangeably in ways that sometimes confuse people. There is value in being more precise about how we use them.” Holdsworth distinguishes the meanings of each of these terms and in doing so explains the broad range of activities which students can be involved in to improve what happens in classrooms and schools. Student voice is not just about students being encouraged to have a say but how adults listen to and respond to that ‘voice’. Student agency means students being actively engaged in making decisions about their learning rather than simply expressing their views. Student participation (or partnerships) is about sharing decision-making and implementation in collaboration with others rather than merely attendance or involvement in adult-directed activities.

Mark Selkrig, Kathryn Coleman & Abbey MacDonald set out a case for the important role of the arts in the school curriculum, particularly in the present COVID lockdown environment. The arts can often languish in schools where competing demands on time and space and the NAPLAN fixation can diminish their role. This is despite the way Victoria prides itself on being the arts and cultural centre of the nation with major social and economic benefits for the state. The authors highlight the significance of the arts in developing critical and creative thinking skills and, more broadly, providing students with a medium to learn about themselves and the world they live in. And, in the gloom and doom of pandemic times as Victoria curls up inside its living rooms again, the arts can “provide the play, wellbeing and creative space to support the anxieties and fears of students and their families across our schools”.

Teaching and teacher education

Amanda Heffernan, David Bright, and Fiona Longmuir from Monash University outline their findings from a study they carried out in the second half of 2019 about the work satisfaction of teachers and the public perceptions of the teaching profession. The study was based on national surveys of 2,444 members of the teaching profession and 1,082 members of the public. The authors acknowledge that their research was completed prior to the present COVID-19 crisis which may have changed some of the views expressed in the surveys. The findings from the AEU (Vic) COVID survey referred to earlier in this editorial throws some light on this. What is described as “the unexpected finding” from the Monash survey is that despite all of the workload and health and welfare pressures they are under, teachers are still largely satisfied with their work. The role remains rewarding when teachers are able to concentrate on the reason they joined their profession - teaching. However, while the public perception of teachers was high, neither a majority of the public nor of teachers would recommend teaching as a career choice for a young person.

Dianne Toe and Lynette Longaretti describe the National Exceptional Teaching for Disadvantaged Schools Program now operating at Deakin University. The important idea behind the program is to attract and prepare the best new teacher graduates to work in disadvantaged or low SES schools as graduates. The program uses a Community of Practice model to develop strong bonds within the group of preservice teachers to further develop their skills, knowledge base and reflective practice skills. The success of the program relies on the strong partnership with local schools which are willing to accept these preservice teachers for their placements, mentor them and help them to develop the skills they need to become exceptional graduates.

Interview

The interview in this edition of Professional Voice is with Barbara Preston who has been a leading Australian researcher into public education, the social make-up of schools and teacher professionalism since the late 1970s. She worked for both the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association and the Australian Teachers Union (the predecessor to the federal AEU) where she developed the concept of the ‘residualisation’ of public school systems in Australia through governments privileging the private sector in their funding policies. In doing that they undermined the important role of public schooling both in strengthening social cohesion and as “an investment and foundation for culture, society and the economy”. Another area where Preston carried out ground-breaking research was in her work on the professional nature of teaching. Effective practice in teaching, unlike that of other more individualistic professions, is collaborative, collective and democratic.

“…students’ education depends not only on good relationships with their immediate teachers, but also on the intentional inter-relations among many teachers and students over many years, occurring within and forming the institutions of schools and school systems.”


 

John Graham is editor of Professional Voice and works as a research officer at the Australian Education Union (Vic). He has been a secondary teacher, worked on national and state-based education programs and in the policy division of the Victorian Education Department. He has carried out research in a wide range of areas related to education and training. He has had particular responsibility for the many issues impacting on teachers and teaching as a profession, teacher education, curriculum change, and the politics, organisation and funding of public education.

This article appears in Professional Voice 13.2 Learning in the shadow of the pandemic.

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