Coronavirus: 'Shut the doors, but keep school alive'

'Wake up and smell the coffee': learning at home - and anywhere else - should be joyful, says Ewan McIntosh

Coronavirus: 'Shut the doors, but keep school alive'

As schools in Scotland join schools around the world in shutting their doors, now is the time to harness the real purpose of school. And it has little to do with planning learning.

Anna, aged 9, has established the Anna McIntosh Academy. I’ve asked her how it’s going, but she’s short on student numbers at the moment. She’s both head of school, teacher and student, and the bloody parents keep asking questions about the quality of the learning in the school.

Ask any child why they go to school, the first thing they’ll say is "learning". Good girl, good boy. Now dig just a little deeper and there’s a plethora of reasons, but most circle around one key idea: “Seeing my friends and teachers” is the key reason most students give for their love of school, and working with young people is at the top of the list for teachers, too. I know, because over the last six years I’ve asked the question, in person, to tens of thousands of teachers, and hundreds of thousands of young people, across five continents. They’re unanimous.


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So what happens when a school closes its doors as pandemic and pandemonium spreads?

The impact of coronavirus school closures

You lose the key reason that both adults and students show up: to see each other.

School teachers are working overtime in the run-up to closures, preparing “learning for home”. The problem with “planning learning up until Easter” is that it is hardly a guarantee that learning will happen: worksheets, textbooks and thinly veiled busy work masquerading as projects are easy, if time-consuming, to plan. But it’s hard for a child to get excited about, and even harder for them to sit alone and stay motivated throughout.

Others have spent endless evenings over the past couple of weeks preparing flipped classroom videos. But technologifying the worksheet doesn’t bring any impact or greater motivation either. And the internet is full of really high-quality insights and video already.

It’s soul-destroying to see so much work going into something that will bring such variable quality of learning. And joyful learning? I fear these efforts won’t be enough.

Except there’s an exception.

The highlight of the day for many students is seeing their friends. And so where teachers take just a little time out to bring their class groups together over a synchronous video call, to read a story together, talk about life or share what they’ve been learning in real time, a little bit of magic happens. In our partner schools in Turin, Beijing, Hong Kong or Belgium, wherever they are, it seems that the act of an existing school community getting together at the same time, to talk and see each other, is lifeblood.

It’s a moment where young people and their teachers can feel part of something again, bringing togetherness to social isolation, bringing purpose to everyone’s day. Netflix and endless comfort eating do not count as a purpose.

There’s a good reason why international (private) schools need to get this right. One of the reasons parents choose to invest in this kind of education is the unique purpose they see in one school over another. That purpose, expressed in a school’s mission statement, needs to be lived every day, whether you’re able to be in the school building or not. So in the case of International School of Beijing, whose community this winter voted 96 per cent approval for the mission statement and core values we co-designed with them, every day has joyful learning: through the screen, at home, and in children's and teachers’ hearts.

Most government or state schools either don’t have a clear purpose, expressed in simple language, or have any shared purpose at all. There is an obscene amount of jargon that gets in the way of anyone sharing an understanding of the purpose lurking underneath. There are also many mission or purpose statements that stop short of explaining the why. When a school claims that it “strives for excellence and cares for all” ,it is missing a vital second clause: “because….” Knowing your because (or knowing your "why") is crucial in a time of urgency, emergency or importance, because it stops panic and personal opinion getting in the way of what might be right.

The importance of school ethos

I hope that Scottish schools don’t just follow the minimum guidance from the government and their local authorities, and that they take the time to reflect on the purpose of a Scottish education. Maybe not this week or next, but before the next haul of isolated learning kicks off after Easter.

Learning packs, workbooks and online tasks are just homework.

And homework, when you’re stuck at home, is just work.

Our children need connection, discussion, challenge from peers and from their teachers. Our teachers need to feel that they are valued leaders in their community, not marking drones or office workers there to shift parental emails. Parents need to feel like parents, not pseudo teachers. The Scottish curriculum actually has a clear-ish purpose, represented with a heart at its core – we need that heart to come front and centre, and it is hard to communicate heart via email and worksheets. Maybe this crisis will help us to redefine the purpose of Scottish education beyond the blindingly obvious “skills to thrive”.

All of that purpose-driven learning experience can start to happen when schools and their teachers take the lead in prioritising connection over learning, for the short and long term. To do this, we need to (finally) get over the digital divide. Buy some laptops, and plumb in a connection if it’s missing for our poorest students. The benefit is greater than the cost in terms of problems you’ll have to deal with later if we don’t. And when this pandemic moves on, it’s still a genuine investment in that child’s future.

Here are some ideas to add to the minimum expectations – I’d love to see it as the new minimum in four weeks from now. How would you use Zoom or your favourite video conference system to do this?

  • Every day there should be a short session for a class to get together. In primary, it should be led by the teacher. In secondary, the registration teacher might take that time out to hear how things are going. You might even consider an experiment in "superclasses", if you can bring a couple of groups together with a couple of teachers. Yes, it’s a new skill for the teacher, but why not give it a go? This is the one time your learners might be forgiving of an attempt to make things more interactive, more varied, more joyful. Zoom is one of several technologies that allow you to pre-assign breakout rooms, too, so you don’t have to spend long speaking "at" each other before you can learn with each other.
  • If you’re a teacher, find the time each week to take each of your groups “live online” to host a short PE lessonlanguage class or focused-writing feedback sessions.
  • If you’re a student, think of cool ways to keep your group together. I love what these students did to bring their choir back to life:
  • When you’re in an online video setting, you have to exaggerate everything: your smiles need to be Cheshire-size, and your nodding to show you appreciate someone’s view needs to feel generous. But you’ll also need to think about all those visible learning routines you’ve used or heard about: which ways are best to quickly communicate how a large group is feeling about a task? Get them to create some red and green cards – avoid a yellow card, though…it could get messy!
  • Synchronous video sessions need a time – ideally a regular one, and not too early in the morning. But that might be the only thing we programme into our children’s lives at the moment. The kids aren’t at school any more, and neither are their parents. This should be seen as a beautiful opportunity to live without the shackles of a bricks and mortar institution that has hemmed in so many ideas and productive learning moments already. If you’re a parent, don’t over-plan or schedule the day from waking moment to sleep. Don’t make your kids run to a multi-coloured timetable. Instead, keep the structure of the day broad and co-design it with your kids. They know when they are most alert and wanting to learn, and they know when they’re tired and need to get out for a walk, or play their instrument. You know when the family is going to get hungry, so enjoy cooking together and eating together. And don’t let the maths worksheet drag you all away from being together.

If it’s not joyful, don’t make the kids do it.

All of the examples in this post are from just one school in China, IS Beijing, but I could’ve drawn umpteen more from hundreds of our partner schools that are closing their doors but opening their ideas on learning.

In Beijing, we added a purposeful addition to the sense behind their purpose: learning should be joyful. That doesn’t mean “ha ha fun”, but rather the kind of joy you might get from achieving a longer bike ride than you’ve done before, or climbing a new Munro.

At a time when the world is already feeling quite uncertain or downright grim, the world doesn’t need another worksheet, nor a haughty claim that “it might not be fun but the kids have to learn it”. To that, I say wake up and smell the coffee (only less politely). For teachers and students alike, it is vital that we put that sense of joy, and togetherness, at the heart of the learning and teaching experience for the weeks to come.

But I’d argue that it’s also a heck of a legacy to keep for years ahead.

Ewan McIntosh is chief executive of global skills development company NoTosh and a former languages teacher in Scotland. This piece was originally published as a blog post

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