Many students practise 'distance' – but not 'learning'

The coronavirus lockdown has revealed how many students are really invested in their educations

Stephen Petty

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Looking at the image Jack had dutifully uploaded of his completed work, I was immediately taken by the huge, half-eaten chicken sandwich lurking in the background. It loomed over the chaotic contents of his exercise book like Christ the Redeemer above Rio.  

“Nice sandwich,” I felt moved to compliment him in my online feedback, to which he replied: “My mum doesn’t think so. She’s vegetarian, so I have to eat it in my room.”

Taking stock of the first couple of weeks of distance learning, I have already noticed some significant gender divisions emerging among children – teenage children in particular.  

Girls are generally just getting on with it. Work tends to come in neat, complete packages, with no food or anything else extraneous around the edges. Jack’s sandwich, on the other hand, symbolises how many boys have responded. It’s as if this new virtual learning is causing some of them to play up to a new and more extreme virtual stereotype.

Fin’s submitted work, by way of further illustration, is overshadowed by a vast tower of exercise books, stacked as if in the closing moments of a game of Jenga. He’s in Year 10 and it looks as if the building work must have begun back in Year 5. He’s just been casually adding to the pile ever since, never even crossing his mind to discard any of the older ones.

I wouldn’t care but that tower is destined one day to come crashing down and send his seemingly customary orange drink everywhere. I have pointed this out to him, but the tower was still hovering there in his most recent submission.

It’s evident in other cases that the photoshoot has only been made possible after a major forest clearance of the work-top concerned. Sheets of paper, deodorant spray, dried-up cereal bowls, headsets, mugs, miscellaneous garments and gadgetry are all clustered around the edges of the page or pages submitted. (And, yes, by the way, I have indeed invited every student to switch to word-processing their work if they prefer, but most seem understandably keen to keep things going as before, in exercise books or on file paper.)

'Remote' excuses

But at least the likes of Fin and Jack are sending their work in – and sometimes excellent work at that. Others send brief apologetic messages instead of work. Some claim that they are “doing loads” in my subject, though not yet attempting any of the actual work set. A few are apparently having difficulty opening the school’s homework app. Of course. These have rapidly become the classic "remote" excuses of our time.

Other students seemed to vanish the moment the school closed two weeks ago – vanished from our world, at any rate. Despite these tough times, many of them are now living 24/7 in a perfectly blissful parallel world of online gaming.

Admittedly, there are exceptions and there is a much more of a gender-balanced response if the tasks set online are quick and quiz-like, with an element of game and competition thrown in.

But that kind of task only takes students so far. If online learning is really going to work over the coming weeks they need to be practising substantial written responses too. It’s this kind of work where the said division between girl and boy is so manifest.

So while it may be true that lockdown is unlocking doors to new edtech distance-learning, we also need to accept a few unwelcome elephants in the room. Or rather, not in the room. For in the case of those disappeared teenage boys in particular, many of them just see the word “distance” there, rather than “learning”.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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