Can modern lessons work in socially distant classrooms?

Our classrooms look like those of the 1800s, says Hong Kong-based headteacher Beccy Fox, but can a modern, inquiry-based focus still work?

Beccy Fox

Blended learning: Teaching live online lessons from an empty classroom

We have been back at school for almost a month now.

Things are different. There are pages of guidelines we must follow from the Hong Kong education and health authorities. Staff, students and visitors must wear masks.

We must all be adequately socially distanced: the health authority suggests a metre. To do this, we have set up two teaching sessions per day. Half the students come in the morning and half in the afternoon.

They sit in a classroom that looks as if it is from the 1800s. Individual desks, a metre apart, all facing the front. All that is missing is a blackboard, an inkpot and a cane.

Reality of restriction

Despite all these changes, it is still wonderful to see the students again.

They are so happy to be back at school. We are photographing them all with their “smiles behind the masks” to have a record of this strange time.

They are socialising with their friends and loving PE lessons and playtime, even though they have to stay a metre apart.

But it is heartbreaking to see the students and teachers restricted so much and we are all hoping these measures are only in place until the end of this academic year, which, for us, is the end of June. 

As the headteacher, I am increasingly thinking about August, the beginning of our new academic year. I am considering all the possible options, including the continuation of this socially distant, masked world that we find ourselves in now.

This has got me wondering how we can continue our International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) with integrity when it’s mandatory to set up our classrooms in such a traditional way.

Using rubrics

To help frame my thoughts, I have gone back to rubrics we use with our teachers who are new to inquiry-based learning, adapted from Inquire Within (D Llewellyn, 2007).

The rubrics are usually used to guide and assess the teacher’s journey to becoming an inquiry-based teacher.

To the left of the rubrics is a column entitled “Traditional approach” with statements such as:

  • Student desks are arranged in rows with seating assigned by the teacher.
  • Supplies and materials are locked away; teacher permission is needed for students to access items.
  • The classroom does not contain centres or areas for students to work independently.

To the right, is the “Practising inquiry” column. This is where we want our teachers to be:

  • The teacher effectively plans for whole-group instruction as needed and frequently uses cooperative learning groups.
  • The teacher consistently expects students to share information with each other through small group discussions and dialogue.
  • The teacher effectively moves about the room, speaking from different areas to monitor and enhance learning.

A traditional classroom set up, where, in addition, the teacher must be at least a metre away from the students and everyone is wearing a mask, naturally requires whole-class teaching, from the front of the room.

This means that meeting these needs within a more old-fashioned classroom layout is complex.

We must find creative and effective ways to make sure we continue to differentiate and encourage collaboration and discussion that enables teachers to achieve the goals on the practising inquiry column.

With this in mind, we are planning to have a workshop with the teachers, before the academic year starts, to consider how to practice inquiry in a more traditional classroom set up. 

By doing this we hope to create an environment that brings focus to our twin goals of delivering key educational outcomes while maintaining a safe classroom and school environment.

The bigger picture

As a PYP school, our curriculum remains the same: student-centered, based on skills and concepts rather than mastery of facts.

We can still focus on developing critical thinking skills, asking high-level questions and using assessments to inform our teaching. 

We can still strive to have our students actively engaged in their learning, to have a voice and an element of agency. It will just look a bit different for the time being.

After all, one of the IB Learner Profile attributes we want for our students and teachers is to be a risk-taker. 

The IB states that risk-takers “approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies. They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs.”

This is being demonstrated in spades, not only by the students and teachers in our school, but by students and teachers around the world. 

Beccy Fox is head of school at Think International School in Hong Kong

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