Baby Steps and Dance Moves – Education in the 2020s

Throughout the developed world, the common factor of the shutting down of in-school provision by a coronavirus has put the whole rainbow range of provision under the closest scrutiny. Every country has had to adapt, adjust, not just tweak but change whole scale their ways of working and there have been some significant validated outcomes now on what works best. Even the best of schools and colleges are incredibly inefficient places, so it has come as no surprise to find some school activities work better on-line rather than in person. I’ll ignore simplistic lists; of course every one with technology can get to school by the click of a mouse key, and parent/pupil/teacher conversations just need ZOOM to enable, and the costs of school lunches have been reduced at a stroke. I’ll do my best to summarise those I consider of key importance below.

Children and teachers need to have human contact and the opportunity to build relationships. Some of those interactions are driven really well at junior level by the sheer fun that children and adults can have together. Just checking out how that can happen when in-school activities are forbidden emphasises the value that MUST be placed on ensuring schools and homes can connect with reliable technology. Do read my earlier blogs on the value of cloud-based learning and Chrome’s Tools & Books with this regard.

But once the connections have been made, there needs to be substance about the point of coming together in real time. So ZOOM per se is insufficient, particularly because the medium has become familiar for almost all activities, for witnessing as well as participation. Here’s where the skill, knowledge and understanding of the users comes to the fore, and where additional technology tools come in to play. Almost all the research that has ever been conducted in to learning confirms that it needs to immersive and involve more than 20 minutes concentration at once. So therein lies the rub; how are teachers who are not in the same space as their learners going to do more than just keep them entertained. In a ‘virtual’ space where frankly we have never had to work with learners before, can what we do be more than just ‘hit/miss’ or lucky guess?

Teaching and learning have always involved asynchronous activities, those carried on in the student’s own time, rather than in concert with all the others. Core to all learning is reading of course, and it’s no surprise I hope that this teacher reminds all that the route to the widest vocabulary we need is via reading. So what we plan remotely needs to carry that ‘goldilocks’ mix of inspiration together whilst ‘perspiring’ apart. Flipped learning predates the pandemic, and it’s certainly the case that if students can cover the ground that needs to be exposed first, such as read the chapter, watch the demonstration/lecture, listen to the audiotape prior to coming together to analyse and collaborate together.

Past masters of remote learning are the teachers who work with remote communities who can’t come together at the best of times. In the English language most notably that’s the Alice Springs School of the Air, which joins the education of 120 or so children across the ‘woop woop’, local slang for ‘in the middle of nowhere’, covering the middles of Australia, about the same size as France. It is in a teacher’s DNA to try to make something out of nothing, because all the best lessons arise that way. So in this new ‘woop woop’ in which we find ourselves gives us those opportunities too, conjuring up in the imagination opportunities we had scarcely dreamed of before. Last week for example, I encouraged 64 boys aged 11 to 14 to sign up for remote Food Tech, creating possibly a new accomplishment for the Buiness Book of Records, the largest remote cooking of a Macaroni Cheese.

All over the world, teachers and students have been learning together the new tools and translating old manners in new ways. Who speaks and when, cameras on or off, mikes on when asked, collaborative tools that work across screens, be they smileys, hand shakes, jamboards or tiling work areas as needs must. Every week new tools join the ecosystem, and notwithstanding the need to abide by GDPR requirements (not easy now we are post Brexit), we can further develop relationship building through being more creative and increasing collaboration. Currently our senior school is creating Album covers, and my core SLT agreed to make their stand at Waterloo with me to warm up the competition.

We need to be deadly serious about the use of humour and creative skills at all times, more so now because human well-being requires these ingredients to be present, particularly among the young. Households weary of each other anyway, but the adolescent brain has to develop through its willingness to confront and challenge, to grow up and know its own mind. Through our own personal journeys through our teens and twenties, boredom was inevitable; these days perhaps the mind can be more readily occupied by engaging with influencers and social media on-line, but those ‘baby steps’ in to learning new skills and taking opportunities alone are essential elements to be made available. ‘Baby steps’ is a great phrase, because these are made together often without one knowing the other is there. Teachers and parents must empower those small strides to occur, though monitor and observe nevertheless.

‘Baby steps’ also best describes the small 1% incremental gains we can make each day to improve the skills we have. I consciously now try not to bite off more than I can chew at a time, but I remain incredibly ambitious for the things I can create over time. By way of example I show you my new office creation, ‘slapped on screen’ today whilst writing this blog, and in-between all the other challenges of running a school, meetings, bulletin making etc. You’ll note I have 2 images available…

One for publishing in documents like this, the other for showing as my background on-line, because the image is usually reversed so you as a teleconferencer are not discomforted by your mirror image not matching your actions.

But whatever your ‘Baby steps’ are to be in this bold new world of enabling and empowering education to be the best it can be, let’s remember too what your usual steps and strides are. those of a really competent professional on the stage of learning, confident in your dance steps whatever the pace and rhythm of the day requires. I’m a great believer that schools are there to develop skills for 7, 11, 16, 18 and for 60+ too, we build people for life beyond qualifications. As one prospective parent made very clear earlier this week, “I don’t want to place my child in a school where the culture gives her exam passes coupled with anxiety, depression and no confidence at all”.

That’s where the dance moves come into their own. Few can have missed the phenomenon that is ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, in which so many with little knowledge learn, step by painful step, how to move from a parody on the dance floor to a sophisticated team moving in complete harmony. Whilst I admire coaching a lot, the fine tuning of an individual, I love more the role that teachers have to choreograph their class’ moves, and of course even more in my current role, as School Principal, to ‘pull’ my many ‘instrumental groups’ together into the ‘symphony orchestra’ that school life can be. My dance steps are all about leading our school community, children & adults both, learners and coaches, on a journey through this pandemic, confident that we have those little details in place that permit successful learning to happen, and assured that our method & direction of travel is fun and fruitful. Whilst there may be a false dawn appearing on the near horizon (schools to open on 8 March), whether on virtual screen or in real life, we will continue to work in ambitious harmony, that’s for sure!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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