If you asked someone what the year 2020 has been like for them, you’d be unlikely to get a beaming response like “it was great!” or “I wish it would never end!”. Those who do would almost certainly do so sarcastically.
In one way or another, we were all impacted, whether it was through the summer bushfire catastrophe, the devastating floods that followed or the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn.
For education, it was a year unlike any other. Sporadic lockdowns due to infected teachers and students, the upending of normal schooling and millions of parents suddenly becoming full-time teachers.
Still, schools and their communities soldiered on, adapting to rapid change and rolling with the punches. Some even found new and improved methods of teaching and learning as the so-called “new normal” began to take shape.
Across Australia, there have been plenty of lessons for leading, teaching and learning throughout the bizarre and challenging year that 2020 has been – but have these lessons been learned?
‘2021 will be a year of empowerment’
Nina Laitala, the executive officer of the Victorian Student Representative Council (VicSRC) said the Council expects 2021 to be “a year of empowerment” for Victoria’s students.
“Schools experienced major disruptions during 2020 but students had the opportunity to have more agency over their learning during the remote learning periods,” Laitala told The Educator.
“Sixty-eight percent of students surveyed in our Learning from Remote Learning report said that they enjoyed learning and working at their own pace”.
Laitala said the Council hopes that schools will build on this agency, recognise students’ abilities to effectively participate in developing learning practices and involve more students in more decision making around education.
“We expect schools across Victoria to become more consistent in regard to developing authentic relationships with parents/carers and students so that learning is a collaboration with all stakeholders”.
‘We cannot return to past methods that were already failing’
Dr David Roy, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle’s School of Education, said home schooling is likely to increase as some families see the possibilities in this model of education.
“Schools must retain the flexibility to support those who thrive online. We need to also support those who struggled,” Dr Roy told The Educator.
“This will require funding, but key is empathy, understanding and more teachers, with higher pay. If we don’t use their expertise, then why have schools”.
“It is the interaction with pedagogical experts – teachers. As soon as teachers engage with individual students or smaller groups, that is differentiation,” he said.
Systems need to be accountable and recognise that educators not bureaucrats should lead the systems. There is no new normal. The world has changed so we cannot return to past methods that were already failing”.
‘Now is the time to put up a good fight’
An analysis of the most recent PISA 2018 study found that the majority of 15-year-olds believed in themselves to get them through hard times. However, these responses were provided before the pandemic, and one of the world’s most renowned education experts believes their answers today would probably be very different.
Professor Pasi Sahlberg is Professor of Education Policy and Deputy Director of the Gonski Institute at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney.
He says the pandemic has exacerbated whatever students are struggling with and amplified the pre-existing social and educational inequalities.
“We should not underestimate the devastating power of social isolation and toxic stress, and overestimate children’s own ability to bounce back during the time of COVID-19,” Sahlberg told The Educator.
“Some kids, for sure, are more resilient than others, but many are much more fragile than the PISA data suggest”.
Professor Sahlberg believes this is why schools should make student and teacher wellbeing a big priority, turn the conversations with kids and parents into positive ones, and accelerate joint efforts to reduce educational inequalities through better policies and improved practices in education.
“Now is also the right time to put up a good fight against wide-spread bullying in schools and make every school a safe place for every child and every teacher to come out from this terrible pandemic healthier and stronger”.
In 2020, teachers proved their agility and adaptability
Conor Kiernan, Stakeholder Engagement Manager at Teachers Mutual Bank, said that this year has revealed some important learnings for Australian primary schools that can be taken into 2021 to help improve students’ learning and wellbeing.
“2020 has been a challenging year for us all, and especially for the education community as our principals, teachers and students have had to respond to so much change and uncertainty caused by COVID-19,” Kiernan told The Educator.
“I believe the key learning has been the agility and adaptability with which educators’ transitioned from face-to face to online learning”.
Kiernan said this will result in new boundaries being set, as well as a greater acceptance to try different methods of sharing knowledge in the years to come.
“In addition, I believe our teachers and principals have a new understanding of their own resilience and how to maintain it even in the most challenging circumstances. I congratulate our entire education community for what they have accomplished this year”.
‘Staff practice has been changed forever’
For Greg Port, Head of ICT integration at All Saints’ College in Perth, one of the big questions is will the home learning experience impact on the future of learning design, or will schools simply reset?
“Schools in other parts of the world have been through a much longer period of home learning than we did in Perth and this may impact on the drive to change the norms that are just so ingrained in school culture,” Port told The Educator.
“These norms are pervasive, universal and unchallenged but are, in some cases, incompatible with what is best for students”.
He said many of the school’s staff grew in their uptake and knowledge of how tools like Microsoft Teams, OneNote, Microsoft Stream and PowerPoint can impact learning significantly over a short period of time, adding their practice “has been changed forever”.
“They are a few things I hope will change and continue as a result of the pandemic in 2020”.