The "new normal" for education

What can we learn from learning online?
26 May 2020

Interview with 

Holly Linklater, Edinburgh University


image of teacher next to blackboard, via video call


Holly Linklater, a former Cambridge-based primary school teacher, now directs Edinburgh University’s primary education programme and has been involved in organising regular seminars for teachers, young people and parents about learning through lockdown, and she spoke to Chris Smith, who asked firstly about the impacts of kids having to learn at home...

Holly - Really varied. And one of the things that's really emerged from the seminars that we've been running is just how very different practices across the countries within the United Kingdom, on a both a school by school basis, also across local authorities and academy trusts. And also for some children, young people actually within schools where different teachers are taking different approaches and children and their families are receiving very different quantities and qualities of information.

Chris - Indeed, some people are saying that actually we might be setting back educational narrowing of the divide by potentially a generation in a very short time because you end up with a situation where children, which have got plenty of resources, very motivated teachers, a good internet connection at home and a decent laptop are just fine, potentially. Those which have less supportive parents or a less good learning environment might not be.

Holly - Absolutely. And of course they're not two equal bins. You might have a laptop and very good wifi, but you might have two parents who are both working from home with very intense workloads at the moment, and so not available to be with you versus poor wifi but a parent who's on hand. So I think that it will take a while before we learn about, kind of, what has been going on and how young learners have been affected. It would be fair to say that whilst children aren't learning the typical school curriculum at the moment in exactly the same way in which they would be if they were going to school, they are learning other things and learning in alternative ways. So it's not necessarily a complete loss of learning, it's just learning is taking on a slightly different shape.

Chris - What about people who are in the position where this was going to be the big year for them doing public exams, getting into university? What's happening to their education?

Holly - Yeah. Well, again, I'm going to think it is this, this issue of the different shape and the way in which we are thinking about curriculum, and the way in which a very specific curriculum matters, and the way in which we gather information about young people's skills in relation to that curriculum, which is effectively what exams are doing has been significantly challenged. And I don't think it's possible yet to really answer your question, actually, I think that it will be the ways in which schools and universities choose to respond to the learners. Because for many of those learners, I would say the vast majority actually, they've achieved the learning through a course of study over many years, and it's now what, you know, how is that learning being recognised by the institution or the workplace they might be seeking to move on to. But those institutions and workplaces have got significant challenges in terms of they haven't got the normal or the more typical devices like exam results by which they can source and sift their candidates.

Chris - Thank goodness that this all happened now because we do at least have internet connections that mean we can download something at less than one nanobit per century. Which means that it has been possible for at least a proportion of children to continue to be educated remotely. How do you see technology impacting on this market then? How is education going to change informed by technology?

Holly - Probably the most useful concept to hold in mind is the idea that what we're going to be doing is entering into a new sort of conversation about the way in which we conceptualize or imagine how teachers will work. And whereas up 'til this point, the model of schooling, a room with some desks in it with children sitting behind those desks and usually a teacher at the front near some sort of board talking at the young people and it's, you know, it's very physical. It happens in a specific building called school and it happens at very particular times of day. I think that all of that has been disrupted and I think that to a great extent some of that disruption will last for the very long term. I think in the medium-long term there is this real challenge around what capacity schools have in the short term to bring people in face to face and to what extent the limitations of that capacity are going to necessitate what's generally being called blended learning. I have to say there is quite a lot of confusion around what we mean by the idea of blended learning - generally accepted that it involves technology as some part of the way in which young people will access the resources that they might use in order to engage with opportunities.

Chris - Is there also a real risk that these children are going to be guinea pigs? Because teachers are very good at teaching because they've learned to teach well doing it the way we have for a really long time, some of them, and children have learned to be taught that way. So we're going to have to reteach teachers to teach and we're going to have to reteach kids to learn.

Holly - Potentially, but also potentially a really exciting opportunity because, don't forget, although we do have a system that people are very used to at the moment, we have huge issues of inequality within our education system. It's a well recognised problem that parental income is the greatest indicator of educational outcomes for young people. The kinds of opportunities that we might be developing through these kinds of innovations that this change might be necessitating teachers to make, could be a really fantastic opportunity for some of those inequities to be addressed. It's far too early to tell. One of the really big differences that I've become fascinated by in the last few weeks has been how the grouping of learners has changed so significantly - that within the school context, children are batched according to age and they are most typically taught in single age classes. And what we've now had is children moving to, and young people moving to learning in the context of their families. And they might be an only child, so they might be learning alongside a couple of, or one other adult. But they might be learning alongside siblings who would typically be very different ages to them. And that I think is really opening our eyes as practitioners to the way in which we think about what really matters in terms of what counts as learning, and how we best facilitate learning. And the children and young people that I've been working with over the last few weeks have been very consistent in their message that actually what's really important to them, it's the contact with each other.

Chris - You're sort of saying, I think, that education needs a damn good shake up, this is an opportunity or a catalyst for that shakeup to happen. Because one report I read suggested that if you look at generation Z individuals born from the mid 1990s, 85% of the jobs that they're going to be doing that we're extensively training them for in schools right now, that they're going to be doing in 2030, don't even exist yet. So therefore that we have to have an eye on the future and this is an opportunity to reevaluate

Holly - Of course. And I think teachers do that. I don't think that schools are training young people for specific jobs. I think the notion of curriculum that we have within education in schools at the moment is much broader and richer than that. But you're absolutely right, types of employment are also changing very quickly. And that's really different to, for example, 50 years ago where you might well have been able to predict the sort of job that you were going to get when you grew up. And also that you would do that with some sorts of expectation that you probably be in that job for a significant number of years, quite possibly your entire working life. And that's very different as well. And so having an education system, that is nimble and adaptive is absolutely critical. And having technology and digital literacy and data literacy as a core part of that, I think everybody recognises is going to have to be part of the future. And schools were already working towards that, and I think what's happened because of this pandemic is a sort of kick-starting of some things that many schools knew they were going to have to do anyway but might not quite have got round to. It was rather like in the interview that our colleague from health was saying in terms of how GPS are used to working. I think the really big difference that we have in terms of the provision of education and schooling with the use of technology that is very different for schools than it is for that example of how a GP appointment might work is that actually education is not simply about a relationship with an individual. That's part of it, but it's not the whole thing. That actually the way in which humans learn as social animals is very, very important and there are some really great stuff coming out of the use of technology to enable those social contact., And I think it's really important that we as educators hold that in mind and that we don't just reduce the communication that we are using technology for to being simply of that very kind of one way teacher-pupil and hopefully a little bit of pupil back to teacher relationship, that actually pupil to pupil is also incredibly important.



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