The  incidental effects of online learning

This is not much more than a thought at the moment. Perhaps a suspicion is a better description. But I wonder if others have had experiences that lead to the same suspicions and can contribute some anecdotes or thoughts to help make this a proper idea.

In Peru, we have been in educational lockdown since March 15th 2020. For us, being in the southern hemisphere, that was the start of the school year, a mere two weeks into the school year in fact. A full year and ¾ online left us returning to school at around 40% of occupancy, and children coming in for 40% of the time, in October 2021.

Academically, most of our children have done very well throughout the period. We have just received the results of the November IBDP entry and have some of the best results we have had in 28 years of doing the diploma. That seems true throughout the school, all the way down to the 3 year olds. 

Social education has, of course, been much more restricted. For most of the 18 month lockdown, children were not even allowed outside their homes: no meeting friends, no trips to the playground, not even shopping with parents! We have noticed a social reluctance to engage since they have been back in school part-time, or perhaps an ignorance of how to engage might be a better description. For the youngest, there is a physical retardation in their development as well. They do not have the confidence to climb to the top of the climbing frame, and even show a reluctance to bump into each other in the ways you would expect from 3 to 5 year olds.

All of that is quite normal and I imagine that many professionals in many schools have seen the same things, although perhaps to different degrees. So what is my suspicion?

What I have also noticed is that being away from the day to day life of school has taken the children away from the structures of school life. The hierarchies and the formulas of respect and relationship have not been part of their daily experience. I have seen signs of them coming back without the restrictions that those preconceptions hold them to and that inhibit their behaviour. Let me give you an example.

Our school is fairly traditional. We have a team of four “School Captains” or “Senior Prefects”. Students in their penultimate year apply for the posts. They write their proposals, they get interviewed and, in the end, get appointed. Once appointed they lead the school for the following year. They sit on the Board of Governors. They will join the Senior Leadership Team this year. They create and lead service projects. They organise other older students working as big brothers and sisters to the younger ones. Recently they have written the school code of conduct. None of this is revolutionary and many schools do similar things. What was interesting this year is that, for the first time, students in the year below the penultimate year also applied for the posts. In the past, it would not have occurred to them, or they wouldn’t have dared. Why the change? Is it because, without the day to day reinforcement of implicit hierarchy, they didn’t see why they shouldn’t apply?

This got me thinking about the ways in which the structures we practice fix children in their actions and behaviour. Without those structures, they are free to take on more and different challenges. In this case, it was the daily reinforcement of horizontality that glued the children to the band they are in.

So, we are hoping to go back to full-time school for the coming year that starts in March. Will we see other structures diluted or ignored? Horizontality certainly, but what about gender-based structures, or the relationships between children and teachers? Perhaps most poignant is the question of how long it will take to re-establish the old norms and what can we do to prevent that from happening. I have long thought that the structures that we teachers work within constrain the way we work but of course, it must be true for children as well. The covert curriculum is not just about the way we behave but the structures we impose. Can we use the freedom from some of these that online learning has allowed us to give children more freedom to define themselves as they grow?

I would be very interested to hear from others of ways in which the breakdown of the old normal school structures has enabled students to define their school life in a different and perhaps more liberating way. Please share any thoughts either as a reply to this, or on LinkedIn. 

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