Lessons in learning

The bell rings. Noisy chatter around lockers disperses as students slide into rows of chairs. In front of them, a teacher stands at a whiteboard and attempts to hush the room. A lesson begins. 

When asked to think of a school day, many of us conjure up a scene like this one. It is familiar across Australia, and has been for many years. But COVID-19 is changing that. 

Alycia Bermingham is a department head at Manjimup Senior High School in WA’s southwest. She says COVID-19 is providing an opportunity to re-evaluate her teaching. Instead of distinct lessons in a timetabled school day, she now video-calls groups of three or four students at a time, and sets ‘problem-based’ content which students complete over the course of a week. 

Ms Bermingham and her students, like all of us, are in uncharted territory; trying to retain some semblance of normality in a decidedly abnormal world. 

She said the day her year twelve students were told their ball and a highly anticipated camp were cancelled, it was almost as if someone had died. 

“That sounds superficial, it’s just a ball, it’s just country week, but they were really broken. I felt broken, and like I had to hold them together,” Ms Bermingham said. 

For these students, the disappointment of cancelled school events stands for something much bigger: the uncertainty and anxiety of education during a pandemic. 

In the middle of COVID-19, a school day looks very different to what we might be used to. Image: Louise Miolin

However among the chaos of educators hurriedly moving content online and parents struggling to supervise schoolwork from home, there is a valuable opportunity to reassess the way we think about education. 

Sandra Milligan is an Enterprise Professor and Director of the Assessment Research Centre at the University of Melbourne. Last year, she co-authored the Beyond ATAR report, which discusses the flaws in our WACE/ATAR system. 

Professor Milligan says the ATAR narrows curricula into sets of information to regurgitate in exams, failing to truly evaluate the whole student. 

“It’s just a number. It doesn’t tell us much about attitudes, values, or passions…it doesn’t represent everything a student knows, or who they are,” she says. 

Professor Milligan hopes as we reshape our education system in the face of coronavirus, we might take the ideas of Beyond ATAR into consideration. However, she is keen to emphasise that the transition to a newer, less rigid system cannot and should not be made overnight. 

“I’m worried there will be a knee-jerk reaction,” she says. “I would really like us to be calm and considered…we need to separate what we want to see in terms of long-term changes, from what we need to do now.”

Alycia Bermingham shares this sentiment. She says the urgency with which teachers are having to change their teaching systems could mean we quickly backpedal into familiar rigidity in education. Instead, she says, we should use this as an opportunity to reassess the way we make education accessible for every student. 

“Some kids don’t want to be in school at 8.30 every morning…I mean, some teachers don’t either,” she laughs. 

Ms Bermingham says flexible learning is particularly valuable for students with mental illnesses. 

“Obviously you cannot replace a face-to-face-classroom. But with online learning, if you’ve got a kid who can’t come to school without wanting to die, you’re now offering an option that was not always available,” she says. 

For Olympia Sarris, a youth ambassador for Australia’s Mental Health Foundation, the importance of this option is invaluable. 

“For me and my anxiety, it’s actually quite good to have to go out to places, so school was good for me. But for my best friend, she is able to learn and contribute much more when she can work from home,” Ms Sarris says.

Indeed, Ms Bermingham is finding some students thrive studying from home. 

“The feedback I’m having from my students already is that they really like going at their own pace, sinking their teeth into problems they can work on all week,” she says.

This concept of student-led learning is familiar for Rebecca Drake, an art educator and home-schooling parent.

For Ms Drake, the drive to home-school came from curiosity about her children’s capacity to guide their own learning. Now, the Drake’s classroom extends beyond the four walls of their home and out into the world: on the family farm, in museums and galleries, and on sports fields. Ms Drake is able to cater the education of her children so each of them learns at their own pace. Rather than simply learning information to regurgitate it in a test, her kids apply their skills to everyday life on the farm, in the home, and in the wider world. 

The Drake children’s school day looks a bit different to a traditional classroom. Image: Rebecca Drake

Many parents who home-school value the way their children interact with the wider world (with and without COVID-19 restrictions). Image: Louise Miolin

Ms Drake hopes the value of this kind of schooling is realised as people are forced to educate from home. She is excited to have had messages from parents expressing interest in home-schooling after the pandemic is over. 

However, she said it’s important to note that what most parents are experiencing, and many are struggling with, is not ‘normal’ home-schooling. 

“A lot of home-schooling families are frustrated with people using the label ‘home-schooling’ for what’s happening now, because it’s not the same,” she says. 

“Home-schooling is a philosophy. You use what’s around you, you don’t sit in front of a computer and pull off set work and send it back again…so that, what’s happening now, is not what home-schooling really is.”

Ms Bermingham agrees this is an important distinction. 

“What’s happening now isn’t online schooling, or home schooling. This is crisis schooling, ” she says.

In this crisis schooling, Ms Bermingham says the importance of school-based relationships has shone through.

After a video-call with her year twelve history class recently, the students asked Ms Bermingham if she could turn her laptop off, leaving them in the ‘classroom’ without her. 

‘Get your own video-call! Use Facetime!’ she told them. 

But the students said they couldn’t make a Facetime call with all of them. 

‘What about Zoom? Or Houseparty?’ she asked. 

‘Miss!’ they replied, ‘Zoom’s not safe, and Cameron got hacked on Houseparty!’. 

So she left them, those year twelves – just shy of eighteen and adulthood – in the midst of a pandemic, sitting together from separate bedrooms in a virtual classroom. 

Ms Bermingham shut her laptop, and paused. She said the whole scenario was heartbreaking, and totally bizarre. 

But amid the strange sadness and uncertainty, there is scope for revaluation. We don’t know what education will look like next week, next term, or next year. But if we approach this unprecedented situation considerately, this pandemic could lead to a school system that is more flexible and accessible not only in times of crisis, but also in times of calm.  

Categories: COVID-19, Education