24th Apr, 2020 - Laurie Forcier

Learnings from the frontlines: Wuhan, Italy, NY & Seoul

Yesterday, Learnit hosted its first ever virtual event, skillfully moderated by Jenny Anderson, senior reporter for Quartz. Our panel comprised three K-12 leaders, who shared their experiences with openness, humility and optimism: 

  • Erika Carlson, the Head Principal from the Wuhan Yangtze International School, whose students were spread across four continents when the lockdown came. 
  • Iain Sachdev, the Principal of  the International School of Monza, just outside of Milan, whose team moved their school online in 24 hours.  
  • David Newman, Principal of Brooklyn Technical High School, in New York, who found himself separated from the hustle and bustle of a 6,000-student building, and instead, leading a school alone from his basement.  

We were also joined by Ju-Ho Lee, former South Korean minister of education, who is on a mission to build an education workforce prepared and enabled to execute high-touch, high-tech teaching

Key learnings from the discussion: 

  1. Human connection in education is vital
    • Central to the discussion was how moving to remote learning has led to a deeper understanding of the importance of community and human connection in education. A massive remote learning experiment is underway, with many educators teaching with learning technologies and other online tools for the first time. This will build new skills and confidence in the educator workforce; our leaders reported that innovations implemented out of necessity have already created new knowledge about teaching and learning.  But the wholesale move to remote has made us realise how disconnected we feel when we are apart. Leaders hope for a new normal that will be a happy medium. As Ju-Ho put it: ‘We are experimenting now with a huge surge in online learning, but this is a transient period… Maybe this period can pave the way for the destination of an ideal mix of online and offline learning.’ 

  2. We’re officially ‘outside the box’
    • Before the pandemic, David ‘ran a school using out of the box thinking,’ while being ‘in the box’ of a state-regulated school system. Now, ‘the box has been lifted,’ and the lack of boundaries is big and scary. Our leaders found that they quickly needed to put new rules in place in order to move forward, and realised that being inside the box could be useful — but, they want to build a different box.

  3. Well-being is at the top of the agenda
    • Our leaders initially focused their attention on content delivery. But well-being swiftly emerged as priority one. ‘Suddenly we had the issue of a lot of students potentially falling through the net – we couldn’t see them as well – we can’t see (their) expressions,’ according to Iain. ‘Systems had to be put in place…so that all students have a space, a digital space, they could come into and speak to key people in the school about how they were doing.’ 

  4. Getting real about content
    • A stronger focus on well-being meant our leaders have had to rethink curriculum, iterating in real time. According to Erika, ‘We are asking ourselves, what are the essential core aspects of the curriculum, and how can we process through that along with what’s real life right now. Can we use deep thinking activities, like journaling or shared reflection to help students make sense of their experiences, whether that’s about being in lockdown, or about a math problem?’ 

  5. Using assessment for inclusion 
    • Remote learning at scale has highlighted the various different needs, and inclusion needs, that exist within schools, and this is likely to feed forward into how our leaders think about assessment going forward. Specifically, Iain said they would be ‘taking into more account that different students will express their learning in different ways, and that assessment options will be needed.’ 

  6. (Teachers’) minds have been changed forever
    • The environment of uncertainty has had the effect of moving teachers and teams into experimentation mode. Erika noted that the pandemic has pushed her and her team to ‘think about using their resources and teams and tools and people in completely different ways. This change in teacher mindset will be the most important change, more so than the specifics of the tools they were using.’ 

  7. (Parents’) minds have been changed forever
    • Parents are engaging with their childrens’ education on a level that they’ve never engaged before. While noting the inherent difficulties, Iain reflected, ‘We’ve never done anything that has been so widely appreciated by parents. We have a wave that we can ride.’

We also heard examples of what worked, what didn’t, and where we need to focus our attention next. 

What’s worked:

  1. Reducing content – all our leaders talked about the need to reduce content in a remote context, and they questioned whether it made sense to return to a content-heavy model. 
  2. Adopting a new leadership stance – our leaders also spoke about how they had to leave diplomacy behind in favour of a more authoritative style, to protect learners and speed implementation. And they spoke about how their teacher and leadership teams rose to new challenges when given the charge. 
  3. Helping parents become active participants in education – simple and explicit lesson plans helped parents know how to contribute. Parents also valued help building learning schedules that work around their lives, including times to take breaks.

What hasn’t worked:

  1. Expecting parents to be teachers – for the most part, they aren’t, and expecting them to be so makes everyone unhappy.
  2. Manufacturing community – despite best efforts, our leaders admitted that finding ways to replace human interactions virtually is difficult, if not impossible. 

Where we need to focus our attention next:

  • Infrastructure – We knew there were inequities that existed within our communities and between nations. The pandemic has made clear how deep these inequities run, particularly in terms of resources and infrastructure.  It is likely that this kind of disruption may come again and again, and Ju-Ho encouraged the global community to do much needed baseline resilience planning to address unequal access to high quality networks, devices, learning platforms, and content.
  • Leveraging the skills and trust that have been built – the overwhelming feeling from our leaders was a sense of gratitude that in the face of this crisis, a new normal had been established with teachers, parents and students that was built on trust. All planned to use that newborn trust, in combination with new educator skills, to build back better. 

Our next virtual event will take place Thursday 7 May 2020. To grab an early spot, email hello@learnit.world

To watch the session in full, see the recorded video below.

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