Why Australian education needed COVID-19

Despite most people having devices that can (literally) answer any question asked of it within a couple of seconds, many schools in Australia have still been handing out worksheets and working from textbooks older than I am! COVID-19 is the disruption that education in Australia needed. Without a doubt, it is terrible what COVID-19 has done to individuals and communities. However, as the latest PISA results show, academically Australia have been on a downward slide for the past 20 years.

GRAPH: Australia’s slide backwards source: abc.net.au

Do all students in Australia have access to a good education? 

I hope that things never return “back to normal” in the classroom, because somewhere along the way we have forgotten what the purpose of school actually is. The Australian Curriculum website states that it, “is designed to help all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens. It also mentions that they should be able to achieve this regardless of where they live or which school they attend.

This is certainly a valid and reasonable objective, but when we dig a little deeper and look at what is currently happening, it becomes quite clear that things need to change. The first Gonski report came out almost 10 years ago and we are still fighting a losing battle. Students who have a low socio-economic status (SES), come from a rural area or are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander are up to three years behind academically. 

We won’t know the full effects that COVID-19 will have on the educational gap, but we can jump to conclusions knowing that our disadvantaged groups are going to suffer due to:

  • Lack of technology – devices and wi-fi
  • Large families in confined spaces
  • Low SES families making even less money
  • Parents and carers from low educational background, have been required to assist their children with their learning at home when there may be language and literacy and numeracy barriers
  • Domestic violence rates increase as has been seen around the world “from Wuhan to New York.”

So, if we go back to teaching how we did pre-COVID-19, our results will continue to drop and if we continue to teach the majority of our students remotely, the gap will continue to increase. Changes must happen. 

Should schools be open or closed?

I don’t want to comment too much on how politics has affected schools during COVID-19, but it would be remiss of me to completely ignore it. Firstly, teachers will always be there for their students. Secondly, as great as teachers are, we have never had the power to say when school is open or closed. However, it is quite confusing when told that kids cannot go playing with each other in the playground at a park, but it is fine for them to sit next to each other at recess. Or are we going to need to stick giant hula hoops around all of them so that they stay 1.5m away from each other? 

The Prime Minister has stated that our students need us more than ever, but what we also need is strong leadership. We only have to look across the Tasman Sea to see what strong leadership looks like. While Scott Morrison has looked to deflect responsibility and has made reactive decisions, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has shown “direction-giving”, “meaning-making” and “empathy”. When Scott Morrison wants to refer to teachers as being on the front-line, he might want to look at some other ways of leading and motivating people. I am more inclined to do something when shown respect and compassion, rather than being blamed and told what to do.  

However, we need to look past the hysteria created and focus on the things that we can control. Let’s look at what we can learn from this experience and how it can help us move forward in schools.

What COVID-19 has forced educators to do

Let’s take a step back for a second and look at how amazing our teachers are! Teachers are extremely organised, they like to be in control and enjoy working with children. Yet in a flash, this has been taken away from them and despite their own concerns and anxiety, most teachers have shown their willingness to do whatever it takes to ensure the best for our children. This has included: 

  • Almost overnight, alter the way they teach, learn, communicate, plan and assess. Many schools have taken the approach of not teaching new content during this period and ensuring that the same content is delivered for those learning from home and those still attending school physically. This has meant prioritising what is needed and what the most effective way to teach it is. 
  • Collaborate with colleagues, parents and carers. The sheer urgency of this situation has forced teachers to work together in teams. They have discussed best-practice and taken a strengths-based approach.  
  • Reflect on the way they deliver their information so that it can be understood by students with minimal adult help.  
  • Develop themselves as professionals to ensure they are using evidence-based practice and making effective use of technology.
  • Communicate with students and parents and carers on a daily basis. 
  • Have fun! Amidst the day-to-day chaos of a school day, many teachers forget about the joys of teaching. Check out how fun our teachers can be:
Greenacre Public School
Vincentia High School
  • Take a flexible approach to the way work is submitted, when it is completed and what is completed. We understand that families at home have also had to contend with juggling new roles at home. 
  • Create engaging, explicit learning programs because we’re up against Minecraft and TikTok! 
  • Ensure they look after their own wellbeing and are mindful of their fellow teachers and the wider community. COVID-19 is having a huge impact on our mental health and it has never been more evident as to how important it is to have a toolkit that supports our own and others wellbeing. 

Now, you look at this list and think, aren’t these things that teachers should be doing anyway? 

Yes, you’re right, but as teachers have been saying for years, we just need more time. Time to plan. Time to collaborate. Time to reflect. Time to communicate. 

Speaking of time, COVID-19 has come at the right time for many in education because we have the technology available to ensure teaching and learning (not babysitting) can continue remotely. Teachers have been more collaborative than ever, with Zoom conferences, webinars and social media packed full of helpful people. In a short period of time, researchers such as AITSL, John Hattie and Evidence for Learning have put together best-practice guides enabling teachers to make informed decisions about the best home learning programs for their communities. 

This is not home schooling, distance education or babysitting 

Parents and carers are not trained teachers and many of them are also juggling working from home themselves. It is not a choice like home schooling or set up with the structures in place like distance education. However, teachers and parents are still working bloody hard to ensure that our children are still getting some form of education. 

Parents are now finding out, there are hundreds of things that get in the way of learning on a daily basis. These include, but not limited to a lack of:

  • Focus
  • Motivation
  • Comprehension
  • Energy
Maggie Dent’s tips for supporting learning at home

All of the feedback that I have heard from families is how grateful they are for the job that teachers do and thankful for the effort that they have put in. It has also highlighted the need for parental education. Some parents have asked teachers things like, “How do I control my child?” or “They just won’t get off the playstation.” We need more help for parents and carers in understanding the importance of setting up boundaries, helping children develop self-regulation skills and being positive role-models themselves.

In order to grow, learners require the confidence to attempt challenges in an environment that encourages failure. They need to be supported with the tools to reflect on their mistakes and be given an opportunity to rectify those errors. This then develops their metacognitive skills (to think about their thinking) and increases their connection to the content. 

As educators, we know under these current circumstances that we can’t guarantee what sort of learning will be happening. However, we will continue to provide high quality lessons for all. We also want parents to know that when we set work we do not expect it all to be done to the same standards that could be produced in the classroom. Teachers will continue to teach, but first and foremost our priority is ensuring the wellbeing of our students and families. 

What can the classroom look like post COVID-19

Despite the large amounts of teacher professional learning that has occurred over the past couple of months, we can’t hide from the fact that for many, technology has still only been used as a way to push out content and as a replacement for hard copy worksheets and textbooks. 

How can we work out what truly matters in education and ensure we set our students up for success? Here are five questions to start off the discussion:

  1. How can we continue to collaborate when school returns to “normal”? For example, could we get groups of expert teachers to put together instructional videos based on evidence based practice? They could be packed with demonstrations, examples and activities. These videos could be accessed on a LMS or even just give every student a USB with the content on them. It would ensure that every student would have access to high quality education regardless of their location. This could be done across schools, small communities or even nationally. Just a thought…
  2. How can wellbeing be embedded properly into our curriculum, not as a separate subject?  Not sure who originally came up with this term, but we certainly need to do “Maslow before Bloom.”
  3. What needs to happen in order to develop our students as learners? In The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros asks the question, “Are our students as curious when they leave school as when they started?” 
  4. How can we give our students an opportunity to explore their passion and talents? Giving people choice leads to an increase in engagement and motivation. Look at what a bunch of Year 4 and 5 students chose to learn about on the Kids are in charge Youtube channel. You can read about why I believe Project-based Learning should be in every classroom here
  5. How can we give students and teachers more time to build relationships, plan, organise, learn, assess and reflect?

“This awful catastrophe is not the end but the beginning. History does not end so. It is the way its chapters open.”

St. Augustine

What do we need to do next?

Whether you are a parent, in an official school leadership role, classroom teacher or work in the office, we all have a responsibility to lead the changes that are needed. It is no longer okay to talk about being future focused or future ready, because the future is now and the kids matter.  

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