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The Opportunity of Covid Learning Pods

Editor's Note:

This is the latest article from Education Consultant Sue Neilson - see more about Sue below.

If you look around social and mainstream media these days, you will see that learning pods seem to be the next big thing. In particular, you regularly see and hear discussion about the efficacy of learning pods based around a debate about equity and inclusion, whether this is merely another way of shifting from public to private education, and disadvantaging many in the pursuit of a rich education.

However, in addition to equity and inclusion issues, we are also in danger of allowing these pods to replicate traditional education inside peoples’ living rooms. For example, I saw an image on Facebook of one such living room, with desks – interestingly ones that look like the ones I threw out from my school, with the desktops attached to the seat with a bar on the right – carefully situated six feet apart facing the picture window, teacher’s desk at the front.

Let’s take advantage of this key opportunity to do what is right for our children. Learning pods, like online learning, can be structured to personalize students learning pathways; to use their strengths and interests as the foundation for planning and learning.

The Curricular Connection

When children learn through play and inquiry, they develop and practice the skills and competencies they need to thrive in the future, including innovative and complex problem-solving, critical and creative thinking; working collaboratively with others; and applying their learning in new situations in a constantly changing world.

Ontario’s curriculum promotes this concept as early as Kindergarten. The Kindergarten Curriculum (2016) clearly articulates the skills and competencies necessary for 21st century learners with learning through exploration and inquiry. From the perspective of teaching, it also articulates the vision of Western Ontario’s Dr. Pacini-Katchebaw’s that we “must abandon our idea of a static, knowable educator and move on to a view of an educator in a state of constant change and becoming. The role of the educator shifts from a communicator of knowledge to a listener, provocateur, documenter, and negotiator of meaning. (11) .

In Kindergarten, we expect teachers and Registered Childhood Educators to use pedagogical documentation to note what where and when they observe a student meeting any expectation, and record that in a way that is appropriate to context. As children grow older, educators should begin to, using kid-friendly language, overtly teach big ideas/expectations, so that students will recognize what they are mastering, and why they are doing so. This will enable them to ultimately control their own learning goals and determine their own learning pathways while making sure they are covering the curriculum necessary for them to earn an Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

Sustaining the Kindergarten Foundation

We know that students are interested and engaged when they can voice their own opinions and decide on their own learning pathways. That is why student agency through play-based and self-directed learning is introduced to Ontario students in kindergarten.

But somewhere after Kindergarten we systematically lose this focus. Traditional methods, where teachers feel the need to direct learning pathways and establish control of the classroom with “hands up to speak”, happen at the cost of student voice and engagement. It’s easy to do because our interpretation of what school looks like is so ingrained in our systematic structures and personal and collective psyche.

In one of my schools we had a little boy who struggled. When he first arrived at the school, we would get him breakfast with some days an achievement just to get him inside the building. We would sit with him on the floor of the hallway until he emotionally was able to regulate his behaviours. Only when he was relaxed would he be able to begin to feel comfortable with attempting to communicate with language.

As you might imagine, he was not fond of the classroom. What he was fond of was being outside and fascinated with creatures that he could dig up in the yard. I was often struck by his engagement and wonder with the earth and the worms and different insects he captured. Coming in off the yard was an issue that was only achieved by a wise teacher who used his discoveries a segue to the classroom.

But I continue to ask myself “what if we had gone farther than that”? What if he had explored language through his examination of worms, counted and tallied the worms he brought in, studied and documented species, drew and labelled his finds, and wrote stories about worms, and so forth? Even more, imagine if this way of learning was continued through to grade 12!

The Opportunity of Covid Learning Pods

Parental interest in learning pods is a unique opportunity to assist students with the evidence informed skills and attributes necessary for online learning and learning in general. As identified by the Student Online ReadinessTool, these skills and attributes are perseverance, getting help, communication, planning and organization, time management, independent thinking, and technological proficiency.

If students are in face-to-face or virtual pods for the 2020-21 school year, there is an opportunity to focus teach on these attributes as students pursue their own learning pathways. The gradual release of responsibility occurs as students develop these skills and attributes and transition from in-class to online learning. This is an opportunity for teachers as well. As an alternative to distance learning, organizing Covid learning pods can use student agency to align student agency with learning.

The key will involve the front matter of curriculum and learning expectations. As teachers begin to explore 21st century learning, they will begin to see the overlap between the big ideas that each document delineates, as well as the opportunities for overlay of expectations from one document to another. Students and teachers can bundle expectations in any way they want to, as long as they keep track of the expectations that have met from specific documents. It is imperative that the curriculum documents drive instruction, not textbooks, worksheets and online lessons and units. These are resources that support learning, not vehicles for learning. Student agency strengthens when students themselves create their own learning pathways.

This is how pods can shift education – by creating environments and contexts for them to develop the attributes of life-long learning in the 21st century.

Sue Neilson is a former teacher, principal and currently works as an education consultant and passionate advocate for educational change.

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