The Impact of Covid-19 on Teaching and Learning

In 2019 I was the recipient of the Staff Scholarship. My project was around agile methodologies and schools. In 2019 I wrote, “an organisation can’t simply decide to ‘do’ agile, rather, shifting to an agile way of working typically requires significant cultural change in changing the way employees and employers think about work”.

Well…

Despite the popularity of agile (it’s graced as many business magazine covers as a 90s supermodel) and the different agile frameworks, at its core I have come to understand agile as frequent iteration and continuous learning and improvement. When COVID-19 suddenly turned our shared understanding of a current or present workflow on its head we were all forced to reckon with the fact that what’s true today may not necessarily be true tomorrow. Things were changing moment to moment. To quote from one of my favourites, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”.

In the face of shifting communication, a divided political landscape, uncertainty over the infectiousness of the virus and the need to prepare for a multitude of possible outcomes all while revising the schedules of our personal lives, we fundamentally changed the way we thought about work. We went agile and I ate my words.

As Loreto Normanhurst, along with many other schools, made the gradual return to campus, staff and students remarked on what they’ll ‘keep’ from COVID-19. Students I have spoken with shared that they’d enjoyed additional time with their siblings as they were co-opted into the supervision space while parents juggled full households, one student told me that her mother had taught her the ‘family recipes’ and there was a general appreciation of the slower pace of life. Around the (physically distanced) watercooler, staff too conducted mini retrospectives on what they’d like to keep from COVID-19 and whether we’re all the better for it. I humbly narrow my focus here to whether teaching and learning might be better in a post COVID-19 world. We are nowhere near accounting for the toll this crisis will wreak.

Back to the water cooler conversation.

For us in education, and I suspect this is true for many businesses across the country, the decision to close workplaces meant a sudden grappling with technology and its capacity to help us do our jobs remotely. But if we focus solely on technology, we will, to quote another of my favourites, have “had the experience but missed the meaning”. In almost all aspects of remote teaching and learning we used technology as a communication tool.  Zoom video conferencing, the Canvas Learning Management System and collaborative documents are all means of communicating with our students and each other. Loreto Normanhurst was already well-equipped with some of the necessary tools but we had to learn very quickly to use Zoom in order to pivot into online learning effectively. Overall, it was certainly a steep learning curve for many staff who were not yet plumbing the depths of the systems already available, we all swiftly learnt to utilise them to their absolute fullest.

What I would most like to keep post COVID-19 is the focus on continuous improvement. It’s not just learning how to use technology, it’s changing our processes and communications. The highly physical processes that underlie the school day were gone and we couldn’t replicate the physical classroom in Zoom. In an educational setting there are contextual breaks as students move from learning space to space around the campus, at home they are suddenly plugged into their computer all day. A simple fix was to cut the lesson time down in order to allow students scope to leave their laptops.

At school, when a teacher walks into the classroom she is communicating that the lesson is about to start. The students and teacher are always present, over Zoom (and particularly after using Zoom to set up a lesson and then signing out) we needed to trust that our students were indeed carrying on with the lesson. Personally, I saw great trust, empathy and compassion in the Zoom communications as we virtually met with colleagues nursing crying children or whose partners suddenly appeared in the background.

My peers were humanised in new ways as snippets from their personal lives came into play. There was also no shortage of students wanting to show teachers their pets or backyards! Zoom as a tool also continuously improved by adapting in order to communicate better. They added gestures like hands up, and thought about how one might walk into a meeting in real life by adding microphone mute as a default setting. What we saw was a whole education sector engaged in change management, from classroom teachers to support staff to school leaders. Suddenly it was everyone’s job to be ready and able to respond and the only way that could happen is through teamwork, open communication and trust. These are the building blocks of Agile and why it abruptly felt like I was eating my words.

In 2019 my staff scholarship research occurred with the Year 10 Integrated class where we undertook two large scale projects designed around Agile methodologies. Recently I was tapped on the shoulder to guide those same students through reimaging what Loreto Day might look like in 2020. Working alongside the current Year 11s has brought into focus all the key learnings we covered last year, five of which are detailed below. No one could have imagined that 2020 would deliver a scenario where staff and students were asked to put into play some of the core concepts of Agile. Suddenly the abstract learning in the classroom had become a day to day reality.

1. Diverse teams

The students’ worked in diverse teams or learning squads to complete the goals defined in a sprint. All students undertook DISC profiling and this information was fed into the formation of their learning squads. Helping students understand their own strengths and areas for development was also a good way to lay the foundation for the self-reflection necessary for an attitude of continuous improvement. For our students, where perfectionism can be paralysing, adopting a ‘test and learn’ mentality shifts the focus towards feedback and incremental improvement. In a longer term view, it teaches a bias towards action and experimentation. In sum, just the sort of mindset necessary to be adaptable, curious, creative and well versed in managing one’s own time and workflow.

2. Feedback loops

Students were given a delivery deadline and then worked together on short increments with feedback loops, by teaching students to apply sense checks early and often it is easier to adapt and respond to change. Students were also encouraged to run their own ‘stand-up’ at the beginning of each lesson in order to share what they’d done since the last lesson and what they planned to work on in the lesson ahead. A clear focus on the learning goals drove accountability for the team as a whole as well as the individual members.

In ‘doing’ remote learning, teachers have been acutely focused on pairing back the curriculum to key learning goals only and many watercooler retrospectives have sung the praises of writing or making the learning intention of each lesson explicitly clear. Something you can reasonably only do when your focus is paired back and you’re not trying to nail multiple outcomes in one activity.

The school has also been engaged in a number of feedback loops. Staff, students and parents were invited to participate in weekly surveys providing feedback on online learning. We used these surveys to respond quickly, making necessary changes and adopting a ‘test and learn’ mentality where we eschewed what’s been done before or what may have worked in the past in favour of meeting the needs of our community now.

3. Transparency

In the Year 10 unit, we hammered home the value of transparency to students through a series of challenges such as ‘Agile Art’ and ‘Fruit Salad problem sizing’. In both these games the key takeaway is that uniting behind a shared and transparent goal leads to better results. The largest gain we saw was around communication, a sharing of knowledge and cross pollination of ideas. Shared language and understanding leads to gains in velocity, the more trust and open communication within a team the better their velocity or output.

Students were also taught Kanban as a project management methodology (using Trello). Again, the core purpose was around transparency– everyone in the team could see what the whole team is working on as well as the work ‘to do’.

With some students and staff still working remotely the importance of providing inclusive access is vital. Removing the barriers that prevented interaction with or access to online learning was a huge task for our ICT Department. There are so many takeaways here for how schools and businesses choose to move forward. Rather than returning to the way things have been done, how might we democratise education further to ensure access to everyone? Online learning may not provide the same type of value as being on campus but there may be scope for how the education system grows over the next decade.

4. Creativity

The Year 10 programme reframed creativity as a muscle rather than a beret wearing artist. Activities were built to underline the fact that creativity can be taught and that most problem solving is looking at something working in one context and applying that same idea in new and novel ways elsewhere.

In working with Year 11 on re-imaging the long held and much anticipated Loreto Day, we have encouraged them to conduct research interviews and to look for how others have been building community at a distance or have been effective at fundraising in a time when many are feeling the fiscal pinch.

As a school, we also used COVID-19 to consult distance learning professionals as well as how online learning has been delivered elsewhere. It’s an opportunity to look with fresh eyes, not just at the school up the road but at ‘not for profits’, big business and everything in between.

5. Retrospectives

Reflection was rebranded as a retrospective and cemented as a vital element of the Sprint. Reflective practice is well embedded at Loreto Normanhurst, what we aimed to do with Year 10 was formalise some of the ways it can be practiced.

Our next teaching staff meeting is all about sharing those water cooler conversations and sharing what we hope to keep in the teaching and learning space in a post COVID-19 world. What better way to adopt agile methodologies than to come together as a staff, look backwards and ask ourselves ‘what’s worth keeping’?

The second large scale project we undertook with the Year 10 cohort in 2019 was Sprint Week where the students followed a Google Ventures Design Sprint methodology over 5 straight days in order to solve real business problems presented to them by our industry partners. Having utilised this problem solving method, the current Year 11s could not be better prepared for the leadership challenge presented to them by having to discard the way things have been done in the past and reinvent Loreto Day afresh in the time of coronavirus.

I have had the privilege of working with the girls by taking them through a mini-sprint. They stripped back the day to its central aims, conducted research interviews to gather insights, sketched possible solutions and then undertook a gallery walk to vote forward the best ideas. They are now working in teams to bring their ideas to life. The girls have been asked to pivot like so many businesses have had to do in order to remain viable throughout the coronavirus crisis. I don’t think anyone could have imagined 2020 would bring a more pertinent example of the need to rapidly change in order to survive. The Year 11s must be creative in how they might still deliver on the key aims of building community, advocating for the chosen cause and raising funds. They must also accept that the day will look different and that more than likely things will go wrong but they will adapt and they will cope and they will be better for it.

In that vein I implore you to support the students’ chosen cause, Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH) and consider buying raffle tickets for the auction.

While the education sector may not have chosen significant cultural change, cultural change was nevertheless hoisted upon us by a global pandemic. In effect, the world decided that we’d go Agile and I believe that teaching and learning is better for it. You can only have genuine organisational change if it first starts with the individual and then occurs at scale, in this crisis we have all had to alter the way we think about work. For most teachers that meant embracing a ‘good enough is good enough until we know more’ attitude. While a perceived loss of control of the classroom strikes horror in the heart of many classroom teachers, the flip side was the focus on continuous improvement as we learnt more and adapted our practices. It was uncomfortable but the discomfort is the part worth holding onto.

Like the businesses we each saw in our local communities, we need to remain ready to change. It might not always be on such a grand scale but being ready to adapt a lesson schedule that’s not working or shifting into a new mode in order to meet the needs of a student is a grand scale to our students. Loreto prides itself on authentic human interactions and what’s more Agile than valuing humans over processes?

 

Ms Liz Green

Knowledge & Learning Strategist