After lockdown: The urgent task for teachers as students return to the classroom for term four

As Victorian students prepare to return to school in greater numbers, a difficult but critical task confronts our teachers.

The most urgent responsibility of every teacher will be to find out as much as possible from every student about "where they are at" – both in terms of the knowledge and skills expected at their age and year level, and equally importantly, how they are feeling.

Pupils listen to teachers briefing them on the anti-COVID19 guidelines before they restart high school.Credit:Domenico Stinellis

Research globally during this pandemic has discovered some remarkably similar but equally worrying developments in schools everywhere. To begin with, about 460 million students worldwide have had no effective schooling during lockdowns and remote learning. This was because schools were ill-equipped to respond to the crisis, or that students and families lacked devices, connectivity or access to broadcast services. In Australia, it is inevitable that those who missed out because of these reasons will be the most disadvantaged.

Reinforcing this, many teachers have had serious reservations about what has gone on with remote learning. Grattan Institute research cites a large teacher survey in NSW that recorded only 35 per cent of teachers being confident their students were learning well remotely, with that number dropping to 15 per cent in disadvantaged schools. We know that many families lacked suitable spaces for students to work and that many very well-intentioned parents did not have the skills expected of them to provide support for home-based schooling.

Children and young people with special education needs may have suffered the most. They most likely lost the vital expert and personal support provided regularly at school. They often struggle with a lack of structure and routine, and are fearful in uncertain times.

Year 12 students also face uncertainty that compounds the highly disrupted year they have experienced. They entered their final year typically intent on doing their best, proving themselves, and working for the chance to pursue their chosen area of tertiary study or work. But they too have been denied daily, real contact with their teachers. The all-important impact of feedback has been compromised. Zoom has helped, but only just.

We know many things from education science, but two lessons are critical here.

Students learn new knowledge and skills based on connections to their existing knowledge, understandings and skills. This process of "transfer" not only determines how well they can learn, but also how well they can transfer new learning to new situations. Teachers must become mindful and informed about where students "are at" as they plan and deliver lessons to students when they return to classrooms. The inevitable gaps in knowledge, understanding and deep-seated mental representations among students as a result of remote, inferior learning must be acknowledged and addressed.

Secondly, we know from neuroscience that academic learning and a student’s emotional state are inextricably linked. Stressed and anxious students don’t learn well, if at all. Teachers need to explore and understand how their students have been adversely affected, and what support they will need.

These are not easy tasks for teachers. Determining student "entry behaviour" and preparedness to learn is a critical skill for all teachers at all times, but at this time, it becomes as difficult a task as it is imperative. Harder still is it likely to be for teachers to assess each student’s emotional state and wellbeing. However, without meeting these challenges, future teaching and learning will be severely compromised.

Peter Adams was the inaugural general manager of assessment and reporting at the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority.

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