Apr 26
Lessons From Our Year of 'Traditional' Learning

"In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind, there are few." 
- Shunryu Suzuki (Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind)

"For so long school has been a place where we would take our kids as parents and show up to work as educators. 
The schedule kept us all in place and moved us from class to class so we could make sure to cover and essentially learn all that was required of us in our given class, or semester, or year. 
It was a system that was predictable and that allowed for us to feel safe going through the motions. 
The tests tell us that the majority of students are learning and therefore they were on track as they moved from grade level to grade level. 
We rarely question this process, because the structures have existed for so long and have allowed us to keep the systems in place that look very similar and function as they have for over 100 years." 
- Katie L. Martin  


It has been an interesting year on so many levels - the grinding, never-ending fear of 'what will happen to my family? Myself? My friends and acquaintances?' underlying multiple levels of 'different' as we have cycled through numerous iterations of social and business closures, rising case numbers, the arrival of variant viruses in our community, and long periods of separation from everyone and everything we once held dear in our lives. Covering these losses and incalculable changes has been the enduring wearing of masks (multiple layers!) and shields, repetitive and incessant hand-washing and the never-ending reminders to stay 2m apart at all times. Just writing it all down seems overwhelmingly numbing and interruptive to everything we ever considered to be 'daily living'.

In response, humanity has persevered - investing billions of dollars, endless time and energy, creativity and imagination - and even political cooperation - into prioritizing human survival in the face of odds we once only gave credence to in movie scripts and apocalyptic novels. 

On a whole world scale, the virus continues to wage a battle that out-scales anything previously anticipated on the medical front and gives new meaning to the phrase 'public health emergency'. While the end to this whole mess does seem to be in view as countries invoke enormous vaccination strategies around the world, a return to some semblance of 'normal' seems to be becoming increasingly inevitable as well. Humanity will tame the virus and wrestle it into submission. The human toll will be huge - it already is and we really have no 'end' date in sight - yet it will be considerably less than if we had not had an international public health response at all. Human ingenuity will win in the end and we will all count ourselves, fortunate, I expect and hope, to be alive in a time in history where we are able to witness such a triumph over nature. 

Schools have been a low-level, less visible element of the world effort to sustain some semblance of normalcy through these days of great uncertainty. To keep schools available as places of learning for children resulted in a wide variety of approaches deployed across the globe - from in-person to virtual learning and every possible permutation in between. Much has been written about the impact of the pandemic on students overall, in a general sense, regarding the levels of stress and academic implications children have been experiencing over the past year. 

At Eric Harvie School, we have learned some lessons, too, from our pandemic year.

It has been a most challenging year - absolutely the most challenging I have experienced in over 30 years - for so many, many reasons. The pandemic itself, of course, has created high levels of anxiety for everyone - sometimes the worries ebbed a bit, but they always seemed to manifest again and again.  Other challenges emerged as a result of the pandemic that shaped our school year, and we have learned some lessons as a result.

This school year has caused our school to change all the strategies we typically use to guide learning  - including building independence, making real-life connections, fostering numerous opportunities to apply problem solving and critical thinking skills, encourage innovative and design thinking and  opportunities to practice and nurture building peaceful communities together. Most of the learning occasions we typically foster in our school have been set aside this year in favour of safety and security of our students and staff. We have become, overall, much more traditional in our approaches to teaching and learning than any of us ever imagined as we championed innovation through our first four years.

This year, our learners have been confined to one classroom with the same teacher and classmates for every portion of the school day - from entry through to the end of the day, they have been at their table spots and teachers have taught primarily to the whole class rather than the small groups we typically prefer. When we have been able to offer learning support, it has been one-to-one or with one or two children from the same classroom who need similar support.  Teachers have been able to teach directly with children for much of every day, offering learning in much different formats than we previously would have, including a greater focus on written work, reading, math algorithms with fewer manipulatives, videos, and small hands-on creative projects that may be completed within the classroom or, preferably, at the table where children are located for the day. Except for two music classes per week and daily Physical Education in the gym, children have attended school much like I did as a child - in the same room, with the same children and the same teacher.  Much more traditional, definitely, than we are accustomed to at EHS!

There have been some advantages to this approach - the first being that we have been quite successful, overall, in keeping children and staff safe from the virus with only 3 known cases over the course of the year and limited impact on student learning (although having all the grade 3/4 classes pivot to online learning for 6 days was certainly an impact!).  That was our goal and we will continue to focus on cohorts of children with their teacher, handwashing, masking, distancing and enhanced cleaning until the COVID threats have subsided.

Teachers report they feel they know their students very well as a result of being with them all the time, every day, for learning. They have been able to build strong relationships with all the children in their classes, as well as with the families. Teachers are able to identify specific areas where students are struggling and offer ideas and strategies to support students in strengthening their knowledge and skills. They have been able to target strategies identified in IPPs (Individual Program Plans) for children with identified complex learning needs with greater frequency and attention. 

We have learned some interesting other lessons from our more traditional approaches to teaching and learning as well.

 Classroom management, student interactions outside the classroom (eg. playground) and fostering appropriate peaceful behaviours amongst the students have all definitely become interactions that require a much higher level of administrative/teacher intervention on a daily basis. Students benefit socially and emotionally from interacting with a wider expanse of other children on a daily basis - they like seeing other friends to play with during recesses and lunch times, Peace Assemblies, field trips, moving about the school to engage in activities in the Maker Space, the Hub or Learning Commons with small groups of peers. The loss of this change of pace and variety of learning interactions has certainly elevated the number of small conflicts and disagreements in the school, necessitating significantly more administrative interventions than we have ever seen before. When we meet with students to work through these situations, they are very much still aware of what is expected of them and what appropriate interactions look and sound like - they are simply not as patient or accepting of each other as they used to be when their interactions were more varied and diverse.  

Interestingly, although teachers have reported knowing their students better and being able to identify specific areas of learning need, student achievement has stayed about the same.  For some students, achievement has improved a bit; for others it has declined somewhat. Overall, there has been a levelling of achievement - students are doing the work they are asked and engaging in learning but improvements in skill or knowledge development are not evident in their daily work such as one might expect, given the time and attention teachers have focused on students in the classroom every day. 

This finding reflects, from my perspective, the reduced attention on a key part of learning - the social construction of knowledge. When children are able to work in small groups and discuss/explore/question learning of new concepts together, each of them brings their own background experiences and understandings to the table. Together, they share what they already know with each other, greatly expanding their realm of knowledge and pushing each other to try out new thinking and ideas as they engage in their work. Working independently more often leaves each of us relying on our own insights and understandings and reduces the opportunities to hear about and share in others' perceptions of the same concepts. 

Humanity relies on social interactions to survive, thrive, improve and be innovative. It is through these opportunities for socially constructing new understandings that children are often able to access a new way to understand or approach a problem they might otherwise have missed on their own. Research shows, clearly, that children who have opportunities to engage with others while learning new things are more apt to advance in their thinking and skill development. And it is quite possible that the limited opportunities we have been able to provide this school year for socially constructing knowledge together is being reflected in the levelling of student achievement across the grades. There are certainly pockets of improvement - as well as pockets of learners who are struggling. Overall, however, we are seeing a steadying of student achievement as students build greater strengths in the skills they are already good at without the boost of socially constructing knowledge available to help improve achievement in other areas of learning.  

"Students who engage in authentic learning do as well as others
on standardized tests, and do much better on real assessments
and real tasks of critical thinking and problem solving."
                                        - Linda-Darling Hammond

Along with the pandemic, we have had to contend with the metres and metres of orange fencing surrounding all the usual playing areas of the school yard, hemming the children into the compound or a small area of the playground. Between that, and the winter weather, the lesson about being outdoors is much better for children than being inside has been triply reinforced for us this year!  Our learners are often outside, in the community, in the Coulee, in the school yard, during a typical school year. This year we have had to assign them to particular areas of confinement for breaks and recesses to ensure there are no cross-cohort contacts, and those confined areas have been particularly small due to all the fenced off areas where we are not allowed to go until the construction project is deemed complete - hopefully by summer.  

We have always encouraged our learners to take their curiosities, their investigative skills, their creativity and innovative thinking outside the school walls. Through field trip experiences, as well, we have been able to provoke their inquisitiveness, encouraged their questions and asked them to apply their critical thinking skills to novel situations. Lesson emphasized for us:  get the children outside learning as much as possible - it is good for their physical activity, social activity and, as well, for their brain activity!

A challenge for us this year has been the interrupted learning some of our children have experienced - whether through required periods of isolation or times where parents kept them at home out of worries about exposure to COVID-19, or illnesses of their own, many students have experienced interruptions to daily learning and routines that would usually help them organize their thoughts, their work and their learning. When we return to school in the fall of 2021-22, we anticipate we will have learners with a wide variety of skill and knowledge experiences behind them - much more so than we would usually expect. Recognizing this as a lesson of the pandemic will also help us better prepare for learning that will meet student needs as we move further away from pandemic-controlled teaching and learning. 

"For so long school has been a place where we would take 
our kids as parents and show up to work as educators.
 The schedule kept us all
 in place and moved us from class to class so we could make 
sure to cover and essentially learn all that was required of us in
 our given class, or semester, or year. 
It was a system that was predictable and that allowed for us 
to feel safe going through the motions. 
The tests tell us that the majority of students are learning 
and therefore they were on track as they 
moved from grade level to grade level. 
We rarely question this process, because the structures
 have existed for so long have allowed us to keep the system 
in place that look very similar and function 
as they have for over 100 years." 
                                           - Katie L. Martin

We have invested so much energy and focus into a year of more traditional learning, striving to keep our students safe and attend to their learning needs at the same time. We have adjusted our teaching styles and approaches to accommodate these demands and, upon reflection, have learned many things from this experience that we will take forward to inform our next year practices and school set up. Time for teachers to get to know their students, of course. Also moving to provide multiple learning opportunities that engage students in socially constructed learning experiences that stretch and expand their understandings, social interactions and capacities to solve problems and think critically. Maximize outdoor learning opportunities as well, to keep our children physically, socially and neurally healthy and active. 

"Specifically in education, this collective experience has 
challenged educators, administrators, policy makers, families, 
and communities to reimagine how we educate young people."
- Katie L. Martin 

Traditional learning practices were not designed to amplify the thinking of learners; they were designed to measure the content learners had acquired. Acquiring content does not prepare our children to engage in the world in a reflective, inquisitive, engaged way that will allow them to approach life as having the potential for change, growth and adventure that the 21st century offers. Rather than holding them in place as markers of a population who attended Eric Harvie School, we will seek to offer learning experiences that encourage learners to think more deeply, question more fully; to try out new ideas and see what happens without being intimidated by failure or short term inconvenience; to believe they can truly make a difference in the world in which they are going to grow, thrive and change over a lifetime. We have learned many lessons from our very traditional year of learning - including a verification of our need to elevate our students' learning rather than ceiling it through our teaching practices.

Teachers have proven so flexible - moving from engaged, flexible learning opportunities to online learning last spring with a day's notice. Developing traditional teaching processes to ensure the physical well-being of children through this pandemic year. Pivoting from online to in-person without hesitation. Offering learning opportunities that get kids outside to Coulee School even when our yard is completely hemmed in by giant orange fences. Staying positive and calm through a third wave of positive cases and variants that sends chills through all our hearts. And, perhaps most importantly, still being willing to turn our faces to the sun, be confident in a new year of learning and willing to reflect on our lessons learned from this year so we are best able to live up to our school's vision: to establish and sustain a learning environment that fosters creativity and innovation in a peaceful community of connected, independent thinkers, problem solvers and learners. We are definitely up to the challenges of next year!

Lorraine Kinsman
Eric Harvie School 


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