In a time when education has had to evolve quickly, we’ve spoken on behalf of students, instead of making them part of the conversation.
I am directly experiencing the foreign world of remote learning as a first-year university student and student voice advocate. I’ve yet to have a class on campus, so everything about this transition has been a major learning curve. I understand that while I am transitioning to self-guided learning, across the world most young people are having to self-direct and mostly learn autonomously for the first time. Many are struggling, as are educators, but that’s the significance found in this shift: our learning curves are universally shared, and equally steep.
For several weeks, I have contributed to the discussion on the future of education. Talking through the challenges and prospects with educators and researchers, and (most significantly) students is something that I have truly loved doing. We are collectively navigating best practice as we live through this pivotal point in history. It has, however, been a process where student perspectives have been left out of these discussions to a significant degree.
While experts and educators have been collectively discussing student engagement, the absence of the students themselves as part of the discussion raises a pertinent point: are we not the real professionals in this case? Our answers aren’t theoretical, rather based on personal experiences and performance. As young people, we know how best we learn. So, it’s as equally interesting as it is troubling – somewhat perplexing that this perspective has been all-but omitted.
It has been demonstrated in vivid detail through Pivot’s recent whitepaper, Educators’ perspective of the impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning in Australia and New Zealand, how teachers want what is best for their students and are focussed on “meeting student needs from a distance” (Flack et al, 2020, p.12). We know teachers honestly care for their students and their learning efficiencies. Having said that, it’s a logical step that the learning environment would be improved through working with the students to achieve these outcomes. This is a critical step for educators, and while this may sound like old news for some, the student’s voice has been undeniably overlooked during all the external chaos. How many schools truly worked alongside their students when structuring the virtual classroom, or even asked them which online format would work best?
A solid working partnership between students and teachers is what will improve the virtual classroom and ease our transition back to the ‘new normal’. Whatever that is going to be.
The pressure to get ‘up to speed’
Held on 5 May 2020, the Boma New Zealand campfire discussion for Youth Voices addressed the back to school transition. This ‘campfire’ created an opportunity for young people, aged 16-20 from New Zealand and Australia to speak about the state of education. They expressed how there’s a lot of pressure to get ‘up to speed’ so things can get back to normal once on-campus learning resumes. It was Pivot’s finding that about 80% of Australian and New Zealand agreed that their students “will need additional support once everyone is back in the regular classroom” (Flack et al, 2020, p.12).
Getting up to speed is important. But equally important is that in doing this we haven’t created further ongoing stress for students, given that the start to this academic year hasn’t exactly had stress in short supply.
Many young people shared how their general wellbeing has fallen since the isolation restrictions were enforced, and there has undoubtedly been a heightened vulnerability to all demographics and professions over this difficult period. Most young people aren’t feeling their best at the moment, myself included. We need to counter the idea that we must quickly compensate for missed learning opportunities with extra work, as a lot of students are already feeling overwhelmed – this is without taking their education into account. It’s a subjective notion, a critical one at that, how and what students can mentally handle at the present time, so it makes sense that actually speaking to the student, asking them about their processes, feelings and potential anxieties is the right way forward.
Pivot’s research shows that teachers care about their students’ wellbeing. When asked to pick their top three concerns about distance learning for students, the most common responses among teachers were the students’ social isolation, a decrease in their wellbeing, and potential learning losses (Flack et al, 2020, P.15). The sheer volume of losses in learning is significant and needs addressing, but this isn’t something that can be handled well by young people if they are already feeling mentally overwhelmed. They will need their teachers’ support.
Before additional changes can happen, students need to know their teachers both understand and stand ready to support them. We should be encouraging an open dialogue between both parties, so we can reduce any feelings of isolation currently being experienced by many young people. Meaningful feedback and partnerships brought about to improve the classroom will provide additional support in encouraging cultivate engagement. When they contribute substantially to the classroom structure and formation, students feel accountable for its success as a direct consequence.
Having students’ voices heard during this isolating time could make a substantial difference. Encourage students to speak up, and really hear them when they do. Listening alone won’t suffice.
More information about EP and its uses can be found by visiting the website, www.epforlearning.com.