This is a guest blog written by Dr. Lijuan Du, Vice-Principal and Co-Principal Elect of Dalton School Hong Kong – which, in common with all Hong Kong Schools, is currently closed – with a call to us all to use the current crisis to focus deeply on what education actually means.
An outbreak of pneumonia caused by a new coronavirus came quietly and silently without any notice. When we were still immersed in the joy of welcoming the Year of the Rat, the school’s new semester start date has been pushed back again and again (and will not now be until 16 March at the earliest). What about student learning? How should schools respond to this sudden change? School education is facing an unprecedented dilemma and challenge!
However, there are always huge opportunities in challenges! When real difficulties and problems are in front of us, the spirit of cooperation and innovation of educators is maximized. Dalton School Hong Kong quickly started distance learning and moved our traditional classrooms to the Internet. Principals and teachers meet via WeChat or Zoom to discuss teaching plans; teachers and parents maintain daily communication through email or Seesaw platforms; teachers and students share learning experiences through Seesaw and Zoom classrooms … People’s communication styles have been changed hugely.
This unexpected storm not only challenged educators, but also showed everyone the advantages of distance teaching. First, distance learning helps maximize the sharing of teaching resources. For example, after the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a notice of “Suspending schools without stopping learning”, our partner school in Beijing – Tsinghua Affiliated Primary School – opened its online learning resources to the society for free use during the postponed period for primary school students across the country. The Tsinghua Internet School curriculum is created by many subject leaders, teachers of core subjects and outstanding educators. Such high-quality teaching resource sharing is achieved because of the needs of online teaching, and these are not the resources that can be easily acquired in traditional classrooms. Our students in Hong Kong also benefited from it.
Second, distance learning maximizes the potential and creativity of teachers. In order to make their classes lively and interesting, our teachers have been doing everything they can: some have been online to find fun games and videos; some have dressed up as characters in picture books and told stories to students in a dreamy way; some have made professional art videos and have taught students how to draw online … Teachers have experimented and innovated in areas they were not familiar with. It seemed that overnight, teachers’ potential and creativity have become unprecedented.
Third, distance learning makes learning personalized, to the maximum extent possible. Small group learning and one-on-one learning, which are not easily implemented by teachers in traditional classrooms, can be performed perfectly through online learning. For example, one of our teachers, Ms. Cecile, arranged several small grouped math workshops, writing workshops and one-on-one reading support in one day, so each student obtained learning that was suitable for his/her level and ability.
In addition, after students uploaded their work online, teachers can provide targeted feedback as soon as possible. For example, after receiving a Chinese writing assignment uploaded by a second grader, another of our teachers, Ms. Nina, provided such feedback in time: “Thank you for completing the writing task quickly and well! I also like your word choice, e.g., “Sudden Enlightenment” and “Sullen”. Your storyline is also particularly reasonable. I wonder if you can add a little bit, such as if the tiger has learned a lesson afterwards, has he been deceived again? “In this example, Ms. Nina pointed out the strength of the student’s work in text form, and puts forward constructive suggestions to help the student make continuous progress from the first time.
Another example, after receiving a math assignment uploaded by a first grader, yet another teacher, Ms. Zoe, provided following voice feedback first: “Congratulations, you completed all of this correctly! And you also wrote the fractions in simplified form. I would like to know how you learned to simplify fractions. Can you share this with me?” Through this feedback, the student has the opportunity to think further, and he has been encouraged to shift his focus from learning results to learning process. This type of feedback can deepen student learning anytime, anywhere, without being limited by time and region.
One more example, our teacher, Ms. Mimi, provided timely feedback after receiving an assignment uploaded by a first grader, Jessy. Jessy’s mom also participated in the online communication. Here are their online conversations:
Ms Mimi: “You have done such a good job, Jessy! I really appreciate it that you tried to make as many words as possible. I especially like the word “lavender”. I haven’t thought of the word “lavender” for a long time, and I seemed to have smelled the pleasant scent of lavender already.”
Jessy’s mom: “I was also surprised when she wrote the word ‘lavender’. I asked her how she learned this word. She said a few days ago, her helper had helped her apply lavender oil to her doll.”
Ms Mimi: “Oh yes, we can learn from everywhere in real life. Jessy learned the word from her life and also used what she learned into learning. Very good!”
This dialogue demonstrates the importance of timely communication between parents and teachers. It not only makes parents and teachers have closer relationships, but also allows both parent and teacher to better understand the multiple pathways of children’s access to learning resources; perhaps from teachers, from helpers, and more importantly, children learn from real life!
Of course, distance learning also brings some technical or operational challenges, such as the stability of the network, the selectivity of technology platforms, the differences in the participation of students of different ages in online learning, and the capacity of parents to support children’s learning at home. However, the impact of this pneumonia epidemic on education is not limited to the field of distance learning only. It has also caused us to think deeply about a series of education and life topics, such as: how can we be creative and humane when the crisis suddenly comes? How should we solve problems in difficult situations? How can we re-examine the importance of advocating nature from the height of the community of human destiny, and rethink how to deal with the relationship between man and nature and man-to-man? How can we redefine success and happiness from a new lens? How can we cultivate outstanding students with “native cultural rooted” and “global” perspectives? … all in all, we need to rethink: what is the purpose of education?
I hope that everyone is healthy and safe in this special period of time, and also takes the time to think deeply about the education and future of children, because this is related to the well-being of all humankind, as well as the happiness of each child and each family!