Defusing the ‘uncertainty bomb’ – techniques as useful for adults as they are for school students

Working with clinical psychologist Dr Danielle Einstein on her school programs to help students manage uncertainty is a real pleasure – and, given that she is in Sydney and I am in the UK, it is also proof (should any more actually be required in this Covid-era) that it is perfectly possible to collaborate effectively at a physical distance. We are in daily contact; sometimes I correspond with the schools who have taken up her ‘Covid-19 Chilled and Considerate’ program, and sometimes she is their point of contact; we both attend and lead the twice-weekly Zoom support calls, and in between we continue to refine the programs based on feedback from schools. This feedback is incredibly helpful, and all 3 of the programs now being used – for Years 5 and 6, for Years 7-11, and for Year 12 – have become even richer and more impactful.


I know I am biased, but I can’t help but feel proud of these programs – and it was great to see a really positive mention of them in the Sydney Morning Herald on Sunday. What I have noticed is that the key concepts included in the program, all of which are presented really memorably, with (as you would expect!) a range of exercises to help school students practise and reflect, are just as important for adults as well as young people, and I find myself increasingly referring to them in my executive coaching. Leaders often think about anxiety, and how to tackle this, but not about the uncertainty which is probably underpinning this anxiety. Learning how to manage uncertainty is a lifelong skill – research shows that people who are afraid of their anxiety and who naturally do not like uncertainty demonstrate the greatest level of worry (ie anxious thoughts), which can – as we know – be cripplingly disempowering.

One of the central concepts of the program is that of the ‘uncertainty bomb’, which lies waiting for us when we encounter a situation whose outcome is not immediately obvious. Mishandle this bomb, and it will blow up in our faces; handle it well, using the techniques from the uncertainty toolbox, and it will be defused. Of course, this is easy to talk about; what is important is really to understand, learn and practise. The programs are based on years of research by Dr Einstein in clinical psychology into handling uncertainty, which has informed the past 8 years of her work specifically in schools, and while these schools have largely been in Australia, I can absolutely see the universal significance of these programs in schools across the world, and their usefulness for school students especially, but by extension for teachers, school leaders, parents … everyone, in fact. In helping us deal with uncertainty, they respond to a basic human issue – an issue which we are all, wherever we are in the world, facing more keenly than probably ever before in our living history.

With this in mind, Dr Einstein has already produced a parent workshop, and more is to follow; in the meantime, I would be particularly keen to help schools in different parts of the world access the programs, and if you are a teacher or school leader who is interested, please do get in touch. Together, we can do this, and make a difference!

Talking, listening, reading and writing – our tools for survival as sane and compassionate human beings

This title is a quote from a new blog I am very much enjoying reading – not just because the author (a former English teacher and school leader) is an old friend, but because the ideas are pithy, clear and immensely practical. The blogs – which can be found at – are addressed directly at thoughtful teenagers (and younger students); if you know any teenagers with slightly more latent thoughtfulness, it would be perfectly legitimate to read the ideas on their behalf and then pass them on, because if we could all, gently, adopt some of the ideas contained therein, I suspect that our self-awareness, our awareness of the world, and our connections with others will all subtly improve … and wouldn’t that be a great outcome to emerge from this Covid-19 time?

One of the signposts the author plants is to materials recently uploaded by the Director of the Speak Up Scotland programme developed by ESU Scotland, and these are definitely worth a look. I do declare an interest – it is another of the charities I chair, because I consider its goals incredibly worthwhile. Debating is a means of exploring and articulating ideas, and is an enjoyable and satisfying skill to acquire. It is also a means to be able to contribute to society and make one’s way within it – on equal terms with others, regardless of background. No Prime Minister ever became Prime Minister without a strong grasp of the practice of debating. Speak Up Scotland, therefore, is aimed at bringing debating – which thrives in the independent school sector – to state schools across the country, and by doing so, is a way to lessen the poverty-related attainment gap which we must still  tackle.

The materials are aimed both at teachers – a detailed set of proposals, for instance, on how to debate during lockdown – and at eager student debaters, who will find that ‘Intuitions, Examples and Analogies’ sharpens their skills. More are to follow, I am promised, so bookmark the page. The important message for us all is that communication really, really matters, and we should be practising it now, more than ever. Human beings are infinitely creative in their ability to circumvent – and even thrive more successfully in – whatever restrictive circumstances they encounter, and we have seen a myriad of examples of this over the past few months, as Covid-19 has spread across the world. Let’s be emboldened by this; we know already that we can connect through multiple forms of communication … why not spend some time deepening these? Moving forward into our brave new world as better, more authentic, more effective communicators … now, that feels like a suitably uplifting goal.

Enjoy the journey …

Ensuring already disadvantaged students sitting public examinations are not further disadvantaged this year

I felt uncomfortable reading the Ofqual consultation about school public examinations this week, and I wanted to explore this discomfort a bit further here.

Specifically, what made me uneasy was the proposal that no appeals will be allowed for exam grades this year: “appeals should only be allowed on the grounds that the centre made a data error when submitting its information; or similarly, that the exam board made a mistake when calculating, assigning or communicating a grade”. Now, to be clear, I can’t offer a specific alternative to this, and it is of course a recognisable positive that teachers’ professional judgement is being valued. Moreover, if (a slightly big ‘if’ …) the algorithms to be used in the calculations were to take account of the current cohort of students and their individual characteristics, rather than just using historical data and trends, then this would alleviate a little of my discomfort, because we do need to remember that each student is indeed an individual, and not simply a predictable point on a typical bell curve.

It does still worry me, however, how this inability to appeal will impact already disadvantaged students – students who are disadvantaged through chronic illness, for example, or who are differently abled, or who have multiple socio-economic hurdles to overcome. These are students who may not be thriving in the system, who may not have accumulated a mass of evidence over the year, who may have frustrated their teachers …  but who could – just could – perform better in the exams themselves were they given the opportune circumstances in which to do so – an option which they now no longer have. Note that the option to take examinations in the autumn is not a desirable one for many of these students – particularly for those who have had time out of school through illness, and must guard their health carefully, these examinations will be part of a carefully scheduled journey that, if upset, risks potentially severe repercussions and setbacks. Autumn examinations will also cause significant disruptions in school to next year’s learning programme –no matter how you package them, exams can’t help but disrupt learning.

Ofqual is sensitive to the issue of equality, of course – and it has conducted an equality impact review, which is published alongside the consultation. This review does however rely on research which is patchy and inconclusive, and Ofqual accepts that there will de facto be unconscious bias in the awarding of grades, which is uncomfortable to read. Another uncomfortable element to appreciate is that many school students do not receive the quality of teaching which they deserve. The detailed analysis of papers undertaken by Mark My Papers, an organisation whose Advisory Board I chair, and which helps schools, home educators, mature students and tutor groups access professional marking by official examiners, reveals that all too often, specialist subjects are being taught in schools by non-specialists, which leads to whole elements of the curriculum being under-taught. (This analysis is always shared with the specific schools, by the way, to help them refocus their teaching.) Again – a disadvantage imposed on young people because of the failings, weaknesses and gaps in the system. And – hypothetically – if this were the first year that a school had accessed a deep analysis of their teaching, and made amendments, with the anticipation that this would translate into higher grades overall in these summer exams, would this be reflected in the Ofqual algorithms? And if not, where is the justice if the affected students cannot appeal? If these students could take an exam invigilated online and have it sent to professional, independent markers, maybe – maybe – this would help break down at least some of the disadvantage they would otherwise be facing.

Again, to be fair, I do not have an immediate solution (well, apart from a major revolution in school funding that recognised the fundamental central role of schools and other education bodies in our global economic and social future …), but neither do I think that we should brush this discomfort under our respective tables. How are we tackling this? How could we tackle this more effectively? What is the best way to help young people overcome the hurdles in their paths, and to enable them a fair playing field?

In raising this question, I am not advocating a sticking plaster approach, which automatically slaps a premium of, say, 10% on to grades of young people who have suffered evident disadvantage. To do so would make a mockery of all that is good about exam courses – the rigour, the challenge, the depth of learning, and the skill of being able to recall and evaluate outcomes of this learning by communicating it to an external, standardised body. None of this praise for exams, incidentally, detracts from my more general and long standing concern about the often limited nature of testing methods, and my question as to whether they allow all types of learners to demonstrate their learning effectively – this is an equally important question, and in fact ties together with the question of tackling disadvantage.  I just want us to think about how we can really, really tackle disadvantage and close the attainment gap upwards, by raising ambitions and developing capacity in young people to make the most of their potential.

I have recently taken on the role of Chair of LightUpLearning, a charity based in Edinburgh but with plans to move out across Scotland and beyond, which seeks to tackle disadvantage. It does so by providing regular, scheduled time for secondary school students with an experienced, trained, empathetic mentor – a relationship which stands outside the teacher-student dynamic in school, and which places the learner at the centre of every LUL session. This focus on liberating the student to follow their passion, has already been demonstrated to ignite a much more confident engagement with enriching learning, which will of course underpin their current and future success in life and work – including their examination courses. This kind of intervention can make an enormous difference in a short space of time … but how many of our young people are currently able to access this? How many have missed out, who could otherwise have shone in their exams?

So … sitting with this discomfort … I would love us to think collectively about how we can move forward. It may be that there is nothing else we can do regarding these exams, although I am always intensely reluctant to let go of my conviction that there is always a solution, if only we put our mind to it. At the very least, however, we cannot afford to let this just slip by without keeping the door at least a little ajar for genuine cases, seen on their individual merits. Let us not fail our young people, now more than ever. And as we seek an exit strategy, remember that we have shown that we can, nationally, make radical, major decisions – like putting all teaching online – based on an idea of what can and should work, a commitment to justice and fairness, and a determination to review, adjust and change nimbly until the end result does what we want it to do. In unprecedented situations, you cannot wait for the research to tell you what to do – you have to fuel the research by just doing it. Maybe this is the time to be bolder about tackling disadvantage in our schools.

In which I suddenly realise the purpose of ‘Where’s Wally?’

Idly browsing my Facebook feed on Sunday morning, I came across a 360 degree ‘Where’s Wally’ picture, and because I had some spare time, I thought I would just try and find Wally. Now, I will confess that the last time I looked for Wally – in a picture book – feels like a hundred years ago, and I remember (to my chagrin, now) that I was actually perplexed by, if not dismissive of, the concept, because – beautifully drawn though the pictures were, and intriguing as it was to search for the bobble-hatted, bespectacled cartoon figure – I reasoned that once you had found Wally in each of the pictures in the book, the book was no longer of use; the intrigue and excitement of the search was over, and the purpose of the book was fulfilled. Relegated back to the shelves of the library it would be; and I actually remember feeling a little sorry for the artist, who had put so much effort and ingenuity into hiding Wally amongst so many distracting red herrings, only to have super-efficient, hawk-eyed children spot Wally in the first few seconds, and ‘complete’ the whole book within minutes. Back to my preferred entertainment of choice, lengthy novels, I went …

How wrong I was! The arrogance of impetuous youth, to think that the purpose of the search for Wally was actually to find him! Of course, there continues to be a satisfaction in spotting the eponymous hero of the piece – Aha! Le voilà! – but I discovered this morning an unexpected feeling of joy in the search itself, as I really noticed the other characters and wondered about their stories. How easy would it be to do yoga in a crowded square, was the giraffe enjoying its feed from the tree, and what on earth was that streaker thinking?! Even when I spotted Wally, I kept exploring – wondering, reflecting and imagining. Underpinning this was the absolute key, the real purpose of ‘Where’s Wally’, I realised – noticing.

Noticing what is around us …

Noticing. Just noticing, sitting with the noticing, and then reflecting on what we notice. Noticing allows us to understand ourselves and understand others. It allows us to accept our feelings and those of others; it is a core component of effective coaching, as I know well from my practice over the past 6 years. Noticing – and accepting – feelings is one of the important parts of Dr Danielle Einstein’s Covid-19 Chilled and Considerate program for school students (and I am very much looking forward to supporting her on one of her many Zoom calls with educators on Tuesday). Noticing is key to the joy we feel when we go out for a walk or run, and feel the sun on our face and smell the flowers blooming. Noticing is the first step in learning to make the right choices in our lives.

And noticing, it turns out, is the real purpose of ‘Where’s Wally?’. What a wonderful revelation on a weekend morning! And if this isn’t enough to send you scurrying to look for Wally yourselves, then perhaps you might anticipate a vicarious pleasure in witnessing in the pictures a plethora of un-social distancing … it will come again, but for now, as we fight this virus, any deliberate and joyful invasion of personal space on a mass scale – and people-watching – will have to come from books and online.

Enjoy noticing …

Dr Helen Wright is an executive coach working with leaders in the UK and internationally, and is the author of The Globally Competent School: a manual

Birdsong and pavement waltzing

I went out for a walk this morning, in the full knowledge that this was a privilege. It was my mandated single excursion for the day, and I won’t be going out again today, because I absolutely believe in following the rules, but I know that people around the world – including in my own street – cannot even go outside for several weeks. As I write, the UAE is in the middle of a 3 day complete lockdown with no outside access at all, in order to sterilise the streets; China has tightened its quarantine and self-isolation regulations; and colleagues and friends almost everywhere in the world are in self-isolation, having shown cold or flu-like symptoms. Going out for a walk this morning was not an activity I took for granted.

So I concentrated more carefully as I walked. I watched my shadow undulate along the walls as I felt the tickle of the sun on my cheeks. I heard my heartbeat shift up a gear as I walked more purposefully up a hill, and I sniffed out the aroma of wild garlic on the side of an old railway embankment. Above all, I heard the birdsong – louder, more insistent than I have ever heard it before … more joyous, perhaps, or perhaps just perplexed at the sudden absence of people and their vehicles. In any case, a symphony of tones punctuated my walk and lifted my spirits. One of my challenges this week to several of the leaders I coach and mentor has to been to slow down and notice – notice the world around them – because by doing so, their breath slows and their tension subsides, and they begin to look after themselves in a way which many of them have neglected to do over the past few weeks. Hearing the birdsong … a new metaphor for self-care.

And then there was the dance around other citizens out for a walk, a cycle or a run – a dance I call ‘pavement waltzing’. This – like any new dance – requires some attention, if the steps are to flow smoothly. When the shape of a person appears on the horizon, walking closer, one of us must choose to cross the road or move into the road; when one makes the first move, the other inclines their head gracefully in acknowledgement. Sometimes, especially on blind corners, two walkers may meet in surprise, and then must stop short, before either backing up or sidling cautiously past one another with an awkward smile but the satisfaction of knowing that we have successfully navigated the manoeuvre and maintained our distance. When a dog walker, cyclist and jogger enter the dance together, they circle one another in a complex chassé from which they contrive to extract themselves smoothly and with the appearance of confidence that this was exactly how the movement should have unfolded.

Pavement-waltzing to the sound of birdsong: a beautiful but bittersweet dance of our times. Let us learn the dance, and appreciate our good fortune at being able to engage in it.

Dr Helen Wright is an international education specialist and executive leadership coach. Her latest book, The Globally Competent School: a manual, is available on Amazon.

Covid-19 Chilled and Considerate – an emergency programme for secondary school students

Covid-19 Chilled and Considerate Bootcamp

If you are a school leader or teacher, please read this! And if you aren’t, pass it on through your networks. It introduces a programme to help manage uncertainty which could potentially make a significant difference for your students – and you!

Uncertainty is the watchword of our times. People talk about anxiety, but actually, anxiety often arises powerfully from uncertainty, and we can’t just tackle much of the anxiety around without understanding and learning how to manage uncertainty. Over the past two weeks – in between supporting leaders in schools practically everywhere in the world – I have been working intensively with an amazing clinical psychologist (who I am proud to call a friend), Dr Danielle Einstein and her team. She is an Adjunct Fellow at Macquarie University and Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney, and her speciality expertise is in managing uncertainty; moreover – and very importantly – over the past 8 years she has developed detailed and in-depth programs for several schools in Australia to help their students learn how to deal with the unknowns in their life.

Dr Einstein is one of the world’s foremost experts in school interventions to manage uncertainty. Writing about her, Dr Warren Mansell (a Clinical Psychologist and Reader in Psychology at the University of Manchester in the UK) says that “Dr Danielle Einstein is a world leader in school interventions to address anxiety though building tolerance of uncertainty. Through my work with Dr Einstein, I have recognised that she acutely understands and contributes to the fundamental psychological theory underpinning this work. In particular, she recognises that any intervention needs to be co-designed with students and focused on their life goals, sense of purpose, and management of conflicting priorities at this sensitive age.”

Clearly, this is exactly what students all over the world need at the moment, from Australia to the UK, Europe, Africa and the US, and so my task this past week was to help her in refining a blended online learning programme for immediate release, designed to support teenagers through the massive shifts and changes in their life and work at this current time in our history. It is an immensely practical programme – 5+ hours of material, spread over 5 days – ideal for schools who are in the throes of moving to online learning, and might need an anchor for their work for the first week or two. It contains exercises, key messages, reflections, guided meditations and videos … and it really is very simple to use, for any teacher regardless of their background discipline.

After a supreme effort to get this programme up and ready, it is now online and available through this website – – please, please look at it, because I really, really recommend it for your students, wherever you are in the world at the moment.

The cost of the programme has been kept as low as possible, to cover development costs, and as you will see, the programme contains huge value in its content. I am hoping to support Danielle in providing a series of additional materials and Zoom calls for teachers – so watch this space. Sign up now, though!

We are all in this together – let us join together in sharing what we have, and make a real commitment to find ways to help all of our young people through this time.

Leadership coaching: a message for school boards

School leadership is incredibly complex at the best of times; Covid-19 has upped the stakes a hundred-fold, though. If I had had a stress-o-meter to use on many of the leaders I have spoken to over the past 2 weeks, in different parts of the world, it would have shown readings off the chart – shifting sands are really hard to manage, after all. These are not flaky leaders – they are robust, strong, intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful, astute, determined … they are impressive individuals, who may doubt themselves at times, but who by all external standards are actually quite brilliant. Yet the psychological pressure of the uncertainty surrounding this virus – when will there be school closures, quarantines of students or staff, self-isolation, and so on? – is having an impact on these leaders, and school boards should sit up and pay attention to this.

School leaders are responsible for managing and interacting with immense and far-reaching communities – not just the children, but their parents, grandparents, other relatives, staff, staff families, suppliers, tradespeople, neighbours, regulatory bodies, universities, other schools … you name someone, and school leaders will have something to do with them. School leaders are also subject to an enormous weight of external rules and expectations, from parents to politicians. Balancing all of these relationships is, on any ‘normal’ day, complicated; faced with an invisible virus whose progress through the population needs to be checked – delayed, if not contained – the task becomes incredibly, incredibly hard.

Covid-19 is having an unprecedented impact. Even in China, where leaders in schools have successfully navigated several weeks of school closures, and online learning, and are now potentially on the brink of returning, they are entering a ‘new normal’ – life in school will NOT be the same as it was before this public health crisis, and school leaders will have to manage this. During this time, coaching and mentoring from a confidential, experienced, external source can make the most enormous difference to how school leaders are able to cope and to do their work. It is not expensive and more than repays its value. Most importantly, school leaders absolutely deserve this support.

School boards, take note – investing in your Head of School or Principal at this time could be one of the most sensible decisions you make. Do so!

Dr Helen Wright is the author of The Globally Competent School: a manual, and is an Associate of LSC Education, where she leads the coaching arm of the organisation, supporting school leaders in the UK and across the world. 

Women in Tech – the power of networks

Completely by chance – really! – I found myself on Saturday morning in a roomful of students from the University of Edinburgh, listening to Kate Ho speaking about her career in technology, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations. Kate – a former Edinburgh undergraduate, with a subsequent career in games design, software development and digital user interfaces, and now at Skyscanner – was one of the founders of the university’s ‘Hoppers’ society, a student-run university society for women in technology, named after the great pioneer of computer programming, Grace Hopper, and it was a joy to listen to her.

Kate Ho

The need for tackling unconscious gender bias (in the technology field, but equally in others), was brought home when Kate reminded us of the Colombia University Business School study into how employers reacted differently to the same CV when the name Heidi was replaced with the name Howard. Quite apart from her reflections on the state of computer development (and women in tech) over the past 20 years, however, Kate was particularly insightful in her thoughts on how young people could develop their careers. She explained how she had been very deliberate about her career, making choices to engage in a number of different industries, and to build a number of different experiences, in which she learned and grew. She recommended a book: Designing Your Life (which I now have on order, but I am certain will be good). She also returned – frequently – to the theme of networking and mutual support. She emphasised that the students present were surrounded by their peers, who would go on to have interesting careers; who better to turn to for help in the future? Build these relationships now, was her message – and reach out and network more, participating in networking groups and events. One of the best time investments you can make, she told her audience.

I loved hearing Kate speak – and it was all the more special because it was so unexpected. In fact, a big shoutout to the young woman who spotted me waiting for my tech-mad daughter to test some digital games as part of a research project for some MSc students, and who invited me in – support and networking in action (she now has my card, and I will willingly help her going forward). My favourite sentence Kate said? This one, which made us all laugh:

‘Networking is a little like going to the gym – once a year doesn’t help …’

So – message of the week, for #IWD2020, is ‘go network!’. Reach out, connect, give as much as you receive, and be generous in giving back. Share your learning, and we all grow.

What a great message for us all.

The Resilience Dynamic – living the ‘Whoosh’ …

I have just been reading The Resilience Dynamic by the clear-sighted, relentlessly focused and uplifting Jenny Campbell, and what a useful and grounding experience this has been! I almost hesitate to describe it as a book – although of course it is a book – because reading it is much more of an engaging, connected-up, cyclical process than a linear one. These past few days have been particularly testing of my personal resilience, as a whole host of events and circumstances have landed – wham, wham, wham! – in my lap, one after another … as my resilience threatened to pack its bags and depart, I turned to The Resilience Dynamic, which has been on my ‘to-read’ list for a number of weeks. I am so glad I did: opening its pages, I felt enveloped in knowledgeable, professional arms who I knew understood and would help me through.

The Resilience Dynamic by Jenny Campbell

Drawing on 10 years of research into the field of resilience, including tried and tested methods of developing resilience, captured in a carefully explained model across the various chapters, this book invites the reader to benefit from everything that the author and her team have ever learned about resilience, and although there is a focus on the benefit to organisations, the real usefulness lies in its impact on individuals (without whom, of course, no organisation would function anyway). Part 1 busts the myths of resilience, challenging the reader to rethink what resilience actually is; Part 2 provides eminently practical insights from research, including how resilience relates to stress. Resilience, as clearly understood throughout the book, is the capacity for change; the ‘Resilient Way’ is the path to follow. Case studies bring the model to life, and the signposting within the book – deliberately engineered, I would imagine, to provide greater security – is calmly and cleverly achieved.

Part 3 then looks at how people can support and develop their own resilience, drawing together all the learnings and exercises throughout the book; one of the commendable features of the book is that it constantly reinforces the ideas it explores and places them within manageable, actionable frameworks – I cannot imagine that it is possible to get to the end and not know what you need to do now. On a different day, were the reader to present with a different level of resilience, the book would offer alternative, equally effective, next steps (and I know, because I looked); there is a wealth of practical advice here on how to make resilience a true practice, not an achievement. My favourite learning was the notion of ‘adaptive capacity’ as the ‘fuel in the resilience tank, including seeking perspective, refreshing yourself, and pacing yourself, and the observation that “Those with the highest resilience invest … 35% of their time in their Adaptive Capacity” (p.63).

I appreciated the author’s permission, freely given, to read this work ‘lightly’ if in need, and to return to it later … this was the right book, and the right time, and it is now top of my ‘to read again’ list. For now, I am enjoying practising moving from ‘Bounceback’ to ‘Whoosh’ … and if that sounds cryptic, then you will just have to read it for yourself!

How the coronavirus is propelling us into the future of education

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.

Dalton School, Hong Kong

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!

The wonderful Dr Du can be contacted at Dr Helen Wright is a Director of the Dalton School Hong Kong and the author of The Globally Competent School: a manual