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Remote learning is a pale imitation of the classroom: a teacher’s view

Remote learning is a pale imitation of the classroom: a teacher’s view

Jo Cullen has worked for 35 years in teaching and learning, in every sector from primary to HE. She brought in a new MFL initiative to primary schools in Bristol, has been Head of French and of German in various secondary schools, and has also taught English, Drama and Russian. Jo has trained teachers and written books including on English grammar, and on French in KS5. Here she shares her perspective on remote learning. 

My experience in 35 years in the classroom, teaching KS2-5, and also in FE and HE, is that children need all of the following to learn effectively:

  • security
  • laughter and enjoyment
  • collaboration and group work
  • the ability to ask questions of peers and teachers
  • challenge
  • support
  • ad hoc interventions
  • social engagement
  • focus and stimulus

As we know, very many children can’t even access remote learning on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or whichever platform their school is using. Either they have no laptop, no reliable or consistent internet, or no quiet place to work, free from distractions.

For those who can, significantly they are not learning how to learn; and there is no joy in learning in isolation in front of a screen. These are the 2 most important components of any learning experience, particularly in the young.

I am currently teaching French to 4 little girls, aged between 7 and 10. We are working on Zoom, for 40 minutes each week.

This is my experience:

First, I am emotionally and mentally exhausted by the preparation and delivery: I strive to make the lessons interactive, supportive and fun for the children, and as close to real life as I can. How can any teachers effectively do this for 6 hours a day? I don’t think that this is possible.

Second, the teaching is at best a pale imitation of real learning in the classroom.

Can I come alongside and support the girl who lacks confidence and learns more slowly? No.

Can I stretch the very bright girl who needs more challenge and extension activities? No.

Can I usefully offer them group work, the ability to test out ideas with peers, to listen to others, modify their position, question each other and respond? No.

Can I offer age-appropriate reward and recognition of their efforts: a cuddle, a ‘high five’, stickers? No.

Are they making the progress that I would hope and expect, given my experience teaching this age group and the ability of the group? No.

Despite my best efforts and my considerable teaching experience, theirs is a sterile experience, in which nether their learning nor their emotional needs are really being met.

More worryingly, this type of educational experience is becoming normalised for them.

And we have now heard that attendance at schools will not resume after half-term, and then not ‘for a long time’ (Robert Halfon, MP, on the Today programme, 15th January 2021).

What of the developmental future for this ‘lost’ generation? Months of education, and of social and emotional development lost; the denial of the rites of passage of public exams, the pride in achievement that leads to the next stage of education and growth?

How can teaching unions, and some teachers, justify such a gross betrayal of children, whose wellbeing has been entrusted to them?

Mental health

As if this weren’t enough, there is, heartbreakingly, a huge wave of increase in child mental health problems.

All children need to be with other children. Those who are not safe in their home environment need the safety and nurturing that schools offer: a place for 7 hours each day where they are nurtured, supported and feel valued.

The Telegraph, (8th January 2021) reported that,

“Children being referred to the NHS with serious mental health problems has reached a record high, as a royal college warned the Covid pandemic risks a generation being lost to “lifelong” illness.

“The Royal College of Psychiatrists said school closures, cancelled exams, empty lecture halls and lockdown threatened a mental health crisis that could plague the current generation of children for years to come.

“It highlighted that the latest NHS figures showed the number of children referred to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) was 4,615 per 100,000, the highest on record and up nearly 20 per cent on last year”

I will end with the following words from Allison Pearson (Telegraph 5.1.21), which all teachers should join me in supporting.

“Confronted with all these known educational harms, with the risk of child abuse and self-harm, eating disorders and depression (already escalating alarmingly among our kids) how can the Government possibly justify shutting schools (…) to possibly provide some assistance in containing a virus which still overwhelmingly affects the elderly?

“Back at the start of the pandemic, I asked readers a question: Do you want your grandchildren’s future to be jeopardised to protect you? Overwhelmingly, you answered no. “We’ve had our lives, let them have theirs,” was a common, philosophical response. Not that people in their seventies and eighties weren’t going to take every sensible precaution against the marauding coronabeast; they just didn’t want to see the children they loved harmed to keep them safe.

“In that way, the elderly have shown far more wisdom than the frit middle-aged men who govern us. Politicians can count the dead but they don’t notice when they are harming the living”.