online learning and pedagogy

How teaching online during COVID-19 lockdown made me think deeply about how physical presence matters

There’s a general feeling among teachers of pride and relief that we got through the recent few months when were teaching online. And at the moment, all of us are feeling for our school teacher colleagues in Melbourne who face returning to the challenges of teaching remotely again in just a week with their city again in lockdown.

Teaching this year has been hard work. I spent most of my hours online and ‘with others’. The surprising thing was just how much I missed feeling how my students were thinking. This was more than just how the relationships changed online. This was how my senses were stimulated in different ways and how this altered my capacity to feel the group was together and who was thinking. In a world looking for ways to beat the robots, this may be one skill we should pay attention to.

The experience of online teaching, especially in a course that required students to take risks in thinking and feeling, has spurred my curiosity on what we gain and lose when our proximity changes. Mostly I want to know if others teachers share this experience and what is it that we can learn.

Sensing our students

The question came up in a webinar during the lockdown, ‘What do you find the most challenging about online learning?’. The host, a fabulous experienced online educator, gave us ‘thinking time’ and then asked us to simultaneously post our thoughts in the chat.

I tell it like it is, so I wrote, ‘I missed hearing them breathe’. I was a little embarrassed about the intimacy of such a statement so I was surprised when so many comments said pretty much the same thing. Teachers wrote, ‘sensing their engagement’, ‘noticing when things don’t make sense’, ‘knowing they get it’, ‘really seeing the one student amongst the 20 onscreen’, the ‘feeling that things are buzzing’.

There’s something curious about how we ‘feel each other’ in person versus how we see and hear each other online.  A troubled but brilliant Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, helped us understand this when he said, ‘The human body is the best picture of the human soul’.

Schooling and the ‘soul’

In my experience, learning that makes us think, lifts off when we see and respond to the ‘soul’. Whilst soul is not a word we see in education thinking, there are numerous philosophical notions in education that are also understood in this way, take for example education thought leaders such as Gert Biesta, Pasi Sahlberg and Sir Ken Robinson. Anyone familiar with their work knows they are often talking about being human.

As I see it, Biesta knocks it out of the park when he calls out the purpose of schooling in three ways; qualification, socialisation and subjectification.

Qualification is something to have as you navigate through your schooling into adult life. Think of qualifications like the passports into employment and further study.

Socialisation happens throughout the schooling years. This is not just in how we behave, think hygiene habits and common courtesy, it also gives us shared stories to bind and protect our institutions and identify. For example, curriculum decisions, such as whether we taught World War II or US civil rights movement, makes a difference how we resolve racism as a collective.

Subjectification is perhaps a less contentious and more accurate way to name what I am calling the ‘soul’. It is how we can be in the world but not of it. It is the development of self that allows us to participate in the work and toil of life but at the same time, be removed enough to regulate our desires and our need to belong. This is what I am really interested in and how it works in schooling.

When education works

When education works, we leave school as people who can disagree agreeably. We have successfully transitioned from the properly narcissistic world of an infant to that of the grown up, able to rationalise desire and impulses out of concern for a common good. Schools do this when they engage young people’s critical and creative thinking. It is not about making them like us but helping to value themselves, as both distinct and as part of something bigger.

German-American philosopher and political theorist, Hannah Arendt, another great post war thinker, wrote:

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

Critical and creative thinking

I believe when Arendt says, ‘their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us’ she is talking about that moment in the classroom when we see the student’s soul. The ‘unforeseeable’ happens when students are thinking creatively and critically. It is tangled into what is broadly referred to in the Australian curriculum as ‘general capabilities’.

Most importantly, it requires teachers to be highly adaptive in their teaching. In my experience it is the best part of being a teacher because it is always a transmission of the whole person, not just the mind. It is a very satisfying and inclusive experience, not just available for ‘talented’ students, because there is no right answer, but for every child. Within many classrooms the tyranny of success, or when every answer is ‘right’ dulls learning like a symphony orchestra playing with the sound turned down.

How mass online learning has made us think about our teaching practices

If teachers’ capacity to notice the ‘feeling’ changes in students as they learn is altered, how does this change their capacity to adapt and respond in a way that takes critical and creative thinking forward? Our time where online learning was the only way to learn for many students has made us think about this. It has especially made us think about how we might adapt our teaching practice to new challenges.

Teacher adaptive practice, how teachers follow the student, not the script,  is thought to improve student learning and early evidence suggests it is a key disposition in engaging students in critical and creative thinking. It means changing how we ‘thought we were going to teach’ when the unforeseen, a student’s curiosity and new ideas, emerges.

It is exactly our response to this magic moment that I believe teaches a child if their soul matters and how what matters to them needs to find its place in what matters to others. So what can we learn from that moment, when the way we were together, teacher and students, changed with online learning?

If you think of a hinge and how it swings open and closes a door, the COVID 19 crisis and the rapid large scale experience with online teaching has swung open a whole conversation about proximity, teacher adaptability and teaching the whole child. We can use these experiences like counter intuitive game theory (where two losing games results into a winning game); COVID and social distancing could generate a win for teaching.

Learning something new and important from the experience

The online learning experience is a particular sort of sensory experience and I am interested in knowing more about what teachers can tell us through these experiences. The realisation when I saw the comments in the chat function on that webinar reassured me I was not alone in this thinking. Maybe there was another teacher at the webinar who, sitting like me in a tracksuit at the kitchen table, saw my comment and thought, ‘I know exactly what she means’.

This is not about making a choice or deciding what is best between online and face to face teaching. It is about learning something new and important, such as the teaching for the soul, when things fall apart.

Even now that we have ‘returned’ to the classroom, the experience of having to move so quickly to remote learning will have changed teachers’ understanding what it means to be together. If we learn from this extraordinary experience we may find new, more generous, ways to entreat young people to vita activa or live life as ‘activists’. This experience is an opportunity to learn and more explicitly identify the teaching and learning interplay that helps students build and value their critical and creative capacity and, ultimately, as Arendt says face the ever more urgent ‘task of renewing a common world’.

Penny Vlies is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney studying the intersection of curriculum policy, general capabilities and teaching. Her work with schools involves designing learning that is built by and for teachers to embed critical and creative thinking into classroom practice. She is an Academic Tutor with the University working with students in the Service Learning in Indigenous Communities course. Penny is an award winning secondary school teacher who sees education ‘to be, not to have’. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at penny.vlies@syd.edu.au. Penny is on Twitter @pvlies.