Unlike many god figures shared between the ancient Greek and Roman societies, the Roman god Janus existed exclusively in Roman mythology. Janus is considered the god of doorways, transitions, time, beginnings, and endings. He is represented, quite fittingly, as a man with two faces directed away from each other. He is said to be looking back into the past whilst also looking forward to the future. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has resulted in government restrictions imposing requirements on practices relating to hygiene, curriculum delivery and social distance. Within many fields – with education no exception – the past we looked to, in order to glean our expectations and our comfort, has been disrupted. It has been a responsibility at the school level to innovative in such a way that adapts to these changes while maintaining a high level of impact in teaching and learning.
As restrictions came into place, we had a unique opportunity to have what I call a 'Janus Moment' – to stop, take stock of what we have been doing in the education system in the past, and then, in response to conditions imposed upon us by this pandemic, look forward to what we want it to look like in the future. At Clarkson Community High School (CCHS), what we see as more important is the second Janus Moment, which closely precedes the first. As restrictions are slowly lifted and we cautiously return to normal schooling, it is important for us to intentionally stop, to evaluate what has been a positive change amidst the pandemic-related changes, and determine what we are taking with us for the long-haul into our new future. This article will be discussing some of the changes we implemented at Clarkson Community High School during the pandemic, what worked well, and then how we aim to return to normal schooling over the long-term, implementing practices which deliver on the goals set in our strategic plan.
The primary problem presented to us by the Department of Education was clear. Student numbers dwindled as parent choice allowed students to be kept at home. Therefore, how would we deliver curriculum to students who were primarily absent from a physical classroom? The answer to this question was left to the discretion of each individual school, with some support offered in the form of online teaching resources. Clarkson’s response was to develop structures which allowed for synchronous learning (scheduled online classrooms via Cisco WebEx and scheduled discussion/feedback time on online forums) alongside asynchronous learning (discussion forums, recorded tutorial videos and revision sheets).
The disruption created by COVID-19 led us on a pathway which resulted in what is called breakthrough innovation. Breakthrough innovation is a type of innovation that takes an organisation to the next level. Thomas Kuhn said that this innovation is revolutionary because it results in a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1970). This is our aim at CCHS – to permanently change our ways of being and doing for the better, following this disruption. In the book Breakthrough, Fullan, Hill & Crevola say that breakthrough requires collaborative communities to engage in continuous learning and build communities of practice (Fullan et al., 2006). For true breakthrough to occur, change must be accepted across the organisation through collaboration.
One of the Key Focus Areas for CCHS in our strategic plan is to 'Build teaching capacity using instructional and feedback models from the Ten Mindframes for Visible Learning and Visible learning Feedback and increased collaborative planning.' John Hattie & Klaus Zierer focus the third of 10 Visible Learning Mindframes on collaboration, calling it “I collaborate with my peers and my students” (Hattie and Zierer, 2018). When schools were closed for most students and we were primarily focusing on online learning, the shift towards more asynchronous learning meant that teachers had more time available in the day. Within education, we can be socialised to act as lone wolves, with our domain as our classroom and there being no need to interact with other teachers. However, the urgent response needed from this crisis left no room for such isolation. As such, we ended up with some amazing examples of collaboration. Teachers began teaching online classes together and collaborating in other ways which were not as evident previously. Hattie & Zierer stress that the most effective collaboration is that which discusses impact of teachers on student learning. As the situation developed and resolved so rapidly, we did not have much of an opportunity to measure this impact. However, the practices shown by research to demonstrate high-impact collaboration were very present.
Hattie & Zierer explain that team-teaching is seen as lacking impact in research because teachers often implement team-teaching as one teacher teaching after another, rather than teaching alongside another. With online classes, for example, we found that one teacher would explain concepts and interact with students over voice chat, while the 'chat' function on Cisco WebEx would allow students to type questions, too. Another teacher would then operate the chat and respond to questions from students. This effectively doubled down on feedback during a live lesson, allowing students to ask questions using a medium which was most comfortable or convenient for them.
The term 'collective intelligence' draws on the Aristotelian idea that the whole is more valuable than the sum of its parts. This is exactly what we saw both in and out of our virtual classrooms. The more tech-savvy teachers would operate the online chats or forums while the teachers more confident communicating verbally or more skilled in explaining a concept would control the verbal discussion. Teachers lacking the tech knowledge to upload work onto our online platform would be seeking help for this, while supporting others to modify curriculum plans to best reflect what would work in a digital setting.
Lastly, with teachers working together so closely – both through team-teaching synchronous lessons, and publishing resources for asynchronous lessons – we can meet another requirement for our strategic plan. This Key Focus Area is that 'All staff embrace classroom observation practices and other forms of development feedback.' Typically, teacher observation and feedback can be met with some apprehension, as it is seen as related to performance review, rather than the far more important purpose of improving in your craft. During school closures, teachers were openly sharing lessons and team-teaching, which resulted in observation and feedback in an organic way. The urgency associated with the crisis left no room for feelings of insecurity – everyone opted for getting the job done, which resulted in some (perhaps, unintentional) positive practices being demonstrated.
Different modes of feedback delivery
Another of Hattie & Zierer’s 10 Mindframes talks about feedback – “I give and help students understand feedback” (Hattie and Zierer, 2018). One way that COVID-19 disrupted our teaching practice is through feedback delivery. In addition to our online classrooms, which involved feedback given both verbally and typed, we introduced an asynchronous method of giving and receiving feedback about teaching and learning – online discussion forums. In a recent article about COVID-19 and school closures (Hattie, 2020), Hattie comments on how feedback mechanisms akin to social media have been shown to promote student engagement – “[students] are more likely to [talk about what they do not know] on social media than directly to the teacher”. Having these forums available to students through our online platform gives students another mechanism to obtain feedback and to give teachers feedback – both of which are very important in making learning visible.
Maintaining the breakthrough
As we return to normal schooling, it is crucial that we remember the strategies and practices which have worked during our response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Collaboration is critical, both in and out of the classroom. To maintain collaboration, we must ask ourselves consistently how we can draw on each other’s strengths to produce higher quality results and to save time. We must remember that we are here to help each other, and as such, observation and feedback within teams are not a threat, but a means of growing. Team-teaching can work just as it did in an online setting, but we must be cautious to avoid falling into the trap of teaching after each other, instead of alongside each other. Lastly, discussion forums are easy to maintain if we remind students that feedback through this medium is just as accessible as the other methods of feedback they have been used to historically.
Greg Whitby says that leading in a digital environment requires “considered action in a particular direction”, reminding us that “velocity is speed in a given direction” (Whitby, 2019). He also reminds us that leaders need to be resilient, acknowledging that not everything goes according to plan, but adapting accordingly when disruptions arise. Having looked back at the past, it is our job now to lead our school community into the post-COVID-19 era of schooling. We do not know what disruptions and challenges that it will bring, but we can remind ourselves that the last disruption gave us an exciting new set of practices to bring with us into the future.
Fullan, M., Hill, P. & Crévola, C. 2006. Breakthrough, Corwin Press.
Hattie, J. 2020. Visible Learning Effect Sizes When Schools Are Closed: What Matters and What Does Not Available: https://corwin-connect.com/2020/04/visible-learning-effect-sizes-when-schools-are-closed-what-matters-and-what-does-not/.
Hattie, J. & Zierer, K. 2018. Ten Mindframes for Visible Learning: Teaching for Success, Routledge.
Kuhn, T. S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press.
Whitby, G. 2019. Leading in a digital environment. Australian Educational Leader, 41, 8-11.
Image by Loudon dodd - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7404342