A strange place called school
The wait has been a long one, but their needs are not the same. Simon Dunford looks at the gaps in social learning that needs to be closed in different ways on returning to learning on-campus.
The scale of the problem
According to a recent UNICEF report, as late as September 2021, schools continue to be closed for nearly 77 million students and around 27% of countries worldwide continue to have schools fully or partially closed.
As everyone returns to on-campus learning, there is lots of talk about the ‘learning loss’ that may have occurred over the period of this pandemic. Rightly so. However, there can be a tendency to focus on academic learning loss only when we also need to really consider the potential for ‘social learning loss’. This element applies to everyone involved and not just the students.
The unfamiliar familar
Even as an adult, I am finding it strange to be allowed to socialise again and find myself having to ‘relearn’ how to mix with people other than my wife. Going out to restaurants is interesting; it is something which I have done hundreds of times before, but it now seems both familiar and unfamiliar.
They vaguely look the same as I remembered them before the pandemic, but there is something tangibly different – the layout is not quite the same; there are different and additional rules in place; there are things that we ‘can or can’t do’ that are slightly altered from how I remember them.
Similarly, schools are going to be no different in their ‘familiar yet unfamiliar’ presentation/experience for many students, staff and families.
With the knowledge that things are not going to be ‘exactly the same’ as they were, we need to make a concerted effort to support people back into face-to-face education. Good practice dictates that we need to support transitions; we need to reflect, review and refine ‘what and how’ we do things on a regular basis to ensure success and progress.
I have heard talk that everyone is just going to be ‘happy to be back to school’, but how do we know? Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are hugely, if not primarily, impacted by our experiences. The last couple of years have given people some experiences that they were really not expecting and were certainly not prepared for.
These experiences will undoubtedly have been vastly different for many people, so we need to be mindful that a blanket approach will not be appropriate and that we really need to listen and reflect on how people are feeling.
Different experiences = different needs
Here are just some of the experiences and situations (not a complete list and in no particular order) that people (adults and students) may have experienced over the last couple of years that will be having an impact (positive and negative) when we return to in-school teaching and learning;
- Some staff and students enjoyed and embraced online learning – some really hated it;
- Some students may have had great access to online learning – some others may not have;
- Some students may have had additional support and opportunities to develop – others may not have;
- There may have been losses and illnesses in the family;
- There may be financial constraints due to job losses;
- People may be feeling homesick, lonely and missing family and friends due to restrictions on travel;
- There may be staff/students who are new to the school/organisation and have never actually physically set foot in the school or spent time with their peers or colleagues;
- People may have had limited opportunities to use, develop and practice their social and communication skills (I know that I am ‘out of practice’ in relating with social situations);
- Some staff and students may have rarely left their homes and may be quite fearful about doing so;
- The routines and structure of online learning have been fairly well established; however, these are considerably different to the routines and structures involved in in-school learning, so there is going to be a period of transition where people have to unlearn old habits and relearn/learn the habits, systems, processes and routines that are now relevant.
- Relationships have either not formed or developed properly and/or they have changed since the pandemic started.
Transitioning back successfully is not just about ‘opening up’ again and then carrying on pretty much as before. There are many things going on (physically, socially, emotionally, financially, culturally) that will impact everyone who makes up the rich and diverse school/organisation ‘ecosystem’.
Thinking that things will ‘be the same as before’ is not a viable or realistic option. We need to be aware that things might be different, that things will need support (lots of it) and time to get back to the best, most supportive and effective situation possible.
Good practice is just that, good practice. A key feature of good practice is having the understanding that in order to continue to be effective, things need to be monitored, reviewed, reflected upon, tweaked and revisited as an ongoing process.
Reflect, review, adjust
Assuming that because something has already been introduced and implemented, it will continue to be effective (and relevant) without further work is naive and foolish. Just because your culture and support systems were brilliant and effective in 2019 does not mean that they will be effective, or even relevant, in 2021. You are going to need to systematically review and refine going forward. Many of the questions and themes are already ones you might be familiar with; some others might be new, however, all are important to consider and reflect upon.
Author and CEO of Dumond Education, Simon Dunford is an experienced educator with over 25 years’ experience in teaching, leadership and advisory roles in many countries and regions worldwide.
For a structured way in which to address the social learning gaps on the return to learning on campus see the BUILD programme from Dumond Education: