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  • Writer's pictureRich Dlin

Welcome to 2020-2021

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Well, we all knew it was coming. The 2020-2021 school year is upon us and promises to be the strangest school year in pretty much anyone's living memory. With some schools choosing to have all classes in a physical classroom, some completely online and many using a combination of these, the one overriding aspect that we will all want to embrace is adaptability. Students, teachers, parents and school administrators will all need to exercise patience, tolerance, cooperation and an overall open-mindedness that is truly unprecedented in modern education.

This is a good thing.

The institution of education is a great leviathan that has been slow to adapt to the rapid-changing nature of culture and society in the new millennium. This is understandable, given the oceans of procedures, practices and protocols in place, developed over a centuries of evolution. But almost all of these were implemented in a time when the technological landscape was fundamentally different, and when career prospects for graduates were steady and predictable. As we know, this has not been the case for at least two decades, if not more. Furthermore, assessment techniques have been slow to adapt to the changing needs and learning habits of students born in the technological age. And, like any large institution, it has always been easier to try to solve new problems with old tools, rather than embracing true innovation.

COVID-19 has changed all of that. The old tools simply were not made with a global pandemic in mind.

So now we are truly in undiscovered territory. It is unfamiliar. It can be frightening. But mostly, it is exciting. Creativity is being stoked in teachers and administrators to find ways to educate youth that are not bound by the shackles of "We've always done it this way". Everything in the toolbox is being taken out, carefully reviewed, and, in many cases, discarded for lack of relevance. New tools are being crafted. Some of these will be amazing, and stay with us long after the pandemic is just a story we tell kids who weren't around "back then". Some will be less effective. All will require the teamwork of families and schools to have the chance to hook in and flourish. The entire classroom dynamic will change, as I already observed from my time teaching remotely from March to June, 2020.

Many students do better with remote learning

As a classroom teacher for many years, one thing that I came to accept was that a certain percentage of my time and energy in class would have to be devoted to classroom management. This varies from class-to-class, of course, but even at the best of times there will be personalities in a high school classroom that dominate, so in order to keep things as level as possible for all students, energy needs to be spent managing personalities without stifling them. One consequence of this is that the extroverted kids inevitably consume a great deal of the spotlight, and in cases where there are more challenging behaviour issues, many students find themselves in the position of quietly waiting for their own learning to continue as the teacher works with those students more demanding of their time. In the remote classroom, this dynamic is more automatically leveled, so that the introverted or shy students find themselves more able to thrive. This is most likely due to the fact that introverted people tend to use a lot of energy just existing in crowded environments, which is why they tend to enjoy interacting online much more than in real life, where they can let their personalities and curiousities bloom without having to share the energy that takes with managing the social pressures in a typical high school classroom.

Assessments have to be reinvented

The challenge of assessing remotely have opened up the entire concept of assessment for review. This is the catalyst for a long and sorely needed revolution. Testing the traditional way has been slowly failing, besieged by the growing demand to find ways to assess students with deeply varied learning styles, processing speeds, and preferred means of expression, as well as finding ways to fairly assign grades when grade inflation has made it so that post-secondary institutions are having to make decisions between students who's graduating averages differ by a tenth of a percentage point. Add to this the clear potential for cheating on a test that is not supervised, and we have been dragged into the assessment revolution I mentioned. We are going to see a lot of different kinds of assessment being used, informed by the experience of teachers who know their students' capabilities and have long been starved for the freedom to experiment with ways to fairly assess learning. Trust will be extended, and it will be up to the students and their families to take that trust and honour it, and then reap the benefits of new and wildly innovative assessment strategies. Things like assessing through conversation (not a new idea - this is really just oral testing), reverse-testing (where the student "tests" the teacher), and individualized projects are just a few ideas that, while not necessarily new, have taken a backseat to more traditional assessment in the past and will now be used more predominantly, getting their chance to evolve. It will be interesting and exciting to see these take root, and transform assessment in a lasting way.

It is easy and understandable to feel that this school year will suffer as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is not necessary! We can not control the fact that we are living during these times. But we can embrace the creativity and innovation that will come. I hope you do!

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