Update on distance learning and remote teaching

Created by Martyn Rawson | |   BLOG Distance Learning
It looks as if some form of remote learning and distance, online teaching will be with us in some form for a while. Therefore we have updated our advice based on our direct experience and what we have gathered through the Elewa course on this kind of learning (www.e-learningwaldorf.de) and by garnering what experiences others have been having.

The first thing we would like to emphasize is the importance of professional learning by reflecting on our doing. Our main experience has been that teachers and pupils have adapted incredibly well to the situation in a very short time. Who would have thought that Waldorf education could start from practically nothing, as novices in the field and speed up to become competent and even expert in a field that we have avoided for years? Relatively speaking – and we are talking weeks, maybe a month – things got off to a somewhat stunned and slow start but bit by bit the creative pedagogical imagination got hold of the task.

Some schools’ movements were faster setting up national platforms than others (the US was very fast), others left it to the school level and here there were also many signs of initiative - often uncoordinated. It is interesting to observe the cultural differences; which schools’ associations and federations did this centrally and which left it to individual schools - and even in some cases, to individual teacher’s initiative (one colleague told us that he simply set up his own platform after the school leadership failed to agree a common practice or policy). Are there lessons to be learned about how Waldorf schools cope with emergencies and contingencies? These are almost certainly the same lessons that would be learned if we explored how schools change anything, from the timetable to the curriculum.

Synchronous, asynchronous, on- and offline learning

One important distinction we have learned to make is between synchronous and asynchronous learning and finding the right balance between these depending on the age of the pupils and the activities. Synchronous learning is everyone doing it at the same time, as in a live classroom- asynchronous means students working when they can or when they want. . Synchronous learning must not be online. One can set a timetable for the daily work and students (with or without parental help) regulate this themselves, but all students are spending the same time doing the same tasks, e.g. from 9 to 10 am.

The following table shows typical distinctions between synchronous and asynchronous learning (statements in the blue band, comments below in the white band).

 

 

Synchronous activities: students learn at the same time

asynchronous: students learn at different times

Examples: video conferencing, live chat, live streamed videos

Examples: emails, screencasts, videos, blog posts/comments, using a platform like moodle or padlet to set tasks and provide work material

Communication happens in real time

Communication is not live

 

e.g. students write emails, text and send in material for feedback which is given in text form

Social contact and sense of learning community

Contact and community at best implicit

e.g. discussion forums, tutorials

e.g. informal contacts between students enables them to feel they still belong to a learning group

More engaging

Less engaging but more flexible

e.g. teacher presentation such as demonstrating an experiment

 

Allows running feedback and comment

Allows students to work at their own pace and when they want

It is actually quite difficult to see what students are doing, works best when students make verbal presentations or show their art work

e.g. project work, reading

Easier to control who is present/absent

Less control of participation

 

 

Clarifications of task and content easier

More reliance on written instructions or memory

 

 

Dependent on good Wi-Fi connection and efficient equipment

Less dependent on connectivity

 

Many student work with smart phone and therefore have small screen which is limiting and hard to achieve an overview with

Learning is online

Work can be done offline

There is a risk of spending too long online or working digitally

Time spent online can be kept to a minimum. Work can be done physically

Regularity of a timetable can be helpful for students managing their lifestyles and learning

Students can plan when they want to work (it is possible to set a timeframe to help students but allow them to regulate this themselves, or depend on parents)

 

 

More direct teacher input

More dependent on self-time-management or dependency on parental support

Though even here very limited

Some students definitely benefit from this, others suffer or ‘get lost’ by going off-radar

It is very helpful if students have a work plan each week. Class teachers or high school guardians can establish an online plan for each class in which individual teachers enter the tasks and activities they have given, with the amount of time students should spend on them. This ensures a balance of activities and avoids overload when this is uncoordinated.

Examples of different online- offline, synchronous-asynchronous activities

Synchronous and offline:

Having a daily schedule or timetable,

daily verse spoken at same time,

physical exercises (stretching, sit-ups, Bothmer exercises), speech exercises, recitation, times tables,

common breaks and meal times

regular nature observations,

set times for tasks,

keeping a learning journal

Synchronous and online:

Video conferences, webinars, streaming, screen sharing, conversation, asking questions, giving talks

Advantages: provides rhythm, routine, sense of community

Most demanding for teachers and students

Asynchronous and offline:

All the above though not at the same time.

Good activities include: reading, project work, revision and rehearsing, watching videos, listening to podcasts, drawing, playing music, writing, many practical activities such as cooking, cleaning, gardening (especially with documentation  of recipes, changing seasons)

Asynchronous and online

Research, searching for information, watching videos, messaging and emailing, group project work using platforms, reading e-books and texts,  blogging, collaborative story-making, galleries (where students post their work for others to see on protected platforms),

Least demanding, most flexible

Less demanding, semi-flexible

Learning phases

In my earlier paper I recommended an emphasis on practice, revision of what is known rather than introducing new material and content. Of course the pandemic has gone on much longer than we imagined. We have to introduce new material at some point, especially in the high school. The question is; what counts as new and what and how is this best done?

Really new topics are probably still best avoided, but many other topics continue and expand what has already been learned, or at least builds on learning dispositions, skills and knowledge the students have already learned. In subjects like history, literature, geography, new material builds on analytical methods the students should have already learned (how to write different text types such as report, essay, article, blog, poem, dialogue etc.). If they do research and projects , they need methodological guidelines on how to gather, reduce, summarize and interpret information, or perhaps they already have these. We find that putting some texts on writing techniques or analysis methods into the platform (and reminding them that they are there) is a helpful resource for students.

If we do introduce new material, the students should do a series of exercises offline (e.g. speech, movement, concentration exercises) to wake up and get ready for the lesson. Presentations should be brief and to the point, with digital handouts where possible. Recall is still very important, which is why break-out rooms for 10 minutes in groups of 3-4 re very helpful, with a Q & A session afterwards. As in all teaching, preparation and feedback are vital. Teachers need more time for this than for their usual lessons. Less is definitely more.  Some teachers have good experience doing blackboard demonstrations online in maths, either setting up a camera in an empty classroom or having a small blackboard at home. Our chemistry teacher has been highly creative with experiments you can do safely at home.

Fatigue, stress and fear among teachers

Making the rapid transition to remote learning has been a source of considerable stress for all concerned. Schools need to take this seriously into account and ensure that teachers get all the technical, pedagogical and personal support they can. Collegiality was never more important, such as taking account of other people’s circumstances (single parent families, having young children at home, trying to balance home office with children needing care and support, caring for elderly relatives, financial pressures on partners, being an older teacher and so on). It has come to our attention that some schools have put teachers under ‘moral’ pressure to attend live meetings and conferences, teach groups, supervise exams and so on when they did not feel comfortable with the arrangements, or by refusing to do video conferences on principle (of which there are many - often conflicting principles). This is really an issue of inclusion and exclusion and the question is; what can we do as an institution to ensure that everyone can participate as best as he or she can and as much as circumstances permit? If I was in a wheel-chair, my institution would (I hope and assume) have to find a solution to enabling my mobility and access.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect to take into account is fear, especially as the lockdown opens up. There is so much information, some of it contradictory, and there are many conspiracy theories. Those among us who subjectively or objectively, rightly or wrongly, feel vulnerable have even greater stress because we feel fear and responsibility and we also want to do the best for our students. Some people are recommending that social distancing should be overcome so we can all touch each other, whilst others are uncertain and cautious. It is becoming politicized. Some people think that social distancing is a restriction on their freedom, or a pedagogical necessity. Others are uncertain and there is a lot of social and peer pressure to conform to the dominant group behavior. I have been told there is Waldorf position on social distancing and wearing a face-mask, but I’m not clear what that might be. Soon we will be confronted by the issue of vaccines! These are wicked problems, which cannot be solved unless the participants in the conflict or dispute are prepared to step back from their current ideological, value-based positions, however convinced they are that they are right. Tolerance of other views is hard to practice, especially if you are convinced you are right- these positions are called ‘contradictory certitudes’.

Possible things we are learning

For the upper school, platforms like Padlet and Moodle will remain a part of our provision. We can share documents, images, videos and make other resources available. One thing this experience has highlighted, is how important main lesson books, folders and portfolios are for documenting learning and retaining these for future reference. For teacher learning and professional development the benefits are much clearer. Let me give you an example.

The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship organized their Easter Conference at short notice online. Over 400 people actively participated and some 800 logged into the platform, which provided texts, videos, blogs and so on. Each day was organized with a thoughtful introduction to Rudolf Steiner’s College Imagination by Sven Saar, followed by 30 minutes of synchronous online Eurythmy exercises for everyone to do in their home (including the I think speech, the Hallelujah exercises). Trevor Mepham introduced the day with some thoughtful observations and then there was a key note lecture each day for four days. During the lectures it was possible to quickly split everyone into breakout rooms to review the previous day and discuss various topics. I was able to use a prepared power point presentation to show images and art works to ‘illustrate’ the talk. Throughout the day were hosted ‘cafés’ in which people could meet and talk. After lunch there was 30 minutes of Bothmer gymnastic exercises. During the afternoon there was a selection of artistic activities. For each activity there was a short video introduction. Afterwards it was possible to see a gallery of the results. I had a workshop on land art in which over 60 people participated with beautiful results judging by the gallery of photographs.

There were open forum discussion groups and in the evenings an interview or talk by guest speakers, including Phil Forder, a former Waldorf teacher, who has been teaching art and personal development in a maximum security prison in Wales for the past 20 years and has gained national recognition for his work. Phil talked in a modest and humorous way about his experiences bringing what he had learned in Waldorf into the prison service and spoke movingly about coming out as gay in such an environment. Another speaker was the medical expert Aric Sigman who advises governments and institutions on the latest develops in research on issues relating to learning. Aric was able to demonstrate that recent science affirms many aspects of Waldorf education, which was very encouraging for a school movement that has been heavily under attack in the media and by government inspectors recently. The message was not just that we are doing the right things but that we need to demonstrate this and show that science is on ‘our side’.

I report this at length to show what is possible at the teacher learning level. I also gave lectures and seminars online for two weeks with high school teachers in China and New York and I do coaching sessions with school leaders and staff. I love visiting China and Taiwan and India but I could reduce the amount of travelling by using some video conferencing. It is obviously not same as attending meetings in person, but it does reduce CO2 emissions significantly. If we are really honest about why we think meeting in person is so important, more important than the impact on the environment of driving on motorways and flying in jets, then we might discover that we could sometimes do without this. I know I like attending important meetings and I enjoy the social opportunities to meet colleagues. But many meetings among groups who know each other could be done efficiently online, if we learn the social etiquette of video conferencing, which includes being better prepared, only speaking when we really have something important to say, not speaking at the same time as someone else, not taking too long to say things (see advice from Learning 4 Wellbeing (www.l4wb.org). If we believe in the spiritual realities of relationships and processes, what makes us believe we have to be physically present for them to functions. Thoughts and feelings are not bound to physical presence. Of course it is less. Of course there is more that we gain by experiencing each other bodily in space, but then we don’t only have to eat the finest, fresh biodynamically produced food to survive if it is not available or beyond our means. We can get by on less, not least if it helps the world. Sometimes I think people who insist on presence or nothing, are being a bit ego-logical rather than ecological.

Finally, one thing the experience of the lockdown highlights is how important online learning platforms such as Elewa can be. Right people, right time, right solutions.

 

Martyn Rawson, teaches in Kiel at the Waldorflehrerseminar/ at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart/ at the Christian Morgenstern Schule in Hamburg, Germany