| Véronique Fuller | Décembre 2020 |
“School has come to mean something very much warmer, closer and more home-like than it was in earlier days, and the relation between teacher and taught is friendlier, freer and more natural.” wrote Ethel Strudwick, High Mistress of St Paul’s Girls School in 1927.
Indeed, good schools have long recognised that the relationship between teachers and students is essential. Yet, when the first lockdown struck, here was the promise of a new world where everyone could be learning remotely, without sitting in a physical classroom. Nine months later, it is time to reflect on the results of this massive experiment, on the psychology of learning and how technology can indeed help us build a brighter future.
Education professionals are observing a greater sense of isolation and gaps in children’s learning
School isn’t just about learning, it is a social environment where children learn how to interact with each other and become responsible adults. Even with social media and the cameras on, months without physical contact with real people may well have had a negative effect on the psychology of many, exacerbating conditions like eating disorders or anxiety . One in eight children in secondary school already suffered from a mental health disorder before lockdown .
Regarding the gap in learning, it would be however far too easy to blame technology. In an effort to lessen differences between children of different economic background, some schools didn’t even use virtual learning. In the United Kingdom, home computer ownership stagnates at around 88 percent of households  as many people just rely on their mobile phone. Level of access to computers from home is similar in the US and even lower in France .
Yet even for schools whose children had access to technology, drop in standards is noticed. The best students may have easily caught up but many others have been left behind. Consequently, the British government recently promised easier A-level exams to compensate for these lost months of education. Similarly, the French will be offering students a choice of questions on various parts of the curriculum at upcoming national exams.
Cognisant parents seek a crutch to support their children in catching up. Tutoring platforms are booming, yet only the richest can afford the many necessary tutoring hours (£30 to £120 an hour in London). Inequalities are rising: access to technology, ability to catch up, access to tutoring. To counterbalance this effect, the British government is investing millions in tutoring for all. Could this money be invested in a better way?
Why has this massive accelerated conversion to technology in education not brought much anticipated benefits?
Beyond subject knowledge, learning and teaching are about relationships and building trust.
Good teachers help children build momentum in learning and go beyond what they would achieve on their own. Passionate about their subjects, and compassionate with children, good teachers are inspiring, they act like catalysts in a chemical reaction, accelerating and facilitating the learning process. They use different learning styles in their pedagogy to activate various parts of the brain and act like guides, filtering and organising all the information available around a concept in structured palatable steps of increasing difficulty. They know how to distinguish concentration from boredom and flex these timings by varying activities to maintain energy levels.
Yet, teaching is not just about the subject or the technology. Firstly, students are not working on their own, they engage in the occasional group work and get emulated by seeing others work. Most importantly, teaching and therefore learning is about building trust and confidence: amongst peers and with the teacher.
Similarly, in running apps like Strava or Nike Run Club, people who want to run faster are not just taught the technicality of running. Runners are inspired to follow other members whose performance is close but just slightly above theirs by looking at their results, they are regularly encouraged to run faster by listening to the voice of the coach in audio push messages at critical times of motivation drops. Likewise, students in a classroom, are constantly encouraged to work harder and better, while regularly receiving praise and feedback from their peers and teacher.
What could technology do to emulate classroom dynamics?
Revisiting the controlled balance between teacher, students and peers would be a start.
Technology does great things, first and foremost it is ubiquitous, being here at all times and at multiples places at once:
- answer questions from the students at random times, the recent Snapchat math solver feature
- tailor exercises to each child’s needs with AI – many on-line exercise platforms are now starting to embrace the technology
- push at regular intervals: 15 min a day of mathematics would be much better than 1h30 a week.
Technology could aim to do more:
- offer multifaceted one-to-one and one-to-many communication in one place: video, voice, written messages,
- offer integrated access to various activities from teacher to students: writing on board, quiz building and setting, video sharing, break up rooms (as seen in Zoom) for group work,
- apply behavioural insights to the user interface (see Nesta’s latest report ): the on-line Maths exercise platform Sacado is perfectible,
- take inspiration from gaming: there is a reason why children and parents get addicted to videogames. In videogames, players are encouraged to play more, work harder to complete a winning streak, or move up to the next level that will give access to even more games.
Distance learning has not yet revealed its full potential in secondary education, yet there is plenty of room for improvement. While many European teachers may want to revert to a fully physical class, the online momentum will carry on. The longer the US lockdown, the longer US schools and universities are running online, the more data is collected and the more technology companies understand education. Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom are now used by many schools. Over the last few years, billions have been invested in the Edtech  market (application of technology to education) and this fragmented market may well consolidate soon. Will it finally make a difference?
Teachers and students are still longing for an affordable integrated product whereby “the relation between teacher and taught is friendlier, freer and more natural” and that ultimately would reduce inequalities.