Friday, 1 May 2020

Is this distance learning stuff working?

We have now been in distance learning mode for between 4 and 6 weeks (depending on whether or not things stopped for the 'term break'. For Hornby High School students we offered up work for the break, but still treated that 2 weeks as a break before proactively seeking to re-engage. I first priority was hauora and relationships, and only after we'd focussed on that did we shift to more traditional 'back end of the curriculum' learning. We continue to maintain a focus on hauroa, with Deans monitoring student wellness though regular contact via Wānanga and Form Teachers.

I have taken some time to think about what I may be seeing, and have developed a hunch, a working hypothesis if you like. The hunch is based on a small amount of observational data only. Our staff are collecting engagement data each day, each week, and at some stage soon I hope I may get the chance to take a more detailed look at it to see whether or not it bears out my hunch.

Here's my hunch.

We can divide our learners into four groups.

  1. Those high flyers who will be just that, regardless of how we 'deliver' or 'cause' their learning. Here is an example of that from Jessica. We have many others.
  2. Those students who sit in the middle, whose engagement in school is variable, from whom we get the usual range of work from poor to great results, dependent on how successful we are in grabbing their attention and engaging them (in my opinion their range of engagement is more a result of what we do .. as a system .. than what they do)
  3. Those students who attend school some or most of the time but with whom we struggle to get much meaningful engagement
  4. Those students who do not engage, and with whom we work hard as we support them through a range of social and psychosocial issues created by anything from poverty, to mental or physical health challenges, to those who have beens seriously damaged by societal problems that are beyond their control

Groups 1 and 2 seem to be engaging as they usually do.

Group 3, so often disengaged 'at school', is now engaging in greater numbers and with greater enthusiasm, because the distance learning paradigm gives them more of the agency that they want. Without someone standing over them saying 'do your maths now', they are more likely to engage in their maths when it suits them, and just as successfully if not more so than they do in the conventional 'school' setting.

Group 4 continues mostly to be disengaged, and I stress through no fault of their own.

I also want to stress that this is my 'hunch', this is what I think I may be seeing emerge as a first set of outcomes from our distance learning.

Now teachers across the country are quite possibly saying that they worry because of the lack of engagement evidenced by attendance (or not) at GoogleMeets (especially with my Group 3). I have anecdotal reports of attendances on class GoogleMeets ranging from 2 out of 25, to 25 out of 25, in various class and year groups. However I would like to suggest that we are fundamentally wrong in our assumption that when students are present in front of us they are fully engaged .

There is a research backing for this. In a longitudinal study (one that takes place over a long period of time) the late Professor Graham Nuthall (University of Canterbury) conducted some powerful research in which he and his team 'wired up' students and recorded what they were saying during their classes. The results were published posthumously as The Hidden Lives of Learners .

One of the profound findings was that even when present in class, levels of student engagement are far lower than teachers think. So we shouldn't assume that things are worse in this virtual environment than they were in the physical environment.

In fact my hunch is that many students in Group 3 are better engaged and are in fact thriving in this environment because of the agency that they now have. They were not thriving before.

This is a 'win'. Instead of having only groups 1 and 2 engaged in their learning, we now have groups 1, 2, and 3, more engaged in their learning. I am not prepared to speculate on relative %'s of our student body. I am doing enough speculating with my hunch as it is, without trying to sound in some way numerically authoritative.

That still leaves us with Group 4, and their loss to the system, while not new, still drives ongoing inequity in society as those children fail to access the education that could liberate them from their status. The very cool thing is that (again anecdotally) we have students from that group too who are producing some amazing work in the distance learning state when they were NOT doing so even when they are physically present at school. It seems that it is whānau support that is the critical success factor for this group. Mind you that it is probably the case with most learners.

Much of this has been made possible because of our 5 year engagement with The Manaiakalani Programme. The underlying 'Learn Create Share' pedagogy, the benefits amplified with the use of digital technology, has been a true tāonga for our learners AND our teachers. The transition to the distance learning paradigm has, I suspect, been much easier for our amazing team because of the preparation that they have participated in over those past 5 years. Their familiarity with digital tools has been a wonderful enabler.

So, is distance learning working? My hunch is that it is definitely not delivering anything worse than we had before, and it might just be delivering more engagement and therefore, over time, better learning for our rangatahi. We'll look at the data over the next little while, but I think we need to get used to this 'distance learning'.. not only might the pandemic mean that it is with us for a while longer, but I suspect it offers opportunities that benefit a greater proportion of our society than we ever did before.

Education is not for the privileged few, those who have traditionally been the 'winners'. It is for everyone. And as a society we cannot afford to write off a significant proportion of our talent. We need EVERYONE enabled to be human and to contribute to our collective wellbeing.

Never waste a good crisis. BRING IT ON!!!

Robin Sutton


  1. Hi Robin, ive been spending some time considering this.
    I wonder that if we do actually have more students engaged in learning then maybe it be because there are more people engaged with our students learning. Our students are at home being supported by their family with school work, but also with cooking dinners, building a shed or fixing the car. I've been encouraged during video calls to hear our young people talking about the things they have been doing with their whanau, the experiences they have shared and the skills they have learnt. Hopefully this deeper engagement with their childrens learning will continue well beyond this lockdown, but it is also a challenge for us to consider how we can provide those real life learning opportunities within the school environment.

    1. Kia ora Robyn
      Great post! We were discussing this among our Cluster principals last week. Some of us were finding the same as you about the Group 3 children. Others like Marshland have a different theory. All this will be related to our lucky children having good parental support.
      In our situation, I tend to agree with Mark about Group 3. I 'm not sure I agree with the theory that our group 3 students enjoy that extra freedom and are therefore more engaged. I think our Primary aged students have worked best when they are given MORE instructions and guidance through a combination of things like parent support, teacher support and lots of audio/video rewindable learning. The more open the task, the more confusion and stress has been the experience so far.
      It is so exciting hearing our teachers discuss what they are going to carry on doing once we all get back to normal (if we ever do). We have taken great strides in rewindable learning (something we have been working on with Manaiakalani), and also in the parent engagement in student blogs. Yippee! At last!

    2. Kia ora Jacqui
      Thanks for commenting and adding your insight to my thinking... Totally agree re: whānau support and engagement. Is it possible the the differences you are seeing are also a result of age and stage? I was just having a conversation in which I commented that we need to remember that adolescence doesn't suddenly stop because we are 'distance learning' LOL

  2. Mark
    A great reflection. Your 'hunch' make a lot of sense to me.. we know that whānau engagement is important. We may now be seeing more clearly than ever before just HOW important it is.
    Rawe e hoa

  3. Unfortunately I feel that many of the level 4s are in a worse position than before. Being away from structure is a burden and without feeling like they are connected may be more disconnected than ever. Without their peers, then life can be very tough.

    1. Kia ora
      That is my fear for many of them too.. and it leaves me feeling powerless in many ways... just haven't yet got answers that, in my opinion, address the issues.. still working on it.. we are fortunate to have an amazing staff team who will leave no stone unturned in this regard (or any regard, for that matter)

  4. An intersting discussion, I think as a teacher providing distance learning I have moved past the content and the method [the materials all on Site, the G-meet set up and am wondering[worrying] about students independence. Can they read and understand emails, negotiate a site; organise their own day's schedule? Can they break the tasks down into the essential steps? Drama particularly is about working collaborativly with a group, about physical connections. It takes a lot of confidence to direct your performance to an audience but maybe more to address the camera behind which lies an unknown crowd.

    1. Kia ora Joanne
      IMO you have nailed one of the major pieces of work still to be done. The first is the relational work, now the independence and agency issue. I do see drama as a challenging 'space' in that regard, because of its very nature.. the lockdown has shown some wonderful examples of how collaboration can be built on line, but it all takes time and work... I see you daily taking on the challenge in your own work, and on behalf of our amazing rangatahi.. thank you!!!

  5. Hi Robin,
    As a teacher I agree with your groupings. I have also noticed the impact whanau support has had on those group 3 learners. I have also noticed how whanau support, or lack thereof, is relevant across all groups. The factors you outlined for group 4 have not gone away and continue to impact on this groups learning.
    In terms of engagement, I have noticed that distance learning has had a positive affect for students in group 3 as they are engaging more because they seem to feel less exposed.
    Our class Zoom calls are audio and video restricted due to technical difficulties such as variable broadband connections in different households. Students respond in chat and I can immediately see who is engaged by their responses. We have been using the hand up signal and reactions icons to communicate which helps my non talkers. Students unmute and talk when asked individual questions.
    I do personally miss the “human” interaction with my students.
    Overall, I agree with your assessment and personally prefer contact teaching which is something I never thought I would say as a teacher who considers learning digitally to be one of her strengths.
    Sharon Middleton
    An intermediate school teacher

    1. Kia ora Sharon
      Agree in all counts. I see the future as a blended environment.. the F2F is indeed vital. My wondering, my hunch if you like, is that we can strengthen learning by adding the distance option.. hopefully continuing to engage those Group 3 students who have so often been 'missing in action' in ur classrooms. That still leaves us with the challenge for Group 4 though, eh

  6. Kia ora Robin, I think oyur hunches are not too far away from the mark. I am particularly interested in Group 3, and as you point out, just because they are at school does not mean they are necessarily engaged, as Nuthall's research discovered. As you say, never waste a crisis ... let's be brave and bold and not go back to the status quo when we get out of this pandemic!

    1. Kia ora gary
      I think group 3 is where, in our lower decile context especially, we stand to make gains in this 'distance' paradigm. I have started the discussion with our SLT, Board, a small team of staff, and our student rep, around what that might look like.. I'll share a Google doc with you on which I have gathered my 'wonderings'. We need student and whānau voice next, I think.

  7. Your musings and hypotheses will resonate with many teachers, who struggle with engagement with Gp 3 and others. In this 'new space' there is more choice for all students, who have had to be more self managing, self regulating and have time to think about their work. My hope is in the future we will allow more student voice and listen to their ideas and thoughts about their learning. As teachers we still have a lot to learn about 'talking aloud, allowed'.

  8. Anne
    Thanks for reading and commenting. I have literally just finished a BoT meeting in which we discussed our own journey along this path.. our student rep (definitely a Group 1 student) made exactly this point.. that the new found freedom (we call it agency) has empowered many learners who are thoroughly enjoying their experience while still working. We ignore this voice at our peril.
    Kia tau te mauri

  9. Good to see this important reflective discussion of engagement in remote schooling. In my view it is likely that “Mana Whānau: The overarching lever” applies to all school aged learners, not just Māori. The lock-down is likely to have led to many more families spending time with their children in ways that build their mana, self-esteem and sense of belonging, which has enabled students to increase their agency in remote learning in collaboration with whānau as well as their teachers.
    Angus Macfarlane’s research of Māori students who were successful [well engaged] found that “Mana Whānau: The overarching lever: The findings from Ka Awatea [research] revealed that successful Māori individuals occupy a valued position within their whānau. They are nurtured into succeeding in both worlds by their whānau, are socio-psychologically capable and have a developing sense of belonging across a number of contexts.” @UCNZ @ProfNikiDavis

  10. KIa ora Niki
    Thank you... your comment just put another piece of the puzzle into place for me.. very grateful, thanks!! I had just sent an email to one of my many amazing colleagues posing the question about what this looks like when viewed with a cultural lens.

  11. Thanks for this insight into your kura and your hunch about how young people are 'dealing' with distance learning. I think this is resonating with anyone working in schools where teachers are still attempting to lead learning. I wonder where in the groups you have identified the young people who have swelled the essential workers work force sit? Those who are not doing school during 9-3 because they are stacking shelves in supermarkets, fulfilling click and collect orders etc? My hunch is that some of those are then going home to catch up on the day of school work while others are simply doing no school work. Tough to be an income earner in a family on the breadline.

    1. Koa ora Dorothy
      Yes I agree.. and your own hunch on those who have picked up 'essential work' is supported by our informal feedback. That';s why we need liberation, not just equity!!!
      Rawe e hoa

  12. I enjoyed this thread. If we are focussing on engaging as many students as possible (and ignoring the huge impact whānau support always has), then we need to acknowledge that most of our students can achieve success without being micro-managed. My kura are trialling several small timetabing changes in Term 4 in direct response to the students' feedback post-lockdown.