No Man Ever Steps in the Same River Twice

The Greek Philosopher Heraclitus once said that ’Change is the only constant in life’.

I’m assuming that he must have been a very wise man, because there are not many of us who like change. Some of us resist change because we enjoy our routine and fear we may lose something valuable if we adapt. Some feel a sound sense of safety and security, so ask, why the need to change what’s already working?

What Heraclitus didn’t factor in is that COVID-19 decided to take him up on his prophecy, and change the world as we knew it into economic turmoil, increasing the social and emotional strain on us and our children, and forcing us all to adapt psychologically and physiologically to all that came our way. The COVID-19 cloud overshadowed the world, bringing with it an after-effect that will be felt for years to come.

However, as with every ominous storm, there is a silver lining. We have been reminded of our dysfunctional relationship with nature, many families have been able to spend time together, and although essential workers have been performing miracles well into the night, they have had the whole world behind them, rooting for them in the streets and from the balconies to show their appreciation for their unfeigned dedication.

Life as we knew it

The root word for ‘change’, taken from the Old French, ‘changier’ is described as ‘becoming different, or altered’. Life as we knew it did just that. South Africa entered lockdown level 5 at midnight on 26 March 2020. Our country changed, our habits changed, our routines changed, but so did the way in which we had to educate not only ourselves but our students too. The announcement made by President Cyril Ramaphosa on the eve of the Sunday before lockdown sent a reminder to every educator that change was inevitable, and this was going to be our constant.

Although we had anticipated some of what was heading our way, the realisation was that we had to adapt and adapt quickly. At The Ridge School in Westcliff, Johannesburg, we set up several staff meetings to establish a shift from social, physical teaching to online, remote teaching and learning. I remember conversations regarding screen time, synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning, and flexible timetables, all of which increased the anxiety and stress levels with staff, parents, and our boys.

Phases of change

Part of our hidden curriculum at The Ridge School is our focus on the qualities of grit, resilience and perseverance. In her book A Student’s Brain, Kathie Nunley explains that due to the development of the prefrontal cortex, adults experience functional fixedness that makes them see everything exactly as it is. For instance, an adult will see a tennis racket exactly as it is. In contrast, a child may see a broomstick as a cricket bat. Children’s creativity occurs in the prefrontal cortex, which gives them the ability to be flexible and inventive. Children have minds that are designed to learn and adults have minds designed to perform.

Our boys adapted very quickly to the change, a shift that we as adults, fixed in our ways, struggled with. Our staff had to transition from being content creators to digital natives in the space of a few days. Our planning calendar, one that guides our every move, had to take a ‘back seat’, as certain events, such as assemblies and music soirées, came to an abrupt end, for the time being.

The silver lining

Although the COVID-19 cloud had descended upon us, it was up to us as a team to make sure that we embraced the inevitable change. The April holidays seemed like a distant memory when we started the second term. Having had countless meetings, attended several international webinars, and investigated the best possible solutions to aid us going forward, we began an adventure quite literally for us, into the unknown.

The start of the new term was characterised by re-worked timetables, digital curricula and a passionate staff team. Little did we know that the ability to mute and unmute a microphone online would be one of the 21st century skills with which we would have to equip ourselves! Our timetable had been adjusted to suit the needs of both synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning, we had started the academic day later so that families could enjoy the time spent together on a walk or exercise in the mornings, and we had taken the opportunity to reflect on past experiences, which boded well for our remote journey as a team of educators.

Less is more

As we progressed through the winter months, we came to realise that content was easy to disseminate, but connection and emotional stability was tantamount to making sure our boys felt secure and confident with their day-to-day online interactions. We were in a fortunate position insofar as our boys, from Grades 4-7, were digitally skilful with the likes of Google Classroom and Google docs. Therefore, the transition to a digital curriculum was at times seamless.

Although the change may have seemed quite positive, as a team, we began to realise that the content seemed to take its toll on the boys. After several weeks, we had decided that ‘less is more’, and that it was far more beneficial to cover what was important within the curriculum, rather than overload the boys with additional work to cover all of the content. In doing so, we found that the work ethic improved, the stress and anxiety of trying to complete what would have been completed in class diminished, and our educational views on what was important in the lives of our boys shifted too. We realised that as much as content and assessment mattered, the conversations with the boys, the family dynamics, the home environment and how we interacted with the boys mattered more.

Rewriting reports

The Ridge School celebrated its centenary year last year. It’s astounding to think that a school that is now 101 years old, a school that has stood the test of time, a school that continues to grow and nurture young boys, had to change radically in its thinking and approach to what we had always known. We went back to the school’s mantra – ‘Where boys are known and grown’ – and felt that assessing and representing a mark on a report would ultimately mean assessing each boy’s home environment. What COVID-19 has taught us is that we all come from a different background, and ‘judging a book by its cover’ doesn’t determine our outcomes or who we are. We decided that due to a change in our teaching methodology and practice, our reports would need to reflect this thinking.

So, for the first time in 100 years, we sent home reports without marks, symbols or ranking. For a school such as ours that is entrenched in tradition, this was significant: this approach valued the individual, not comparing him to a result or symbol. We supplied a comprehensive comment for each subject that gave an all-round, holistic, and comprehensive overview of every boy’s progress.

Post-COVID-19: the lessons learnt

In his book You, Your Child, and School: Navigate Your Way to the Best Education, the late Ken Robinson, emphasised that education is broken. There’s too much pressure, too many tests, too many demands, too much of an assembly line approach. How can we reboot? Not only has the pandemic shifted our thinking at The Ridge, but it has also altered how we approach our teaching and learning. Previously, our buildings were empty shells, devoid of laughter and play. With the return of the boys, our school sprung to life in September (no pun intended).

The wearing of masks, 1,5-metre social distancing in classrooms, elbow bumps, staggered drop-off and pick-ups have become the norm. Not only did we adapt to various curriculum changes, but also to structural changes so that we could accommodate all our boys at school. We converted some areas, such as the school hall, dining hall and the information and technology (IT) laboratories to accommodate our boys in a safely spaced manner so that we could begin Term 3. The staggered drop-off and pick-up changed how our boys arrived and left school, with temperature checks and sanitisation happening before entering the campus.

Our school once again became a social institution. We had longed for the collaboration and enjoyment of stories that we were eager to share with the boys and vice versa. We realised too that schools are places of safety, compassion and social connection. They shape and mould the lives of every student who enters and leaves the school, each and every day. We had taken this concept for granted. We felt the emotional and social burden that COVID-19 had placed on the lives of so many individuals, and began to take steps to support the boys, staff and parents into the days, weeks and months ahead.

Where to from here?

Having reflected on the lessons learnt during lockdown 2020, we are sitting at a crossroads. We have experienced the ‘new normal’. How can we as educators embrace this new narrative? It should be about asking what we will do to be different and better, moving forward.

We are in a cycle of change. We don’t know when this will pass. What we do know, however, is that we cannot look back in several years’ time and regret what could or should have been done to improve academic delivery and integrate IT to enhance the teaching rather than replace it, as well as create social and emotional care and awareness for all stakeholders and staff alike. Let’s adapt, let’s change, let’s transform and reform, and let’s learn from this experience so as not make the same mistakes as we have in the past.

Perhaps Heraclitus was a man before his time. His notion, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man’ reinforces our focus on the future. If each school can find their ‘future-narrative’, one that is future and forward-thinking, no man will ever need to step into a river, but rather into his life raft to help him navigate the journey ahead.