The Way Forward: Rethinking Learning and Assessment

At Jan Celliers Laerskool en Pre-primêr, in Johannesburg, during the hard lockdown phase of the pandemic, we realised anew that the world is a child’s oyster and that learning is not limited to the boundaries of classroom walls.

Online education provides an unprecedented degree of spatial freedom. Thanks to the numerous technological aids at our disposal, lessons could continue unhindered. The biggest challenge, however, was that the teacher now had to compete with the space in which children found themselves to get their undivided attention and keep them engaged.

It took ingenious thinking to come up with online teaching methods that would make students look forward to the next lesson. As the child’s sense of sight and hearing had to be used optimally daily, all footage needed to be colourful, interesting and visually appealing. The days of tedious lesson presentations have ended abruptly. Lessons have to be short, robust and relevant.

To make the learning content relevant over the last months, it became more important than ever to utilise the child’s living world as a medium for learning, discovering and creating. Art projects were completed using only materials found in the child’s kitchen. To demonstrate the value of artefacts, each learner had to search for an artefact in his/her space and tell in a video insert which conclusions about the past could be made from it.

In the junior classes, the children were asked to be dressed according to the theme of the week every Friday. The learners logged in online dressed up as circus characters, pirates, composers, the elderly, pets, and so on. In the grade groups, we had online tea parties together and delivered parliamentary speeches.

As teachers were challenged to come up with creative new plans, they could not help but reflect on the old, traditional way of teaching. In each lesson, there had to be an element of excitement, self-discovery and wonder. This has added a new dimension to lesson planning.

Pupils at Laerskool Jan Celliers

Rethinking assessment and social interactions

Assessment practices also had to be reconsidered. It was important for the teacher to determine whether learners had an in-depth understanding of the learning content.

Therefore, there was a move away from assignments where facts simply had to be remembered and recalled, to assignments where thinking skills had to be visibly embodied. The principles of the Harvard Visible Thinking School have come in handy when formulating assessment assignments. After students studied a poem, for example, they had to draw a rough sketch to depict the emotion in the poem. In social sciences classes, the focus was on cause and effect, possible predictions and human experience, rather than on memorising facts.

With the help of Microsoft Teams (Teams) and other electronic platforms, collaborative learning has become commonplace in many parts of the world. At our school, it was clear that the pupils experienced an intense need for interaction with their peer groups. With well thought out research assignments and group projects, even introverts managed to chat online with a group of friends about lesson content after class.

Where there is usually not enough time for meaningful group work at school, the newly discovered electronic platforms have now given our children the opportunity to work together unhindered at their own pace.

Collaborative learning was also indispensable among the staff. Collaboration between subject and grade teachers and the various departments has improved, and everyone has realised that colleagues need each other. Colleagues used each other as a sounding board, looking for solutions together and sharing their knowledge.

Fresh opportunities

One of the biggest benefits of the digital and online learning processes was the many training opportunities for teachers. In the comfort of their classrooms, teachers have learned how to master numerous computer functions and programmes.

Many staff members have not only lost their fear of using the new technological aids, but have also become experts in their application. Pupils’ computer skills have also improved by leaps and bounds. As the modern child largely feels at home in the world of electronics, it was a pleasant experience for many to complete assignments on the computer. Students’ skills in accessing information online have also improved significantly. From now on, many assignments will be completed and submitted electronically.

With the help of Teams, pupils and teachers can contact each other regularly and quickly. This has greatly facilitated communication between role players. Pupils who would be too ashamed in class to ask a so-called ‘stupid’ question can now boldly ask the teacher in private. In this way, pupils’ understanding is promoted.

In addition, all students can easily access study materials online, no matter where they are. Even teachers who feel a little sick can still teach their students via Teams. Teachers can admonish students who do not submit their work on time without humiliating them in front of the other students.

Classroom at Laerskool Jan Celliers

Proud parents

Our parents have been more closely involved in their children’s schoolwork than before. In some cases, they have attended lessons themselves and witnessed the interaction between the teacher and students first-hand. Many of them have gained more insight into their children’s shortcomings and failures.

Feedback given to them in the past has now been confirmed. This has strengthened their confidence in the competence of the school’s teachers. There is better cooperation between the parents and teachers and mutual understanding and respect has been cultivated.

Since the start of the pandemic, teachers and school management have sometimes had to make decisions in the blink of an eye and adapt to change. This has greatly honed the resilience and decision-making skills of the staff corps.

As teachers had to constantly plan for the unforeseen, innovative and critical thinking was stimulated. The wider school community will certainly benefit greatly from these innovative ways of thinking in the future.

At Jan Celliers Laerskool en Pre-primêr, education will never look the same as it did during the period before the COVID-19 pandemic!