Schools in January are usually full of life, but not this year. At the start of my day, I walk alone down silent corridors to an empty classroom. There are no children lined up outside; the bustle of school life is gone and the only voice I hear is my own.
Welcome to lock down learning where my pupils are miles away at the far end of fibre optic cables. Teachers like me are doing our best to make it work but, although we are not teaching blind, our vision is so restricted that we might as well be looking at our classes down long cardboard tubes.
We never did have eyes in the back of our head, but we had peripheral vision and we are missing it. It was from the corners of our eyes that we noticed the children who were confused or unmotivated or upset. In the years before social distancing, we would get alongside them with encouragement and advice, even as others burst with triumph when their penny dropped. What we did not see, we sensed.
But in 2021 the vibrant world of the classroom has been replaced by computer screens that fill our days. Our senses have been numbed as we grapple with Zoom and Teams. We can certainly deliver material and ‘respond in the chat’, but this is no way to teach. Nor is it any way to learn. My pupils might be picking up knowledge, but how well do they understand it, and how can I know for sure? Assessment is far more than end-of-topic tests; it is ever present in the classroom – ‘Are you OK with that, Adam? How about you, Maria?’ – and mediated by body language rather than mere words.
Activities have been moved online, and, yes, they are better than nothing. But too often they are mere shadows of the real thing. Grey January days lend themselves to physics experiments with candles, lenses and screens. In normal times my classes would arrive to find the lab already filled with candlelight; no words were needed to start those lessons.
Part of the joy of teaching is seeing pupils’ eyes light up as they learn things for the first time. No matter how good the webcam and internet link, watching a teacher demonstration is not the same thing.
But it’s not just the interaction with teachers that pupils are missing out on. Stuck at home, every activity becomes an individual task. Yes, break-out rooms are useful for discussing specific questions, but for group work to work properly, people need to be present. Disembodied images and voices on a screen are a pale imitation.
While nobody has yet developed the square eyes that my grandparents warned me about forty years ago, neck aches, backaches and headaches are very real hazards – for pupils and teachers – along with a lack of exercise. At school, moving around from one class to another was an important divider between lessons. It allowed pupils to reflect on what they’d learned and prepare for their next lesson. Now, children can spend their whole day in the same chair.
For parents, this can be heart breaking. ‘I don’t think my daughter realises the enormity of what she’s losing out on, even though there are things she is starting to miss, like chatting to her mates about a film she’s seen,’ Cath Janes, a mum of a 13-year-old schoolgirl from Pontypridd told me. ‘I am so proud of her; she’s not missed a single lesson and never really complained about homeschooling. But I’m desperate to see her walking into her school again, towards the life any 13 year old should be living. Instead, she is pretty much chained to our kitchen table as the joy of being a teenager drains away.’
The school where she should be learning will not be closed forever. But the impact on teenagers like her is enormous.
We have all coped – we had to – but the longer this goes on the harder it gets. Children who have been struggling can slip ever further behind, while those who have lapped up the work might not be too keen to ask for enrichment activities. Especially if the alternative is a quick fix of social media in another browser window.
The school day evolved for a purpose, and pretending that we can replicate it online is not a solution. There is more to school than simply transferring information from teacher to child, and education is more than just training. For some children school is a refuge from violent and abusive homes, but for most it is a place where they grow as people, alongside their peers and under the care of adults they can trust.
If last year’s lockdown was something of a novelty, an unprecedented event we thought would never happen again, now that feeling has well and truly worn off. Remote learning is now a just hard slog for many of us – teachers, pupils and their parents alike.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.
* This article was first published by The Spectator on 26 January 2021: Lockdown learning is no match for the joys of the classroom.