Strength through adversity: What 2020 has taught our students

The events of this year have taught us many lessons — perhaps the most significant one being that our students have remarkable resilience and aptitude for new ways of learning. We underestimated students’ desire and capacity to be self-organised, self-motivated and independent, and although we suspected this in many of them, the pandemic has forced us to move away from traditional structures and given students a chance to prove themselves extremely capable in charting their own paths.

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In the media: Women’s Agenda, 13 November 2020

I don’t think anyone would argue that 2020 has been the most challenging and unpredictable year on record for educators and indeed our wider school communities.

The events of this year have taught us many lessons — perhaps the most significant one being that our students have remarkable resilience and aptitude for new ways of learning. We underestimated students’ desire and capacity to be self-organised, self-motivated and independent, and although we suspected this in many of them, the pandemic has forced us to move away from traditional structures and given students a chance to prove themselves extremely capable in charting their own paths.

The unplanned and unchartered territory of enforced remote learning has given students the unexpected opportunity to develop a new toolkit of skills and strengths that they wouldn’t have otherwise gained in a regular school setting. And these COVID acquired skills will serve them well into the future.

Self-motivation and self-directed learning

Throughout this year, students of all ages have transitioned from highly structured learning programs delivered in school classrooms, to much more flexible timetables as teaching and learning has transitioned online (more than once for some).

To succeed in a setting where a teacher’s attention must be shared among peers who are disparately located, students have become increasingly self-directed in their learning. They’ve had no choice but to take charge of looking after their own schedules and fuelling their own motivation. While self-directed learning is a goal in the traditional classroom, remote learning has provided a truly authentic platform from which to practice this skill.

Adaptability

The back-and-forth between classroom-based and remote learning has certainly challenged those of us who enjoy the steady rhythm of routine. However under these unpredictable and testing conditions, students have proven to be both adaptable and innovative — it’s evident in the quality of their work, the ideas they present, and their active participation in online classes and self-directed learning.

Students have had to adapt to radically changed learning environments — which for many has involved sharing space with mum, dad and siblings — and new ways of interacting with peers, both socially and for educational purposes. Adaptability is a strength that will endure for these students, preparing them for a changed world post-COVID and equipping them for multiple career paths.

Resilience and relationships

Resilience is a life skill that helps us to navigate change and not only cope, but to persevere and even thrive in the face of adversity. The effects of COVID-19 have certainly tested the resilience of our students, yet they’ve stood up to many of its challenges in the most remarkable ways and the experience of needing to draw on their own strength to combat loneliness and isolation has been formative for many. For the most part, students have demonstrated exceptional social competence and a sense of purpose and optimism for the future, despite enduring the challenges of school, family and social life in lockdown.

In addition to discovering and honing their personal resilience, students have learnt to value relationships, community and connectedness, and to recognise the importance of physical dimensions to bind us altogether, something that many of them took for granted before.

Mastering technologies

The 21st century demands skills such as critical thinking, independent learning and competency in a range of information technologies. As educators will know, it takes regular and persistent immersion in activities that promote these skills in order for them to fully develop.

While schools have been integrating digital technologies into classroom learning for a considerable time now, never before has there been the impetus and opportunity to test and apply these technologies to the process of learning in such a concentrated way.

Students have engaged with a variety of new technologies and tools in the remote learning context to collaborate on, produce and deliver learning activities. In doing so, they have not only developed new competencies, they have also established greater control over the creation and sharing of their learning.

Establishing skills for the future

Predictions on what jobs of the future will look like was already a hotly debated topic before the pandemic, and with the advent of COVID-19, the roles and skills required of our next generation of workers are only set to become more varied. The pandemic has put students through a crash course on the skills required to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution by testing their problem-solving and critical thinking abilities, their cognitive flexibility, coordination with others and creativity – all skills that have been highlighted as essential to succeeding in the future job market.

According to The World Economic Forum, 65% of primary school children will enter into job types that don’t even exist yet. This is why the most progressive educators have been focusing on teaching young people ‘how to think’ rather than ‘what to think’ for some time now.

This year has forced students to adapt to new ways of thinking and learning and by doing so, they’ve become better prepared for the future of work in many ways. Courageous schools will retain the best of what was and recalibrate delivery with what we have learned.