What it feels like to learn

We are embarking on a quest to recreate teaching in a virtual form. At various rates, bound by our technical abilities, every teacher, in every school, is moving from setting souped-up ‘homework tasks’ to attempting to recreate the surface features of the teaching and learning process. Review – instruct – apply – assess.

This is an inevitable and necessary response to school closure. But in our race to re-invent the technical aspects of curriculum and pedagogy, we must not neglect what it feels like to be in the classroom. If we simply engage the brain, but ignore the emotions, virtual learning will result in virtually no learning.

What does it feel like to be taught well?

Students will need to know they are not alone. In a (physical) class, they share the experience with their peers. They are part of something, for better or worse. They belong to this teacher, to this room, to this subject, for a moment in time. The experience of schooling is not an individual one. Students move forward individually, but have a sense of shared purpose; of being in it together. Their post-lesson dialogue, even when not too complementary, helps cement this belonging: ‘God, that was dull’. How I long for a biting teenage critique right now.

Students will need to be seen. This happens so fluidly and naturally in school. The teacher greeting students at the door by name. Eye contact. A directed question. A smile. Recognition. The joy of being corrected. Engaging students in learning begins with an acknowledgement that we exist.

Students will need to be heard. We should invite the personal reflection and the off-task chatter. There is a voice which needs an opportunity to speak: not just the formal, academic voice. What platform can we provide for the virtual voice?

Students will need validation. They need to know that their efforts are worthwhile, their contributions appreciated. In our rush to ‘assess’ and provide ‘feedback’, we must recognise that these mechanisms are no longer only about the acquisition of knowledge. Every word we utter in response to students’ work has gained in emotional weight since we shut the school gates. Securing learning gains is secondary to preventing students from drifting out of our reach.

How do we meet this challenge? I really don’t know. What I do know is we need to pay as much, if not more, attention to how we make learning feel like something worth doing as we are investing time in exploring how we re-create the surface features of good teaching. Teaching always was, and still is, about connection and shared purpose. We forget this at our peril.

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