Thursday, May 6, 2021
HomeCOVID-19Screens can’t replace schools

Screens can’t replace schools

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SCHOOLS are closed again and the media are focused on free school meals and screens. The Department for Education announces a running total of devices delivered whilst school PTAs are in overdrive revamping old machines and doling out data cards. This completely misses the point – remote learning is not a substitute for school. Devices are not the answer – children don’t sit behind a screen learning at school so they can’t simply be relocated home with a computer as office workers are.

My year 7 daughter hadn’t had a single ICT lesson during her only term at secondary school, as her bubble area didn’t include the computer lab, yet she was expected to navigate Microsoft Teams and work out her own schedule of learning. She could barely fire up the laptop – this generation of children use their phones, not computers. They ask ‘Siri’ rather than Google and send pictures rather than texts. Yet schools have gone from banning mobiles in the classroom to expecting children to learn solely via a screen; ironically, for many children this is their phone. Books appear a thing of the past, many now languishing in lockers.

There is a vast spectrum of capability across the school years. Year 13 pupils might well be able to self-study and organise their time in preparation for further education. Year 7s struggle getting to the right room in a building when they are in a different lesson from their buddies. Year 6s might be able to ‘mute’ each other but many reception children struggle to sit long enough for Zoom to connect.

Asking children to trawl through emails and documents from ten teachers to populate their blank timetable each week is half a day’s work in itself. Self-organisation is a skill which needs to be learnt before it can be used effectively, and many children haven’t developed this yet.

Some schools have been more organised and provide all lessons online as per the school timetable. Even these acknowledge that online delivery is a far cry from classroom learning.

Despite putting the tasks on an app rather than the website, my son’s primary school provision is still the same mediocre content as the first lockdown: pages of worksheets to print out (not everyone has a printer), reams of PowerPoints and the odd Oak Academy video. Telling a nine-year-old to trawl through slides and watch videos is not teaching. Who is checking for understanding? Even with the answer sheets, children might not appreciate why they have got something wrong and how to get to the right answer.

It’s all in the delivery and even in a live online lesson, the teacher can’t possibly gauge who has got it and who hasn’t, especially as many schools don’t allow pupils’ videos to be turned on. Stories of children having the chat function disabled for ‘being silly’ show how desperate these children are to connect. The interaction with their peers is key to learning – the class clown getting it wrong is more likely to make us remember the right answer. The rapport in the lesson doesn’t relocate as easily as the equipment.

Children need encouragement to nurture their enthusiasm – the upstretched hands begging to give the answer, the beaming smiles when they get it right. Those feelings are an important imprint in the brain to help children remember. Healthy competition between peers pushes some children to exceed their perceived limit but it’s hard to replicate such rivalry with remote learning.

As my daughter said: ‘I don’t like learning on my own; even if I’m sitting next to someone I don’t like, I can still talk to them.’ Children feel incredibly isolated working alone and this sense of isolation is augmented by the technical divide. They don’t feel physically near their teacher and for some that means not asking the question. If they are too scared to put their hand up in class, they are even less likely to brave the abyss of digital delay. Children sitting alone frustratedly trying to figure it out solo are becoming demoralised and demotivated. 

 Learning is much more than reading and listening – it is reliant on that other fundamental human need, development through personal and social interaction, the deprivation of which is cruel. Children need to be back in school.

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Christine Brett
Christine Brett is a co-founder of the campaign UsforThem for children to return to school normally. You can become a supporter here

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