I was interested to read an article from another independent school headmaster recently, which suggested categorically that online teaching should be avoided as a long-term option and that school experiences inside and outside of the classroom cannot be replicated online.
While few would argue that many elements of schooling do benefit from the physical in-person interaction, I think the case for online teaching is simply not that black and white.
Having sat on both sides of the fence when it comes to teaching, it makes this whole debate an interesting one. I come from a traditional teaching background, having taught for many years at some of the UK’s top independent schools, and aside from the fact that when you are dealing with individual pupils, with individual needs and unique learning styles, you cannot assume that one size fits all, you also have to consider that education is by its nature, progressive.
Methods and vehicles for educating the young in new and innovative ways can, and will evolve, as they should. As schools we pride ourselves on mantras like ‘teaching the individual child’ and ‘allowing every child to be their best self’, both of which centre on the recognition that every pupil is different.
Thinking outside of the traditional realms of teaching
A lot of independent schools out there who responded marvellously during lockdown with exceptional remote learning provision might beg to differ on the viability for the future of online learning. Whether that means using learning platforms as part of a blended learning approach, or providing more tailored feedback to assignments and homework, online teaching is here to stay for the long term.
In fact, the previous period of school closures and digital learning did much to heighten awareness around the benefits of adopting technology to support class-based learning and attainment. It also forced many schools to get creative and think outside of the traditional realms of teaching. From that perspective it has hit the fast-forward button for schools ten-fold, and that can only be a positive step.
That is not to say that traditional schooling is outdated. This is, of course, not the case. There are huge benefits to traditional, physical schooling and it works for the majority, but few can afford the blinkered view that online teaching has no place in our multi-faceted society long term.
Speaking from experience, most children that choose to be educated online do so because traditional school simply doesn’t work for them. We are all aware of the need to nurture every child individually and when it comes to elements such as pace of learning, speed of attainment and of course mental wellbeing, there are a number of grey areas.
For example, a child with special educational needs may benefit from being taught outside of traditional classrooms, with more time to learn at their own pace to achieve the best learning outcomes.
Similarly, an exceptionally bright child who gets bored easily and typically races ahead of others, may benefit from a faster-paced learning experience with opportunities to excel and push beyond the rigidity of the day-to-day timetable.
Every child is different: isn’t that what we teach?
Some children are ready to take their GCSEs much earlier than others and online teaching provides the freedom for pupils to progress at their own pace. Some children participate in elite sports or in creative arts at a higher level and need more focused, dedicated time to pursue their chosen disciplines.
Likewise, some parents work or live overseas and don’t want to send their child to a boarding school in the UK. There are a multitude of reasons as to why online teaching works for some children.
I think one of the biggest concerns traditional schools have regarding online learning is around the physical impact of learning remotely in relation to building friendships and social interaction in a physical way.
Fortunately, unlike home schooling of the past, working in a virtual classroom today doesn’t mean working alone or feeling isolated from others. For online teaching to work effectively, just as in a traditional school, community culture, friendship, educational traditions and team spirit will always underpin the ethos of a happy, thriving and holistic learning environment.
It is encouraging to see that virtual classrooms have brought to light the reality that all children develop and learn at different speeds. Many parents witnessed this first-hand during lockdowns. Some pupils will simply need more time to complete a task, while others will need far less time.
The truth is, both children should have the ability to flourish in this instance and achieve the best outcomes working in a way that reflects their own learning style. Whether or not that outcome is achieved via online teaching or in a physical classroom is perhaps not what is important here? The outcome for the pupil is.