A message to Parents about Home-based Learning 

Dear Parents,

 

Assalam o aleikum.

 

Unfortunately Schools are closed again due to Covid-19. This is necessary because it seems the general public is not following the simple advice on how to curb the spread of the virus, large gatherings are still the norm, etc. Sadly, our students are again deprived of classroom-based learning.

 

The SPS Home-Learning Portal

For the 4 weeks that school is closed, between now and the start of the Winter vacation (December 25th), we will use our Home-Learning Portal for teachers and students to interact. The Portal has two key functions: (1) teachers can upload MS-Word or PDF documents that students can download, and (2) teachers and students can communicate via email. It is as simple as Google Classroom but without having to hand over personal data to Google.

We want our system to be simple so that all of our students can engage with it without needing high-performance internet access and expensive devices. We also wanted system that doesn’t require students and staff to access it at certain times because unreliable electricity and internet mean that’s not workable.

 

Here is the Sadiq Public School home-based learning system:

  1. Students should log-in to the home-based learning page on our website. Instructions for logging-in are on the page.

  2. Students use the left-hand menu to select their class, e.g. P6 and they use the right hand menu to select.

  3. Teachers will have uploaded lesson documents. Each will be dated and students should complete them order. Each lesson document will replicate a lesson (more about what this below).

  4. Students should download these lessons into the computer or tablet or phone. The student does not need to print these documents.

  5. After the document has been downloaded into the device, the student can disconnect from the internet. We understand that internet access is not reliable in many of our students’ regions (even in Bwp), but the downloading process will be quick and so doesn’t require fast and continuous internet connection. This also means students can work to their own schedule.

  6. The student will read and do as the lesson document instructs/suggests. Any writing activities should be done in the student’s normal copybook/notesbook. The student may need his/her textbook. The teacher’s document may include a link to a website e.g. a youtube clip, but if internet access is problematic, the student can skip this.  

  7. Each of these lesson documents will have the student’s teacher’s email address and all students are very strongly encouraged to send an email to their teacher of there is anything at all they don’t understand or want clarification on. (Just like raising your hand in class and asking for help.) This also helps the teacher to know how the students are doing in their learning.

  8. For most students and most subjects, there will be 4 lessons per week per subject. Each should be about 80 minutes of activity. Some students work quicker and some slower so 80 minutes is an estimate.

  9. As is good practice in a normal teaching week, teachers will include a short ‘assessment for learning’ activity in the week. Assessment for learning means the teachers is assessing whether the students have learnt what he or she thinks was taught that week. This assessment task is not to be confused with a class test or an examination.

  10. As always, Parents are encouraged to support their sons and daughters in their lessons. Please ensure they do the schoolwork. This is the same as Parents making sure their sons/daughters attend school. Please encourage them to ask questions of their teachers if they have doubts. Please help them to stay positive about school and learning by being positive yourself. The lesson material will normally not require parents’ assistance (or private tutors!), but please do engage with your sons/daughters about their schoolwork. 

  11. I feel sad that school has closed down again, but for the sake of the vulnerable in our community we must do what we can to stop this virus. Before we get too sad about “losing” 4 weeks of school time, let’s do some very simple Maths. Compare the eventual outcome of two students at the I2/H2 level, i.e. when they leave school with FSc or A Level. One student has 80% attendance and the other has 100% attendance. The student who attends school 100% of the time gets almost 2 and a half years more school time/teaching time/learning time than the 80% attendance student. Missing 20% of school accumulates to 2 and a half years by the end of a student’s schooling. (Of course, if the students participate in these home-based learning activities, they won’t have lost any class time.)

  12. Students in K0-K3 will be doing a slightly modified, more age-appropriate version of the above.  

 

 

Let me explain some of the thinking that went into developing this system. The main considerations when designing and using our home-based learning system were:

     -Student-learning is the goal.

     -Students learn best when in school with their teachers and their class mates. Any non-school-based learning can’t replicate that.

     -Cost. We do not want to spend much money on a system that will only be used for a few weeks. We do want to spend school funds on teachers training, sports coaches’ salaries, sports equipment, school furniture, air conditioners, etc. We are, fundamentally, a physical school, not a virtual one.

     -The internet (even the electricity) is unreliable in Bahawalpur and in the many regions that our diverse student population calls home.

     -The internet is not fast for most of our teachers and students and even for the School. Fast internet/significant bandwidth is very expensive and so a system that doesn’t require spectacular internet access is preferred.

     -We don’t want our students spending a lot of time staring at screens. Not so long ago this was a major concern – eye sight issues, headaches, posture… we want students to work with copybooks and notesbooks, not on screens.

     -Our staff and students have varied access to devices/laptops/desktops and the required space/facilities in their homes to use them properly. 

     -These are only a few of the considerations/factors affecting how SPS creates its home-based learning system. (There are many more, such as teachers’ access to school, the Covid-19 situation…)

 

In preparing our system we asked some fundamental questions:

What is learning and how do teachers and schools facilitate learning?

This is surely the most profound question for any teacher, school administrator and parent to answer. It is also the most important question for SPS to consider when setting up a home-based learning system as well as to consider when operating and managing the normal physical school.

Learning is the process of becoming able to do something. ‘Do something’ can mean ‘do anything’: count to ten, spell a word, ride a horse, swim, fly a drone camera, write an essay, think critically about a published research article, play a violin… Learning is the process of moving from not being able to do these things to being able to do them. 

Just as sitting in a calculus lecture listening to a university lecturer talk about “d(y) over d(x)” while scribbling illegible characters on a rotating blackboard is not good teaching, a teacher talking at a screen filled with 30 children is also not good teaching. And neither is good for facilitating learning.

Learning requires doing: not just watching and listening, but doing because…

Learning is primarily a matter of memory creation. A teacher shows or explains to a student how to do long division. It becomes a short-term memory. Students replicate what the teacher does. Students practise it. The more they practise, the better they get. And the short-term memory becomes a long-term memory. Just as Roger Federer practises tennis serves hundreds of times, a student who practices long division or spelling a tricky word like obsequious or writing an essay eventually learns these things. And more repetition makes stronger learning. Mozart started early and practised a lot. Bill Gates practised computer programming and got better and better at it. We watched and saw how to walk, we tried and at first we weren’t good at it, but we persevered, repeated, practised, again and again and again – and then our parents said, ‘wow, he/she has learnt to walk’.

  

Everything we learn to do, from counting, reciting the alphabet, good manners, trigonometry, tennis serves, chess, critical thinking, how to use online banking… everything we learn to do becomes easier as we practise doing it. Practising means repeating. The more we practise, the better our learning. Practising leads to learning. Learning only happens after practising.

 

Learning happens inside the brain.

Teachers can only ever facilitate learning. Teachers demonstrate or describe how to do something. Students try to do as the teacher did. The teacher gives feedback on the student’s effort: ‘Yes, that’s right’ or ‘No, try again, but try this way’. When the student gets it right, the process of learning begins. For new knowledge or skills to become learnt, the student must turn it from a short-term memory into a long-term one. They do this in just one way: repetition. Like Roger Federer serving a tennis ball. Once he gets it right, he practices it again and again and again. Like Rembrandt learnt to paint portraits, Roger Federer learnt to serve a tennis ball, like you learn to walk, practise, practise, and more practise is what leads to learning.  

(By the way, practice with a c is a noun. Practise with an s is verb. Verbs are doing words, they’re actions. Learning is a doing word. Practising is a doing word.)

 

Myelination is what it’s all about!

At the biological level, inside the brain, repetition strengthens the network between the many brain cells involved in serving that tennis ball, or doing that long division. With practice, the axons that connect brain cells become ‘stronger’ because they become sheathed in an ever-thickening layer of myelin. Over time, this process of myelination increases the conductivity of the axons, which is why more practising means faster and more automatic behaviour. The more automatic a behaviour, the less thought is required to do it. If you learnt your times table thoroughly, i.e. with a lot of repetition, you will be quicker at recalling the answer to 8 x 7 than if you did not learn it thoroughly. Repetition, i.e. practising, generates the process of myelination and that’s why you don’t have to think too much about recalling the answer to 8 x 7 if you practised, and you do have to think if you didn’t practise it a lot. 

Myelination takes time – weeks and months, not minutes. That explains why learning takes weeks and months no minutes. There are no quick tricks to learning. Only slow, steady, frequent repetition leads to learning.

Everything we do in our classrooms with and for our students is informed by this simple knowledge about learning.

The next thing we did was ask what is the role of a teacher (and the school) in good learning?

Firstly, teaching and learning is NOT lecturing; lecturing is not teaching. And teaching is not entertainment. Students learn when they are doing, practising, rehearsing, repeating… writing and writing again and again and again. Repetition is at the core of learning. (Remember, it’s all about myelination and that’s a slow process.)

And so the challenge is for us to have students ‘do’ our subjects, repeatedly, via the internet. But this does not mean the students have to be using a computer or any device for their learning. They can/should still do their learning mostly with a pen and some paper.

A typical lesson/document that teachers upload and students download (not print!) will aim to replicate the 5 parts of a n effective face-to-face lesson:

            A: Inquiry (to spark enthusiasm and give purpose to the lesson)

            B: Information (the content of the lesson, i.e. what will be learnt).

            C: Synthesising/absorbing the information. (The first step in learning.)

            D: Practising what has been taught so that it becomes learnt. (The main learning phase.)

            E: Assessment for learning (to know if what was taught has been learnt).

 

A: Inquiry

Every lesson should begin with an inquiry-prompt, i.e. a question that makes a student think and to wonder ‘why?’ e.g. have you ever wondered why humans should eat a balanced diet and not just only eat apples (koalas only eat eucalyptus leaves, so why can’t we just eat pizza?)

 

B: Information

     i. Some (but only some) educational information, i.e. content. This may come directly from the textbook. For example, ‘Humans are omnivores which means they usually eat meat and plants. To get all the nutrients and calories they need, most humans eat a balanced diet including meat, dairy products, vegetables, fruit, nuts and chocolate cake. To get the right nutrients in the right quantity, a balanced diet is necessary.’

     ii. For example, “Read from your textbook, Chapter 9, Section ‘Balanced diet, pages 57-58.”

     iii. A lesson may refer to a suitable/reputable webpage, for example a Youtube video, but this won’t be necessary. Students with weak internet access won’t have to access this material.  

 

C: Synthesising/absorbing the information.

The teacher will direct the student to write brief notes in their notes/copybook that summarise what they have just read from their textbook or watched on a video. Students could/should write a shortened/brief summary, in notes form, i.e. not in sentences and paragraphs. This relates directly to the material already being used by teachers/students in school-based lessons about notes/copy books and their role in the learning process.

Whenever possible students should draw diagrams, perhaps copied from the textbook, but perhaps made by themselves to help summarise or consolidate textbook information. Each diagram must be neatly copied into the book and students must always draw large and clearly labeled diagrams. [These are skills that will transfer into the external written examination situation.]

All students have textbooks, so teachers won’t replicate textbooks; they will create lessons tat complement textbooks.

 

D: Practising what has been taught so that it becomes learnt.

     i: Teachers will direct students to practise/repeat/rehearse what they have learnt in the lesson and perhaps in previous lessons (this is called scaffolding, ie building new knowledge on already learnt knowledge/skills). Tis will most oten be achieved by using textbooks, e.g. Answer questions 1-10 on page 58 in your notes/copybook.

     ii. But it may also be achieved with the teacher’s own questions/practice activities that refer back to that very first Inquiry-question, e.g.”So, why do we need to eat a balanced diet? Write a 2-3 paragraph answer to this question, but pretend your reader is a younger child, explain to them why they must eat meat and vegetables and not only eat candy and pizza.” Other possibilities: have the student draw a one-page mind-map of the lesson content. Write a speech to be given to a particular audience. Write an article for the newspaper explaining… Create a poster for a classroom wall or school corridor that explains why we should all eat a balanced diet.

These lessons/tasks will aim to take about the same time as an ordinary class lesson, i.e. 80 minutes for most Prep & Senior School lessons, after all, these lessons rather mirror an ordinary school-based lesson. Some students/lesson may take more or less time.

 

E: Assessing for learning

Assessing for learning is what teachers call a quick check to see if what we think we have taught has been learnt. We have a range of ways to do this in a face to face lesson. IN a home-based system, it will be a little more challenging.

     i. Teachers will include a weekly (or perhaps more often) assessment task to assess the students’ learning, to answer the question, ‘have the students learnt what I was teaching them and so I can move on to a new topic, or have they not learnt it and I need to try something else?’

The weekly assessment may be 5-10 short questions that would be answered in an email sent by each student to their teacher (the teachers’ email addresses will be on the documents). Teachers will record the marks, but these marks won’t contribute to any final grades.

 

Feedback from teachers to students – (this is the very important teacher function that some call interaction):

     i. Feedback is the course-long conversation between a teacher and student. It is unique to each student and it is substantial and meaningful. It is not just a series of ticks & crosses in book, nor is it superficial conversation.

     ii. Feedback works best when it is ‘little and often’.

     iii. Feedback is still possible in an internet/distance learning situation.

     iv. Students will be very strongly encouraged to write to their teacher by email to ask any questions and teachers will reply promptly to students’ questions.

 

Just as we do in School, Heads of Departments, Heads of School, the Vice-Principal and the Principal will be monitoring the lessons/material.

 

At Sadiq Public School, of course, learning isn’t just about Maths and Physics and spelling and grammar. Watch out for occasional non-subject learning material.

 

 

A brief word about this expression “Online learning”

There is a misunderstanding ‘out there’ that ‘online learning’ means video-based teaching & learning or that the only way to use the internet for lessons is to have a teacher talking at a group of students all using Zoom or Skype. We are not planning for video-based teaching & learning because there are simply too many variables that render this ‘teaching’ method impossible for SPS to implement and SPS students to engage with. And in our opinion, it is not an effective way to teach students.

 

Article: Learning is an amble, not a zoom.

In the term, ‘online learning’, ‘learning’ should the operative word, not ‘online’.

Shutting down schools to slow the spread of Covid-19 has given rise to discussions about internet-based learning. This has of course triggered a tsunami of tech companies pitching their variations of snake-oil.

 

Learning must be the goal.

Whatever the means or medium employed by teachers and educational institutions, learning is the goal. This should be obvious, but it seems to have become lost in the cornucopia of software, platforms, devices, and profits.

 

What is learning?

This is surely the most profound question for any teacher, school administrator and parent to answer. Learning is the process of becoming able to do something. ‘Do something’ can mean ‘do anything’: count to ten, spell a word, ride a horse, swim, fly a drone camera, write an essay, think critically about a published research article, play a violin… Learning is the process of moving from not being able to do these things to being able to do them. 

Zoom and other online video-based options are not learning. (They may facilitate the process, but they are not learning.)

Just as sitting in a calculus lecture listening to a university lecturer drone on about d(y) over d(x) while scribbling illegible characters on a rotating blackboard is not good teaching, a teacher talking at a screen filled with 30 children is also not good teaching. And neither is good for facilitating learning.

Learning requires doing: not just watching and listening, but doing.

Learning is primarily a matter of memory creation. A teacher shows or explains to a student how to do long division. It becomes a short-term memory. Students replicate what the teacher does. Students practise it. The more they practise, the better they get. And the short-term memory becomes a long-term memory. Just as Roger Federer practises tennis serves hundreds of times, a student who practices long division or spelling a tricky word like obsequious or writing an essay eventually learns these things. And more repetition makes stronger learning. Mozart started early and practised a lot. Bill Gates practised computer programming and got better and better at it. We watched and saw how to walk, we tried and at first we weren’t good at it, but we persevered, repeated, practised, again and again and again – and then our parents said, ‘wow, he/she has learnt to walk’.  

Everything we learn to do, from counting, reciting the alphabet, good manners, trigonometry, tennis serves, chess, critical thinking, how to use online banking… everything we learn to do becomes easier as we practise doing it. Practising means repeating. The more we practise, the better our learning. Practising leads to learning. Learning only happens after practicing.

So a teacher talking to a camera may keep students’ attention for a little while, but it is only a small part of the learning process. Small and also not necessary because what the teacher is saying or showing on video can be done in other simpler, cheaper, less time-consuming and therefore better ways.

Learning happens inside the brain. Teachers only facilitate that learning. Teachers demonstrate or describe how to do something. Student try to do as the teacher did. The teacher gives feedback on the student’s effort: ‘Yes, that’s right’ or ‘No, try again this way’. When the student gets it right, the process of learning begins. For new knowledge or skills to become learnt, the student must turn it from a short term memory into a long term one. They do this in just one way: repetition. Like Roger Federer serving a tennis ball. Once he gets it right, he practices it again and again and again. Like Rembrandt learnt to paint portraits, Roger Federer learnt to serve a tennis ball, like you learn to walk, practise, practise, and more practise is what leads to learning.

 

Myelination is what it’s all about!

At the biological level, inside the brain, repetition strengthens the network between the many brain cells involved in serving that tennis ball, or doing that long division. With practice, the axons that connect brain cells become stronger because they become sheathed in an ever-thickening layer of myelin. Over time, this process of myelination increases the conductivity of the axons, which is why more practising means faster and more automatic behaviour. The more automatic a behavior, the less thought is required to do it. If you learnt your times table thoroughly, i.e. with a lot of practise (repetition) you will be quicker at recalling the answer to 8 x 7 than if you didn’t learn it thoroughly. Repetition, ie practicing, generates the process of myelination and that’s why you don’t have to think too much about recalling the answer to 8 x7 if you practised, and you do have to think if you didn’t practise it a lot. 

So why the clamour for Zoom lessons and other online ‘teaching’ methods?

Is it that if it’s online and modern and software-based and requires wi-fi gadgets then it must be good? Is it that we have all become conditioned to think that if it is electronic and colourful and internet-based then it must be better than old-fashioned, books and pencils and slow, quiet reading and writing?

Zoom and other online video-based teaching is the new Emperor’s New Clothes. They’re the new snake-oil. People have been seduced; tricked into thinking a sparkly new thing will solve their problem. Like the $1000 iPhone is so much better than the basic $100 Samsung phone.

Even if Zoom and its many variations worked flawlessly every time, even if everyone’s internet (and electricity) connections were reliable, even if we all have the quiet and private spaces in our homes, even if we all have the necessary devices to make a Zoom meet-up work and everyone’s microphones and speakers and cameras are all working at the scheduled time (all of which are unlikely even in a developed country), learning won’t happen during a Zoom lesson. And we’ve not even discussed the possibilities of hackers, fraudsters, misuse of private/personal data, and recording teachers. Nor have we discussed the logistics of getting all 30 students from a class online at the same time, all devices working at the same time and at miraculous levels of internet speed.

We don’t need laptops or iPhones or fast internet connections. Fast is not a good word in learning. Good learning happens slowly and inside a student’s brain. It doesn’t happen over a group video conversation. It happens when the student writes and rewrites and writes again in his or her notes book. Learning, the process of myelination of the axons, happens at a strolling pace, not at a zooming pace.

 

Covid-19 has given us an opportunity; let’s not squander it.

It has been said that Covid-19 has given the world an opportunity to pause and think about the environment and climate change. Perhaps too Covid-19 has given the world an opportunity to think again about the very essence of schooling and education, about teaching and most of all, about learning. School is not baby-sitting. School is not an exam-results factory. School is a place, a time, an opportunity for learning and learning takes time. It doesn’t require high tech. It certainly doesn’t require online video lessons.  Good learning needs teachers who understand what learning is and how to facilitate it, and plenty of time for students to practise.

 

Mr Peter Giddens

Principal

November 25th, 2020