The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has played a special role in the lives of all of us. The impact on the education, social and mental development of children and young people is dramatic, although it is difficult to estimate what that means for their future. The pandemic also highlighted the importance of parents’ support in the education and behavioral development of their children – states Martina Herdová, an elementary school teacher with extensive experience in History, German and English education, and an AYLP alumna.
“What if people in Germany don’t use the language that we learn in school? What if the language doesn’t even exist and our efforts are therefore in vain?” – this was a question I was asked by one of my students in a German lesson almost 15 years ago. The girl who posed this question was studious with a great dose of intellectual appetite and curiosity but at that moment her mind was filled with doubt. As a young teacher at the beginning of my career, I was astonished by such an unusual query which left me speechless. It was an era of analogue TV transmission, push-button mobile phones and unreliable dial-up Internet. The foreign language education at school depended on tapes, CDs and CD players. The highlight of German language education at our school was a lesson with a native speaker from Vienna who would come twice a year and only the best students were chosen to attend the discussion with him.
Digitalisation in Education
Since then the world has changed dramatically. Information is available to such an extent as it has never been before. It is apparent in the classroom as well. Apart from playing games and chatting with friends, children spend their free time watching videos or reading articles on various topics in foreign languages which are important sources of learning. It is not uncommon that a teacher can come across different English accents among students as young as 13 years of age. The accessibility of high-quality online learning platforms is an undeniable advantage of our time. Nevertheless, as we are all aware there are many risks associated with the unrestricted use of the Internet by children which poses a great challenge for the education system as well as parents.
When it comes to the education system, the implementation of changes can be a difficult and time-consuming process.
Digitalization provides, however, the opportunity to decrease the amount of time spent completing mundane bureaucratic tasks, and has been one of the most effective innovations within the last few years.
Keeping records about students’ attendance and details of the curriculum which is followed has been markedly simplified. In addition, it serves as an important communication channel for sharing information with students and parents. Another example of a positive change in education within the past few years has been the introduction of inclusive education. This means that children with special learning needs or difficulties, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) etc. are supported by trained professionals, including special educational needs teachers, psychologists and teaching assistants who can make the learning experience for children with special needs enjoyable and engaging while boosting their confidence and supporting social interactions with their peers. The concept is not new, however, this innovation has significantly improved the overall atmosphere in the classroom while encouraging acceptance of people with different needs and showing that shifting the learning conditions can allow previously underprivileged individuals to flourish.
The Impact of the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has played a special role in the lives of all of us. The impact on the education, social and mental development of children and young people is dramatic, although it is difficult to estimate what that means for their future. Governments across the world approached the school closures differently. When comparing Slovakia to other countries, the length of school closures was one of the longest¹.
Under normal circumstances, our job depends on face-to-face interaction with our students. As a result of the pandemic, we started using virtual meeting platforms. The variable levels of IT skills in children and teachers and poor Internet connections became obstacles, however, in our attempts to recreate the dynamic and lively atmosphere from the classroom. I was not technologically proficient before the pandemic but thanks to remote learning, my skills have improved and I noticed that this was the case for my students as well.
The pandemic unmasked other issues both in the education and social system. The inequalities among children from various backgrounds have become more pronounced and the knowledge and skill divide has grown broader than ever before. Despite the fact that most of us cannot leave our home without a mobile phone with mobile data, there are still communities where access to nutrition and everyday items is limited.
The pandemic therefore made it even more difficult for children from underprivileged communities to continue learning as they had no connection to their school or teachers.
There were many devoted teachers, however, who took the initiative and visited students in their homes to give them and collect homework. Our school organized a parallel program to the online lessons and students without the Internet would come to school to collect the homework in person once a week.
The social media was full of videos and jokes depicting students’ bluffs in online lessons. Children at the elementary education level wanted to share everything with their teacher and classmates while the older students hardly responded to teachers and often had their cameras constantly switched off. My experience was the same. Moreover, I learned that introverted and shy children seemed to be more comfortable with online lessons compared to learning in person in school. They were more confident and spontaneous.
The pandemic caused changes in children’s daily routine and led to an increase in the number of hours children would spend in front of a screen per day. As a mother of two, I observed a similar phenomenon in my family. Many children had to stay on their own while their parents were away at work. Not all parents could work from home, and some children spent half a year playing computer games or chatting with friends instead of actively participating in the daily remote teaching lessons. Once the in-person teaching resumed, I had to face unfamiliar situations.
Previously, I observed differences in students’ skills and knowledge but this became even more conspicuous on our return to school. Students would create separate units with learners with different levels of knowledge with the gaps between the levels wider than ever before. Highly motivated children, who took advantage of all available resources, made striking progress. At the other end of the spectrum were students who were refusing to do the bare minimum, ignored the online lessons and had to face a dramatic decline in their skills. Most students, however, ended up somewhere between these two extreme points.
The Future Challenges
Before the pandemic there was a sense of constant interaction, with students influencing each other in spite of coming from different backgrounds. Once we returned to school, however, the children appeared to be isolated individuals gathered together in a classroom. The differences in their support network became more prominent. The most striking case in our school was a 14-year-old girl who ended up living with a group of homeless people at the railway station instead of joining the online lessons. When she returned to school, she gave the impression of a grown-up woman. She had nothing in common with her peers anymore. In spite of attempting to address her behavior and hopes for close cooperation with her parents, she was transferred to a center for children with behavioral difficulties.
This case highlights the importance of parents’ support in the education and behavioral development of their children. It is crucial to understand the needs, personal aptitudes and traits of their offsprings to maximize their opportunities and increase the likelihood of them living a happy and balanced life. For instance, helping children identify their preferred learning style can be a starting point to further develop their potential. According to Neil Fleming, teacher and inventor of the VARK model, there are four types of learners:
- Visual learners like using diagrams, images and maps.
- Auditory learners prefer listening to lectures and discussing topics.
- Reading and Writing are preferred by learners who learn most when presented with a text and when writing down notes.
- Kinaesthetic learners are ‘hands on’ learners who need to try and do things themselves. They like moving and touching objects.
The principles of this theory can be applied in day to day teaching. We therefore not only focus on following the syllabus but also encourage students’ autonomy to develop an authentic approach to learning more efficiently. What is also important is building an awareness of one’s own learning style as a teacher to diminish the natural propensity to use and promote your own learning style. Identifying a child’s learning style is valuable and an online quiz can allow them to start making changes in the way they learn.²
There have been a number of changes in the education system and the way we think about education. Some of the changes are less apparent while others receive high coverage in the media and are widely discussed across all layers of society. We live in a rapidly changing world and there will certainly be many challenges we will have to face in the upcoming years and decades as a result of military conflicts, climate change and transformation of the job market. I would like to believe that our country has the potential to prepare our children for these difficult times and along with equipping them with adequate knowledge they will have key competencies that will allow them to live in such a different world.
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