We have been very lucky with our experience of Lockdown at my school, and not just because of the competence of the Thai Government in dealing with the pandemic. As I write, Thailand has just celebrated 100 days without any cases of local transmission and, approaching seven months since the first case in Thailand – the first outside China – was reported on 13th January, has recorded only 58 deaths in total.
What this graph does not show is that there were two months between that first case and the seven-day rolling average of new cases first hitting 10. During this period we were working to prepare for Home Learning, learning a great deal both from colleagues in schools in countries that had already locked down and, during the second month, from our own teachers and students who were quarantined.
When we first drafted our Home Learning Guidelines our focus was on air quality rather than coronavirus, as all schools in Bangkok had been closed for a day on 23rd January due to high levels of pollution, with the draft Guidelines beginning as follows:
“It is important that, in the event of a school closure for any reason, the students’ education continues to the best of our ability. This draft document contains guidelines for teachers in the event of a possible future school closure. We believe that it is important to be proactive and have these conversations now, rather than reacting to unfolding events.”
Right from the start we were clear that we would base all Home Learning on the school’s timetable, with teachers available to students both within their normal lesson times and during the usual working day, but with Key Stage 4/5 students, who are more able to manage their time and work independently, also being set longer tasks that would allow them to work more asynchronously. At that time we asked teachers to “explore and share technological approaches” that would both “enhance students’ learning, rather than resorting to worksheets/textbooks etc.” and “make distance learning interactive and collaborative, both between students and as a class”. At that stage we had no idea how central Google Meets would be to our lives over the following months.
A few weeks later, a week after half-term, the Ministry of Education issued their first directive quarantining any students and teachers who had travelled, or who had family who had travelled, to China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore or Japan. For the next four weeks, a large number of students and teachers were quarantined at different times, as the Ministry of Education, and then the Ministry of Public Health, added and removed countries on their lists. While this was very frustrating at times, it gave us a great deal of insight and opportunities to trial a range of different “technological approaches”, including our first experiments with Google Meet – a very natural fit for us, as we run our e-mail, calendars and school via Google. Even at that very early stage, we had a number of parents who thought that we should simply be “broadcasting” every lesson via Google Meet, not understanding that this would only be useful for those parts of each lesson that the teacher was standing at the front of the classroom.
In early March we revisited our Home Learning Guidelines. By this time our fantastic Director of Learning Technologies had worked out how to embed Google Meet codes in teachers’ and students’ timetables on Moodle, we had run a number of Google Meet Pop-up INSET sessions and our expectation was that, in the event of a lockdown, teachers should have at least one lesson each week with each class that involved an interactive Google Meet. We spent a great deal of time carefully writing our Google Meet Etiquette, stating very clearly both that “video cameras are optional for students” and that all Google Meets would be recorded.
On our first day of Lockdown we heard stories about some really interesting Google Meet lessons, but also of several lessons where the students had held their own Google Meet, without their teacher, so we quickly changed our Home Learning Guidelines to include both Google Meet Bell Work and a Google Meet plenary in every lesson. On the same day, Google made some changes which gave teachers who had created their own Google Meet codes the power to mute or remove students if necessary and a week later we found Chris Gamble’s (Thank you, who/wherever you are!) fantastic Grid View Chrome extension and then the Nod extension, which added a “Hand up” and some emoji responses – very useful during both whole class discussions and all of the (more regular, but shorter) meetings that we were having to ensure that teachers continued to talk to each other during lockdown too. We were also running Year Group Assemblies through Google Meet, and even took Google Meet Tutor Group photos for this year’s Yearbook.
At the end of the first week and a half of Home Learning, we invited all students and parents to complete a feedback survey, with very positive comments about both the lessons and the stability and social connection that we had provided for our students, as well as a great deal of valuable feedback that we used to reflect and continue to develop during the last week of Term 2 and the Songkran (Thai New Year) holiday. This time reflecting after the first “wave” of Home Learning was invaluable, and another way in which we were very lucky compared to colleagues in other countries.
We began Term 3 with a Google Meet for all teachers on the Friday before term started to share our revised Home Learning Guidelines which aimed at providing the “best things about the Virtual School Experience so far” more consistently, including Google Meet “Registrations” every morning and a clear expectation that teachers remain online throughout Key Stage 3 lessons, available to either answer any questions “live” and/or give feedback to individual/small groups of students.
Now that it was clear that the lockdown would be going on for a while, we began to explore ways of making Home Learning more like the students’ and teachers’ experiences in school, or as Starbucks Thailand put it, “Same same, but distant”.
Two of the elements that we really missed during that first two and a half weeks of Home Learning were Cooperative Learning – Dylan Wiliam’s “activating students as learning resources for one another” – and Oracy, which we have been working on for several years, including being fortunate enough to welcome Daniel Shindler from School21 to St Andrews in November 2015. The importance of these at St Andrews is reflected in that they are two of the strands, along with Independent Learning and Growth Mindset, of our Effort Grade Criteria:
Collaboration: Always makes valuable contributions to group activities, working constructively with other students to ensure that the whole group benefits.
Oracy: Frequently makes valuable contributions in both class and group discussions, as well as listening and responding constructively to others’ contributions.
Slavin (2014) discusses four complementary “perspectives on cooperative learning” – motivational, social cohesion, cognitive-developmental and cognitive-elaboration – and we believed that the first two of these would be even more important than ever during an extended period of Home Learning. While Zoom has a breakout room feature, our challenge was both to replicate this, and to ensure that we could achieve Slavin’s two conditions for successful cooperative learning – group goals and individual accountability – through Google Meets.
A number of teachers experimented with different approaches, discussing these with each other in Google Meets, and then adding some technological wizardry from our Director of Learning Technologies which allowed teachers to add a number of different Google Meet codes to the Google Meet code listed on Moodle timetables:
With these Google Meet codes set up, it became very easy to put students into groups for different activities, with the teacher able to be in both the main Google Meet and all of the group Google Meets, choosing when to mute and unmute their microphone and the other Meets. With a bit of practice this began to feel very similar to walking around a classroom to visit different tables, but with the added advantage that the teacher had a video of each of the different groups’ Google Meets available for review, and/or to share with students in other groups, later. While I never went beyond four or five groups of three or four students with my Year 12 Theory of Knowledge classes, some colleagues set up enough Group Google Meets to keep Think-Pair-Share a regular part of their lessons throughout lockdown.
As we approached the end of Term 3, we piloted another new use for Google Meets, with our first Google Meet Parent/Student/Teachers Meetings, for Year 12, taking place over three afternoons during the penultimate week of term. Students signed up for appointments via Moodle, with parents seeing a timetable and the relevant Google Meet codes on their Moodle homepages, and so were able to discuss their son/daughter’s progress with their son/daughter and their teachers wherever they were in Bangkok/Thailand/ the world. The feedback, from students, parents and teachers, was overwhelmingly positive and it is very likely that we will be continuing with Google Meet Parent/Student/Teachers Meetings this term, with the idea of gathering 200 students and their parents and teachers together seeming very strange in this new paradigm.
Back to School
When we started planning for Home Learning, we had no idea how central Google Meets would be to our lives over the next five months, and we are sure that we will continue to find new ways to use Google Meets in the new academic year – Google Meets were frequently mentioned by students, parents and teachers in response to the “What elements of the VSE do you think we should continue with in (“new normal”) school?” question on our Home Learning Reflections survey at the end of Term 3, with several students describing how this will allow them to continue to work on tasks collaboratively for homework etc. in the future.
Already this term, we have used Google Meets to hold our annual Parents’ Information Evenings, with a mixture of pre-recorded presentations and Q&As with SLT and Tutors. We have learned a huge amount from lockdown, and I am sure that this learning will continue, in a number of slightly different ways, as we negotiate the new normal this year…