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Learning Through Lockdown

This article was first published in the IB World Magazine in September, 2020.

Dulwich College Beijing turned the pandemic into a positive experience, as Kieran Burgess, Diploma Programme (DP) coordinator, tells IB World Magazine.

When the news broke that we had to close due to COVID-19 (Coronavirus), we thought at first that we’d reopen after two-weeks as that is what the authorities had told us at the time. Of course, the situation developed significantly. The decision was almost instantaneous that teaching and learning would not stop. Huge amounts of energy were expended in those early days and weeks from all teachers and staff, so careful to get this right. There was a real desire from all teachers to have ‘business as usual’ not only so students didn’t fall behind, but so that the sense of routine and familiarity might help anchor them in a world that was turning upside down. Parents were anxious about their children receiving the usual level of education, and our pastoral teams spent many hours working with parents too, helping them find the balance between family life and their child’s learning. Parents have since sent in so many lovely comments, full of encouragement and thanks. We now have such rich data about each individual child at our fingertips through online learning platforms as a result of this situation and the work of the pastoral teams. I can’t see us going back from that level of granularity when we eventually return to normal. “We went through some very challenging times with very emotional and scared students and parents. Very frequent updates and transparency of information from the IB, via email and Zoom forums, were key.”

‘Learning 4.0’ We issued our own online learning guidance before the term started in February, but have reviewed and reflected continuously, taking into account the student and parent feedback. Teachers and students adapted very quickly to using Microsoft Teams for learning provision, and most communication, and I can’t see us stepping back from that. We are now at ‘Online Learning 4.0’—our hybrid model of online learning. We are blending the advantages of government permission for students to return to campus with the challenges of still having many students and teachers trapped outside the country, unable to cross the closed borders. We found that there were mixed advantages and disadvantages to synchronous lessons (happening collaboratively and at the same time with a group of online learners and usually a teacher). But that students appreciated the connections with teachers through hearing their voices and seeing their faces. For teachers and students in European or North American time zones, we shifted towards a greater emphasis on small, chunked, specific tasks with a face and voice element. Demonstrations and feedback video elements were attached to lessons for asynchronous learning (happening at any time, not necessarily in a group but with teacher feedback) and some live components continued where time zones allowed, but usually not for whole lessons.

“We have always believed in inquiry-based and concept-based learning being more valuable than lecture-based teaching”

A scary time for students The most high-stakes challenge was for our Diploma Programme (DP) students, who were completing coursework tasks and preparing for examinations. We went through some very challenging times with very emotional and scared students and parents. Very frequent updates and transparency of information from the IB, via email and Zoom forums, were key. Practical and physical subjects were challenging. The IB Art Exhibition, for example, could not happen in a closed school. But we were able to find a gallery in the world-renowned 798 art district in Beijing, and we held a closed, virtual exhibition. This has been an awful time for everyone, but definitely a community builder. Our EdTech leaders, and leaders in the Dulwich group, were instrumental in building both processes and confidence, and our Government Relations and Operations teams have worked tirelessly throughout–in much more visible ways than normal. So, paradoxically, the whole community can see much more of each other despite most working and learning from home. This has increased the sense of loyalty and trust in one another.

Class of 2020 Graduation Photo, Dulwich College Beijing

Embracing new technology We have become masters at online and distance learning methods. Even the most technophobic teachers have embraced new tricks through necessity, and then had the confidence to progress to experimentation and innovation. We have always believed in inquiry-based and concept-based learning to be more valuable than lecture-based teaching, but this enforced period of asynchronous learning and seminar-style sessions—the big jump on the spectrum of the flipped classroom—has engendered belief within our parent body that learning takes place in many forms. In a culture where education is traditionally viewed quite conservatively, student-led, individualized learning, with more frequent short bursts of individualized communication with teachers, has been a real plus point for validating our educational philosophy as a school.

Phased reopening Shortly before publication, Beijing schools, including ours, were closed down once more by the authorities. But we were able to enjoy a brief and partial reopening before the latest disruption. Our graduating DP two class were first to return, in time to take part in online ‘externships’ provided by the Dulwich College International group in preparation for their next move in life, and to say goodbye to each other. Externships are training programmes offered by educational institutions and private businesses to give students brief practical experiences in their field of study. Year 10 were the next cohort to be permitted to return by the authorities, and they were the first to experience our ‘Learning 4.0’ hybrid model, followed by the rest of our school. A rigorous process of app-based health certification, survey completion and temperature checks means that there is a new routine for arriving at school. Of course, the level of cleaning and disinfecting of the school has risen visibly, and teachers are becoming accustomed to carrying out temperature checks during the day. Our first call for each returning year group has been to reconnect and reflect. Children of all ages have experienced great anxiety and an unsettled world, and many may have experienced trauma and grieving. Allowing space to acknowledge and validate feelings, and learn how to be together again, is more important than delivering a curriculum in the first days back.

Changes that are here to stay The benefits of some online textbook platforms have become so entrenched that it would be very difficult to justify removing those. We ran a number of virtual information evenings and parent-teacher-student conferences, and these were very well received and actually more efficient in the transmission of information, so we aren’t in a hurry to abandon them. Other initiatives were launched to make the best of this situation, for example, the year 11 pre-DP year enjoyed a two-week online induction to the DP including a theme-based inquiry in each of their chosen subjects. We were able to bring this together into one giant online theory of knowledge (TOK) lesson, which students responded enthusiastically to. I suspect the big jump along the flipped classroom spectrum will never fully reset, as students, parents and teachers have all seen the great value in trusting independence and greater personalization of learning and feedback on a much larger scale than before. The value of the predicted grade this year, and the increasing realization from students and parents that this was based on the whole two-year programme of learning, will be positive. I intend to use the backwash effect of this to promote learning for learning’s sake, and to highlight why a grade focus is not the healthiest strategy.


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