Taking stock of 2020: The impact of Covid-19 on learning

Cluey Chief Learning Officer, Dr Selina Samuels’ advice to parents in 2021

the impact of covid-19 on learning dr selina samuels
Cluey Learning Friday, 29 January 2021

2020 was an extraordinary time for us all. The disruptions to normal schooling impacted every Australian school child to varying degrees, and there has been constant debate amongst the media, leaders in the education world, parents and students alike as to what long-term impact this may have on an individual’s learning and the future of education in general.

There is also the uncertainty that 2021 brings. Will there be further lockdowns? How will this impact school and my child long-term? What will the impact of yet another rise in school closures have on their learning?

There have been different levels of approach and mitigation by state departments and schools. In Melbourne, where the biggest disruption to normal schooling took place last year, there were plans to strip back the curriculum in the short-term and focus mainly on the all-important core numeracy and literacy skills.

In partnership with the NSW Department of Education Cluey ran a pilot program to support disadvantaged students and to address learning gaps caused or widened by school closures. We provided selected students across 6 schools in-school online tutoring in Maths and English, working closely with teachers to ensure the sessions built on what the students were doing in class and providing comprehensive reports and feedback to maximise their learning.

What this program solidified even further for us was the benefit of focused attention and how important it is for students to be given the freedom to approach subjects and topics at their own pace – giving some areas additional attention if there are any gaps and if necessary, starting from the beginning to ensure they have a firm grasp of the content.

Feedback from both teachers and students confirmed that this more personalised approach is what helped to fill learning gaps and build confidence in students.

Below are our key observations last year in regards to the real impact of home learning on students during the pandemic. Cluey undertook student and parent research throughout to really get a read on how people were feeling during such an unprecedented time:

1. Many parents would have blocked this out, but they were overwhelmed… however, there were some benefits!

So much of our public discourse is understandably devoted to the health and economic impacts of Covid-19, however, for many families the biggest day to day transformation was home learning. Anxiety amongst parents rose as they struggled to support daily learning requirements, often for multiple children.

According to our national study, which surveyed parents of primary-aged children in April and May 2020 (when NSW, VIC and QLD were all in lockdown), a whopping 85 per cent of parents spent at least a couple of hours each day supporting their child’s home learning. Of that figure, 30 per cent of parents were dedicating their “whole day” to their child’s remote learning.  What’s more, when it came to teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills, more than one in five parents admitted they didn’t feel equipped to provide the necessary support.

However, there was a silver lining to this for many. Parents were clearly developing new insight into what their children are doing at school and how their children learn. In fact, 65 per cent of parents admitted that homeschooling has given them a better understanding of how their child learns. An unexpected benefit to this situation may well be a greater partnership between parents and teachers and a more open dialogue between parents and children when it comes to learning.

I know a lot of our new students during the pandemic were sent to us when parents noticed a core learning gap and/or were unable to help them through the problem themselves.

We often hear from parents that they turn to tutors or seek out extra educational support when they’ve been blindsided by their child’s report card, exam results or received unexpected teacher feedback. While this period has presented many challenges, it’s given parents a much deeper insight into what their child is learning at school and their learning gaps. And while schooling has been disrupted this year, parents now have a lot of observations to draw on to support their child’s learning moving forward.

2. The mode of home learning was a bit of a disadvantage for some…

A large majority of respondents to our survey indicated that while they were learning from home, the mode of learning delivery for their children was not in real-time, leaving the burden of live interaction and feedback to parents.

Our national survey revealed that Australian primary children were largely being educated  via asynchronous learning methods versus live teaching. Almost seventy per cent of parents say their child’s teacher was teaching via worksheets or pre-recorded classes.

However, in the right circumstances, I do argue that technology can and should bolster real-time interactions between students and teachers — a trend which only some children were lucky enough to experience during this period of isolation. When we initially developed our approach to teaching and learning at Cluey, we put the real time human connection between student and teacher at our core. We know that it is of paramount importance for all students to have at least some direct interaction with an educator, and to receive the personalised input and feedback that really fuels learning.

In fact, 48 per cent of those we surveyed believe their child likes or even loves online learning. With the normalisation of working from home and utilising technology to remotely do one’s job, this early exposure can be viewed as beneficial to your child’s future. I know many adults who struggled with adapting to this new world order too!

3. And lastly a note on the impact on senior students…

We know from last year that school disruptions had a major impact on our senior students and those gearing up to be senior students, with over 90 per cent agreeing it was a stressful time.

Study habits were also affected, with the majority of students admitting they were “studying less” as a result of COVID-19. It turns out that it’s not just younger students who are struggling with at-home learning. More than half of senior students said they found at-home learning “difficult” compared to learning at school. Almost 50 per cent said they were considering or planning to engage additional learning support such as online tutoring, in addition to the work their school was providing. The majority agreed this was because they needed more 1-to-1 support.

Over the course of 2020, I advised students to use this as a unique opportunity to build resilience by learning how to manage stress. If students can adapt to these changing circumstances, explore ways to connect with their teachers via video or email and be resourceful enough to find the information they need online, they’ll find that not only do they have a brilliant story to tell during future job interviews, but that they’ll approach everything else in life with just a little more confidence.

And, there is no indication from the ATAR results that the Class of 2020 had been adversely impacted overall by the consequences of the school closures in terms of their final marks, at least.

So, the golden question – how will such a turbulent 2020 be felt this year?

First off, this will vary from child to child. Some would have sailed through, finding keeping up with the learning momentum and curriculum fairly easy and are on-track to tackle 2021. On the other end of the spectrum, 2020 stopped some students in their tracks. Whilst some were beginning to fall behind pre-COVID and this only exacerbated their learning gaps, others who were seemingly on track really struggled to adapt to the new way of learning. 

One of the key findings to emerge from COVID has been the positive impact of tutoring, both 1:1 and in small groups.  Evidence for Learning – one of the most thorough and well-respected aggregators of educational research – has confirmed that tutoring is a key intervention for all students, delivering on average between 4 and 5 months of progress to students who participate. The international research supporting the value of tutoring was also behind the Grattan Institute report which advocated for governments and education departments to support tutoring as a way to address learning loss through Covid, and, indeed, generally.

So, we feel very well-placed to provide the sort of support that families need as they face the new – and hopefully much less disrupted – year.

Many parents would have had conversations with their child throughout 2020 to check in with them and see how they were feeling about the change in circumstance and the impact on their education. You may find that the summer holidays (regardless of how out of the ordinary they were) acted as a cleanser, allowing you and your family to take stock of the year and empowering your kids to approach a new year with more motivation and gusto.

Before school goes back or at the start of the term, parents should revisit last year with their child and ask them about how they’re feeling about term 1. Although it might be hard to remember, ask them if there were any subjects or topics in 2020 they feel apprehensive about. This is a great way to start an open dialogue about the effects COVID may have had on the previous year and hopefully make them feel supported at the commencement of the year.

After a topsy turvy year and a 2021 which could (hopefully not) bring some more uncertainty, these are Selina’s top tips to starting the year off strong, regardless of what’s transpiring:

  1. First of all, I want to remind you how resilient children are. If they really struggled last year, all is not lost and although it didn’t seem like it at the time, adapting to a new way of doing things is generally good for kids and something they can draw on in the future.
  2. If your child is struggling with a subject, more attention and practice at home is a great way to solve it. Again, sitting down for even just a portion of homework time to go over something until it’s embedded is a great start. Make this a habit from the beginning of term 1 so it feels like you’re starting afresh with a new approach. You can always ask your child to teach the subject to you – that way you will be able to gauge their level of understanding without having to be the educator yourself.
  3. If you notice they’re really struggling with a subject or concept early on in the year, there’s no harm in revisiting last year’s textbooks/curriculum to try and pinpoint where they may have started to fall behind. Thrown out or donated last year’s textbooks? Many exercise books at the newsagency are mapped to the curriculum so you can easily access last year’s topics – there are also some great online resources. Yes, you may get some resistance with this (!!!) but you may find your child can easily tackle the earlier, easier concepts and you both come to the topic where they began to fall behind and go from there. This helps create a level of confidence and rapport.
  4. Practice and commitment are key – make sure you’re checking in at regular intervals. If time is flying by and you have a million priorities (like we all do) set a diary alert to remind you – there’s no harm in trying and it will feel like a natural conversation to your child if done regularly.
  5. If something is really concerning you, there’s no harm in alerting their teacher so a bit of extra attention can be given. One of the benefits of COVID was to open up more collaborative interaction between parents and teachers – it’s a good idea to keep this going into the new year.
  6. If you found last year particularly tough and your child is really struggling in term 1 despite trying the above tactics, it might time to start considering additional learning resources like tutoring for some one-to-one attention from a subject-matter expert.
  7. And, of course, if you feel that your child’s anxiety is out of proportion to the learning challenges that they are encountering, you should always consult your GP as a first port of call.

Probably the most vital point I want to raise is the importance of leading by example. It is imperative for parents to exhibit positive attitudes towards school subjects and make sure you never say, “I was never any good at Maths.” Parents’ attitudes significantly impact their children and negativity can be contradictory to children developing the ‘can-do’ mind-set

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