Conversations about the inevitability of schools fully reopening are welcome to many. However, families are also naturally concerned – not only about the potential risks of Covid-19 and a second wave, but also about what schools will look like in this ‘new normal’ and how this might impact the health, wellbeing and attainment of our children. Fundamentally, families, educators, and policymakers are questioning the potential impact of Covid-19 on learning, both now and in the future.

To consider this, Nevergrey directors Kate Robinson and Anthony Dunn spoke with Professor Stephen Heppell as part of this Learning from Home series. Professor Heppell is an expert in identifying and improving conditions for learning, and is the designer of the Learnometer – a device that monitors the physical environment of a classroom, including CO2, temperature, ambient noise, and light quality (amongst other aspects). His extensive research into optimum learning environments means he is wonderfully placed to advise on which conditions should be present for children to flourish as we move forward.

One safer option for when schools reopen is to introduce more opportunities for outdoor learning, the benefits of which are becoming widely recognised across the education community. Heppell is curious to explore this further – being outside has excellent lighting from the natural daylight and lower levels of CO2. It also creates opportunities to position learning activities in different ways, for self-directed learning, to learn from nature and explore subjects in an organic manner. While not all schools have access to safe outdoor spaces, the concept of outdoor learning raises the bigger point that in this Covid-19 era we need to begin looking for learning spaces that break away from traditional classroom set ups, and that many of these alternatives have their own pedagogical benefits that been discussed in progressive education communities for years. To see some more suggestions from Professor Heppell, read this manual he put together with the brilliant team at Learniture.

Professor Heppell has been impressed with the resilience of students and teachers alike, and how quickly children have not only grasped this ‘new normal,’ but have been able to elevate it in innovative ways. He gives examples of the educational gains we have made when learning from home, such as the opportunities for children to sink their teeth into topics in deep and meaningful ways, to explore their interests and identify their unique sparks and passions. He has also been impressed by students and teachers using video conferencing in creative and playful ways, making the most of the virtual nature of learning as they become more used to it. Another benefit has been the amount of mixed-stage learning that has taken place, such as siblings teaching and encouraging each other, which is incredibly powerful.

As well as the positives, Professor Heppell acknowledges that learning from home during school closures has raised significant equity concerns, and that it has not been beneficial for everyone. “Crisis schooling” during a pandemic is a very different scenario to choosing to home-school, which historically has been associated with higher-income families. Learning from home is particularly challenging when children are unable to make their home life fit in with their school’s requirements – if a child cannot use the computer at a particular time because their parents or siblings need it, or if there is no access to these technologies at home at all. Professor Heppell proposes an alternative approach, where learning fits in to the variety of lives that children are living at home, for example – providing the work and activities children should aim to complete each week along with a curated list of resources tailored to each individual group based on their unique circumstances, and then coming together once a week to celebrate the children’s accomplishments.

Building on this, Professor Heppell suggests there would be great advantages to bringing virtual learning back into physical schools as children return. The agility of the physical space partnered with the flexibility of online learning could be incredibly beneficial. Professor Heppell points out that many children are already using technology to connect globally and collaborate virtually, and that bringing this connectedness into a schools would have positive impacts on children’s learning.

"Bridge the gap between the world we live inand the world we learn in"

Professor Heppell feels that part of modernising education systems would be to bridge the gap between the world we live in and the world we learn in. This broken relationship has been so damaging to children all over the world, and we have a real in opportunity this Covid-19 reality to rebuild it. A further benefit would be to bridge home and learning spaces, so schools might increase the value they place on things that are happening at home by considering each child in a more holistic way.

Heppell warns that there will be a growing divide between schools who try to re-open and recreate learning as it was pre-pandemic, compared to schools who try to change their systems to be more flexible and modern. We owe it to our young people to embrace the individual in each of them, and as we begin to head back into the world we have a unique opportunity to question every aspect of it, especially how we educate, keeping in mind the legacy we are creating for generations to come.

In the wise words of Professor Heppell: ‘this generation of kids is going to mend the world with the learning they do – just you wait.’

Sir Ken Robinson, education and creativity expert, and the Nevergrey team have been speaking with families and education and parenting experts as part of Sir Ken’s global call out for stories, questions, concerns and insights around learning from home while schools are closed. This project brings us all together to share what has been working well when supporting and overseeing our children’s learning, and provides a platform for sharing some helpful resources and tips which might make things a little easier. To explore the Learning from Home hub, please click here