One of the many difficult things about enduring the COVID-19 pandemic is the damage to the social fabric. With the exception of hermits, human beings thrive in a social environment, so it is not surprising that being with other people also affects learning for adults and children alike.
An aspect that is difficult for everyone is the limited information we can get through screens. Unless there are 4 or fewer people involved, the size of each person’s face is teeny-tiny. It is difficult to read facial expressions (and forget it if they are wearing a mask). We can’t see the tiny eye and lip movements that provide us with a lot of information. Thus, nuances of meaning that signal humor or surprise or anger may be misinterpreted. If one looks away from the screen or if the audio is poor, learners may leave with a completely different understanding than what was intended. This is also true when only written words are present, as anyone who has had an email or text go off-track can attest. Also, hand and arm gestures often are not captured by the camera which limits another type of incoming information.
For kids, one aspect of education is learning to work and play with others. Teachers plan experiences for children where they learn to work cooperatively in groups and take on different roles, such as leader/facilitator, summarizer, note-taker, time-keeper, etc. As groups work, teachers circulate and gently suggest ways for each child to contribute to the group and fulfill their role. While it is possible to do group work online, the teacher’s observation/feedback role is severely curtailed.
The importance of observation cannot be overstated, both for students and teachers. Teachers constantly observe their students: facial expressions, body language, and behaviours. From these cues, teachers infer understanding, interpersonal relations, physical needs, motor capabilities, mood, and much more. They base lesson and break times, pacing, mastery of concepts or need for repetition or redirection, and disciplinary interventions on observation. Now think about doing that with 25 tiny pictures on a screen.
For students, observing the teacher provides them with feedback on their own academic performance and behavioural expectations. They can tell if they have answered a question correctly by the teacher’s facial expression and/or gestures, and if they are being encouraged to elaborate. Similarly, they take cues from the other kids. Does Jia look puzzled? Good, I am not alone. Igor was praised; I’ll do what he did.
Finally, the social aspect of life affects our emotions. Brains are wired for emotions, and strong emotions build strong memories. When students become excited about a learning experience, they remember the learning. Teachers craft learning experiences that excite children so that they will remember the lessons. It is more difficult to do this online.
To help learners of any age to negotiate this new social/emotional online world, here are a few suggestions:
- Verbalize what you mean when you change your expression.
- Observe kids interacting in person or online, and give them feedback on their way of working or playing with others.
- Find ways to make learning exciting and interactive—play an educational game, find some cool new video to watch together, or go outside in the real world and observe nature.
Written by Dr. Colleen Willard-Holt