Beliefs and assumptions

Photo by Katarzyna Grabowska on Unsplash

As teachers in NZ this week begin connecting with their students remotely the biggest challenge for many will be confronting the assumptions that implicitly shape and inform what they do as teachers. Among the many great stories of the preparatory work being done by educators around the country ahead of this week’s activity, I’ve also heard concerns that reflect the uncertainty in some people’s minds about the perceived limitations of working remotely in this way – which there undoubtedly are – but not always in the ways we might imagine.

In a regular, face-to-face classroom situation there is so much that we take for granted because of our physical presence with our learners – something they take for granted also. The physical presence of the teacher – and of other students – in face-to-face classrooms underpins many of the planning assumptions we make for that context. It’s been the predominant paradigm that we’ve all grown up with, and have come to implicitly ‘trust’ and rely on. Further, our embedded assumptions lead us to assume that this approach is actually working… for everyone.

Earlier this week I heard of a school in Australia who have begun working remotely with their students. The school is a private school with a high level of tradition in the way it operates. Students at that school are required now to be ‘present’ and online for 6 hours a day to receive ‘instruction’ from their teachers. Not only that, but they must be dressed in their uniforms when on the video sessions, and their teachers also must be professionally dressed (i.e. suits and ties) as they are when in the face to face setting. I share this not to make a judgement, but to illustrate how the beliefs we hold and assumptions we make about what is important and what will work to make our teaching and learning effective are the things that define our practice, and these things come into sharp focus at times like this when we are forced to work in different ways.

Remote or distance education, by definition, focuses on the physical separation of teacher and learner, and requires us to think differently about many of these assumptions. It can be a challenge for some to even consider being able to ‘teach’ a class remotely, when you are no longer physically present, able to ‘feel’ the mood of the room and sense when learners are struggling etc.

Consider the assumptions (and underpinning beliefs) highlighted in the following table when comparing face to face teaching with teaching and learning at a distance:

 Face-to-face teaching and learningDistance teaching and learning
StrengthsFamiliar to most.
Established ‘ways of doing and being’.
Teacher physically present and able to monitor and respond quickly.
Support available from peers.
Great for practical, collaborative activities.
Access to a range of physical materials and resources.
Ability to discuss, role-play, debate in real-time in presence of others.
24/7 access to online content and resources
Able to study in a space they feel most comfortable.
Able to study at the pace that suits them.
Ability to provide multiple points of engagement through instructionally designed content.
Ability to ‘re-wind’ learning – time for reflection and review.
Flexibility (for both student and teacher) to choose a mutually convenient time to meet.
WeaknessesTimetable constrains how long we can devote to any topic or activity.
Whole class teaching fails to cater for individual differences.
Teacher presence doesn’t automatically mean learning is occurring.
Individual student concerns can disrupt the learning of the rest of the class.
Requires higher level of independence on the part of the learner.
Lacks immediacy of teacher support as in a face to face setting.
Distraction and drop-out.
Requires access to technology and digital skills.  
Can feel less ‘personal’.
Focus on transmission of and engagement with ‘content’ in lieu of ‘teaching’.

As you read the list of bullet points in each quadrant of the table above you’ll probably find yourself agreeing with some points, and disagreeing with others. This is because we know there is a great deal of variability in terms of what happens in face to face classrooms, just as there is a similar amount of variability in what happens at a distance and online. It’s impossible to generalise – and the things listed in the table are illustrative only, it’s not exhaustive.

The point of the table is to illustrate the sort of thinking you might apply to your own context – to consider the strengths and weakness of the style of programme and approach to teaching and learning that is typical of your classroom, and consider the particular beliefs and assumptions that lie behind these.

For each of these assumptions there’s a ”so what?” question to ask. If the assumption that is revealed is true, then what are the implications for the way we design learning – for distance contexts AND face to face contexts. This can be a particularly useful focus for professional conversations in our staff meetings and at the leadership level of school.

Unless these assumptions are made explicit then any planning or preparation you do for your online teaching is likely to be influenced, implicitly, by these pre-existing assumptions. And worse, if your underpinning beliefs anchor you in a particular set of assumptions, then there’s little likelihood of success if you are required to try something different.

This works both ways of course. There will be many whose established assumptions about the value of face-to-face teaching means that they will regard distance/online/remote learning as a ‘second best’ option, that is not capable of enabling learners to achieve at the same level. Others, dissatisfied with aspects of the current system, may wish to embrace the distance/online way of working with great abandon – and in the process neglect to accommodate the needs of those for whom home is not a suitable environment to learn in, or whose cultural beliefs or ways of knowing and being will require a great deal more consideration than simply ‘putting stuff online’ and getting them excited about participating in forums and video conferences.

So as we consider the challenge that lies ahead of us with teaching in a remote/distance context, let’s make at least a little time in our personal reflections and professional conversations to explore and unpack the beliefs and assumptions that underpin the way we’re working and the way we’re planning to engage with our learners through this time.

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