Early Learners: In-School Inquiry on Blended Learning
The Early Years department (EY) and Primary Years Program (PYP) are situated on their own primary school campus serving Early Learners through grade 5. The focus of this inquiry was on the Early Years department which consists of 20 teaching staff serving 174 students.
Since the introduction of online learning the department has modified their systems and schedules to meet the evolving educational requirements and standards surrounding COVID-19 safety measures developed by the country’s Ministry of Education as well as Qatar Foundation’s Pre-University office. The Early Years department has implemented a blended learning program that serves their students in three ways: face-to-face, synchronous online, and asynchronous. For the purposes of this inquiry, face-to-face is when students are attending classes on campus with their teachers, while synchronous online sessions are “real-time” online classes remotely with their teachers, and Asynchronous engagements are times wherein students are provided with learning engagements to complete online and offline while off campus. All departments and staff.
During an on-site visit and tour of the school, it had been arranged that I meet and informally interview each stage of the Early years department. The tour of the school was an opportunity to see how the school environment had been adapted for learners, considering the restrictions placed on them due to COVID-19. The challenge of recent operational changes was where to store excess furniture, equipment and resources. Following the line of inquiry, I focused the interview questions on what was working well and what areas staff identified as still being a challenge.
According to the Kindergarten team, the priority was to ensure the ongoing emotional and mental well-being of their young students as they adapted to changes in their learning environments. Students were given opportunities to come together as a learning community through synchronous registration and story-telling times. Students were observed ‘playing’ together as they acted out a story, some present in class and others from their home.
Colleagues from Early Years 3 and 4 stages, shared their success in the creative use of the ‘Seesaw’ platform as a tool, exploring the range of functions to support student engagement. This was being received well by students and some parents.
Conversations with the Arabic department supported those successes shared by the Early Years colleagues; to quote ‘Flipped learning worked well when lockdown started.’ The Arabic team were confident in their use of apps and tools already in place for online learning. Data shows that through Ramadan the Arabic department had 90% or above attendance online.
When asked to consider and identify possible areas that were posing challenges, both Kindergarten and Early learners 3 colleagues, were questioning how best they could ensure ongoing, meaningful parental engagement and how to reconstruct and enrich relationships with young learners and their families. Early learners 4 colleagues were considering how to support student and parent understanding of blended learning.
The Arabic Department was considering solutions on how best to address parental concerns about coverage of the Arabic / Islamic curriculum as they move to blended learning.
The main themes that arose from these conversations were: communication methods and the compromise of young students’ social and emotional health and wellbeing especially within periods of transition.
The following recommendation is based on current research and inquiry and offers a practical and effective solution that supports the challenges of improving student learning in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent introduction of blended learning.
The staff highlighted two main themes to be actioned with immediate effect and with few resources (time/materials) needed:
Teacher interviews revealed concerns that staff had about their students' ability to flip between home and school-based learning and the fragility of relationships as they moved between both environments. It was highlighted that the ‘norms’ and ‘essential agreements’ established at the beginning of a new school year to support student health and well-being whilst developing understanding of the ways of working was being compromised. In a recent report, Doucet et al. (2020) highlight the importance of prioritizing health and wellbeing and the benefits of collaborative partnerships as well as the need to ensure appropriate resources are in place for both practitioners and learners. Social Stories are a simple and effective resource that can support students’ understanding of change, learn new patterns of behavior and support them through new experiences. (Michigan State University 2015).
Social stories are informative and engaging booklets for young students. Presented through simple text and picture prompts, students learn about behavioral norms, routines and expectations in an engaging and personalized way. This resource is simple to create and can be personalized to the individual student. The purpose of the social story is to build a shared understanding, skills in confidence and resilience to change. This skills-based approach enhances the student’s ability to develop as independent learners.
‘Moving through recovery, the curriculum should include a focus on promoting and developing skills that will increase children’s and young people’s skills in independent learning, as part of the blended learning approach.’ (Education Endowment Foundation).
Creating Social stories can specifically help students with:
Social stories should be written from the perspective of young students. Teachers create personalized stories using photos of the child, class, signs and symbols. Young students can literally see themselves in the story when they have a hand in helping to create it. Encourage parents to engage in the process by sharing photographs from home e.g. child sitting at home computer, pets, learning equipment.
Advantages of using social stories
Presenting a Social Story
Once the social story is created (English and Arabic language), it is introduced and read with the students. The students then take ownership of their own social story, which is revisited and re-read by Teachers, IA’s, Parents, Guardians and other students. Asking probing questions. “How do you think it feels?”, “What could you do?”, allows the student to think about the content and gives them an opportunity to make their thinking and new understanding visible. Social stories can be readily shared with parents and students on familiar platforms e.g. Seesaw, already used in the school. Doucet et al (2020) highlight that good communication between home and school is essential and never more so, that at this time.
Examples of Social Stories
Doucet, A. Netolicky, D. Timmers, K. and Tuscano, F.J, (2020). Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic An Independent Report on Approaches to Distance Learning During COVID 19 School Closures Retrieved from: Click here.
The Education Endowment Foundation - Scottish Government - Education rel="noopener noreferrer" Report (22nd June 2020): Click here.
Michigan State University - Advantages, rel="noopener noreferrer" writing and presenting social rel="noopener noreferrer" stories (June 2015): Click here.
Blended learning - A synthesis of research findings in Victorian education 2006-2011
Melbourne March 2012 ©State of Victoria
(Department of Education and Early Childhood Development)
Education Development Institute