Young People! Show yourselves!
Well, you know, just when you thought life couldn’t get any stranger, along comes another weird thing. My apologies if you already know this i.e. are a teenager, a teacher or – very possibly – a parent, but I’m just an old retired Headmaster trying to keep up with what’s going on in terms of education during the pandemic, and I sometimes get a bit left behind. All in all, I’m just delighted not to have any responsibilities regarding teaching just now, and I have the most sincere respect for colleagues everywhere as they try to do their best.
Anyhow, during the first period of online learning, you may recall that the delivery of ‘live’ lessons was very patchy. By this I mean an online lesson, delivered by Microsoft Teams or Zoom or Womble (one of these platforms is not real) where there is a teacher and a class, sort of like normal, except the personnel involved are all tiny wee squares. Because I’m old and out of touch, I assumed that most lessons would be like that, but they weren’t. Indeed, in some places – and this did my brain in – they weren’t even allowed, apparently for Child Protection reasons. So this meant that a lot of the teaching was of pre-recorded lectures, worksheets etc etc, which the young people dutifully got on with. Or not.
Now, my understanding is that in this second wave, there are a lot more ‘live’ lessons and that’s obviously a good thing. Except a very, very strange phenomenon has happened. Lots of young people, particularly older secondary pupils, aren’t allowing their teachers to see them – during the lessons they keep their cameras switched off – they can see the teacher but the teacher can only hear them, should they ever deign to say anything. And this, for reasons I can’t fathom, is allowed.
Now, completely honestly, when I was told this, I actually didn’t believe it. Why, why, why? It would be inconceivably dispiriting for the teacher, sitting there looking at black squares. Surely that couldn’t be allowed to happen? And then two things arrived on my Facebook feed – one a cartoon which showed a class with a primary teacher and a class with a secondary teacher. The primary class is having a jolly time showing the teacher their dad’s shoe, or introducing their gran, or eating crisps and the overall mood is very happy; the secondary teacher is saying ‘Is anybody there?’ while staring at a black screen. Then a wee video came – what is popularly known as a ‘meme’, I believe. In it an enthusiastic teacher says ‘Ok. I’ve planned a really interesting lesson’, but his screen too, is blank, and the only sound is Simon and Garfunkel singing ‘Hello, darkness, my old friend.’
Young people of Scotland, why would you do this? It’s rude, disrespectful, obstinate and lazy and just because you can do it doesn’t mean you have to! Apparently, it’s because ‘some young people’ don’t like to see their own image on a computer screen. Well, you know, my background is in pastoral care, and I might just accept that that might be true for three very sensitive kids in, say, the City of Edinburgh, but not whole classes across different schools. This is the generation of Snapchat and Instagram, young people existing, bless them, in a world where every opportunity for a selfie must be taken. That just simply doesn’t square with this – apparently widespread – refusal to let the teacher or the class see them on screen.
I think this would be a real slap in the face to an exhausted teacher: anecdotally I’m not sensing that teachers anywhere are having much fun anyway – there is great joy in teaching, but it so much depends on the day to day presence of colleagues and kids in your life. But even leaving the feelings of grown adults aside, not seeing the people in your class interferes with the teaching process itself on a massive scale. Differentiation – the capacity for a teacher to support each child individually in their learning – depends on a whole range of techniques but one of these is indisputably recognising the child’s level of understanding by seeing their face. And what about classroom management – or as we used to call it in the 19th Century – ‘discipline’? How many times in a day, using a quick word or a look, does a teacher ensure that a young person is fully focussed? How can they do that if they can’t see the individuals in their class? The efficacy of online learning is moot anyway; why is this further barrier being allowed?
I’ve heard all this nonsense about young people before – that they lack grit, or resilience, that they fall apart at the slightest trouble etc etc. I don’t really believe it’s true, so I don’t believe that lots of them can’t bear to be looked at. I think it’s more likely that, with the screen off, they can go to school in their jammies or have their breakfast, or text their friends, or – I use a euphemism – surf the internet. Or that they simply switch on their computer then disappear. Whatever they are actually doing, their appearance as a tiny black square isn’t helping them learn or helping their teachers believe that what they are doing is worth the effort. I hope that schools and education authorities take this particular and peculiar freedom away as soon as possible and that online classrooms can have at least some semblance of normality – and good cheer between class and teacher – while we all wait for the real school thing to happen again.