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SCHOOL MANAGEMENT SERIES
COVID-19 AND ONLINE LEARNING (Feb 2022)
COVID-19 AND ONLINE LEARNING
Can we learn something from Covid-19 and online learning?
Yes, we can.
When I was in my first year of secondary school, our Biology teacher won my prize for boredom and monotony. The only thing I can remember from the class was the topic about amoeba. For those who are not familiar with living creatures, an amoeba is a cell which can alter its shape. Congratulations to those classmates who had made into medical school and become doctors. For me, with regret, I had lost interest in biological science at the age of 12.
One day, our Chemistry teacher told us we would be moving the class to the school laboratory. I had never gone to the school lab before, and I was excited and ready to line up with my classmates to march forward to our “new” classroom. We sat in rows, breathing in strange chemicals, and it was a booster for me to take interest in science when the teacher started to use the Bunsen burner to burn sulphur for us to see. (Oops, now I found out once sulphur is burnt, a toxic gas called sulphur dioxide is created; so please don`t try it at home!)
I think I know why I was making efforts in paying attention in my chemistry lesson that day. It was indeed a change of environment from a classroom setting to that of a laboratory setting. On reflection, I might have changed my academic path to that of a scientific one if I was given the chance to wear a white gown and put on some gloves or protective face shield.
After I became an overseas student, I came to realize that classroom setting did have a positive influence on my interest in a certain subject. One day, our English teacher told us we would be having class in the open. It was a sunny day, and we were all sitting on grass and under apple trees, learning Shakespeare. That was quite an experience, and although we were probably slightly distracted by the singing birds and an occasional fur-covered small animal (called a skunk) running around, we were more engaged in our class than ever before.
Weren`t we all excited when the schools were informing parents that our children would be having their classes online when the pandemic began. No doubt, the home is always the most relaxed environment in which a child can be. Your children will get the warmth and feel secure when their parents are around. Although our children are supposed to pick up the school curriculum with the same degree of concentration and effort while learning online at home, inevitably there will be distractions of all sorts. Someone might knock on your door to make a delivery, someone`s phone may be ringing, your neighbour`s dog may be barking, etc. I bumped into a parent the other day at the supermarket with her child, I was not amused to learn that she was telling me that her child needed “a break from all those zoom classes.” I don`t blame the parent, we all need a break, but we also need to abide by class schedules and to follow school rules. Other than languages, mathematics, history, geography and the like, children are sent to school to also learn discipline and to behave themselves, so that when they grow up they will become law abiding citizens.
We can easily envisage that some students have begun to develop behavioural changes while being away from school for a long time. When the pandemic is under control, and when schools are open again for face-to-face learning, it won`t be a surprise to find students having all kinds of behavioural problems that might affect their learning capacity and other classmates as well.
“(Students) coming back to school after an unplanned absence have been in different environments, with different expectations for their behavior. Hence, a strong focus on re-teaching and modeling expected school behaviors will help to re-establish and maintain a school culture where students can expect to see prosocial behavior from their peers…in the building.”1
“Students experiencing trauma, such as public health crises…may have been exposed to unpredictable schedules, inconsistent supervision…desperately need school to be their safest … and most positive setting…”2
This time round, students are not returning to school from the usual long hot summer holidays, they are returning from a health-related crisis! Wouldn`t it be a great idea for schools to consider making changes to their classroom setting when their students return to face-to-face learning? Most of our schools have a traditional classroom setting with tables and chairs facing the teacher and the blackboard. When schools are ready to welcome students to return to their classrooms, students are shifting from a rather relaxed and casual home setting back to an uniform and disciplined school setting. Some students who have been away from school for a long period of time might find it difficult to adjust to this type of school setting? Teachers are faced with the burden of correcting students who misbehave, on top of their teaching duties.
“In a 2004 survey (in the United States), 75% of teachers noted that they would spend more time teaching and teaching effectively if they had less disruptive behavior in their classrooms…(As for students), disruptive behavior (e.g., speaking without permission, getting out of seat) often interferes with (their) engagement in the learning process.”3
“Environmental modifications are preventive, whole-class approach that may decrease chronic behavior problems, prevent behavior problems for students who are at risk, and allow children with minimal or no problem behavior to access learning without interruption.”4
While students are eagerly waiting to return to school whether to learn, to play or to interact with their classmates, or all of the above, schools have ample time to ponder and to make changes to their classroom setting to a more friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Adults and children are no different, we all like surprises. If a change of classroom setting can produce positive results, then why not.
I happen to have had watched a few episodes of a television series which feature changing people`s homes literally overnight from a place with old furniture, darkened rooms, and a tiny kitchen to a place of modern furniture, sunlit rooms and a functional kitchen. You can easily imagine the facial expression of proud homeowners with smiling faces, raised eyebrows and an imaginary gleam of bright light on top of their heads.
So, an invitation to all headmasters and principals: for the betterment of both teachers and students alike, what about making changes, whether temporarily or permanently, and let your “patrons” share some freshness and excitement and have something to look forward to early in the morning when they start their journey to school:
“(1) Design classroom layout to facilitate the most typical instructional activities (e.g. small groups, whole group…)
(2) Arrange furniture to allow for proximity and smooth teacher and student movement
(3) Consider unique student needs and ensure accessibility
(4) Post visuals that support critical content and learning practices (e.g. word walls…) and reflect diversity of the classroom community.” 5
David Tai-Wai Lam, JP
1. K. McIntosh and others, Getting Back to School after Disruptions, PBIS TA Center, 2020
3. C. Guardino and E. Fullerton, Changing Behaviors by Changing the Classroom Environment, (CEC) Teaching Exceptional Children, 2010
5. Supporting and Responding to Students` Social, Emotional, and Behavioral needs: Evidence-Based Practices for Educators, Center on PBIS, University of Oregon, 2022
The Man with a Whipping Cane (April 2021)
SCHOOL MANAGEMENT –
The Man with a Whipping Cane (April 2021)
We could hear him coming. There were five classrooms on each level of the school building, and our classroom was at one end of the corridor. By the time he had walked past the first two classrooms at the other end, we knew he was coming with his whipping cane. He would be whipping the rattan-made stick against his own body with enough force to enable students as far as our classroom to be able to hear he was coming, and yet he would not have hurt himself. Perhaps it was the clerical gown he was wearing, in a loose and floppy fit, that had created a buffer which would absorb some of the force he imposed on himself. By the time he reached our classroom, if there had been a problem with any one of us, it would have been a “memorable” day for you. He didn`t have to consult the teacher in the classroom, he would have known that the student who was left standing alone outside the classroom and inside the long and quiet corridor must have done something really wrong. If he was in good mood, you would be spared the cane. Otherwise, you would be bound to regret to have shown such behavior in the classroom minutes ago that had led the teacher to literally kick you out. Who was he? He was our headmaster.
Did the caning work? It might have. But that was decades ago, and corporal punishment was still considered the norm for correcting student behavior.Corporal punishment is now almost unheard of in Hong Kong. It is against the law. Regulation 58 of the Education Regulations says: “No teacher shall administer corporal punishment to a pupil.”1 In a report prepared by the United Nations, the Committee on the Rights of the Child defined corporal punishment as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause som degree of pain or discomfort, however light.”2 It goes on to say that most corporal punishment “involves hitting …children , with the hand or with an implement – a whip, stick, belt …etc.”3
Let us now talk about Burrhus Frederic Skinner. What has he to do with the caning of students? Maybe so. Skinner would have advocated the opposite to punishment in a school setting. In our university days, Skinner was a “household” name in our psychology classes. The principles and theories of B. F. Skinner were widely read by us as students who were studying psychology. Some of us went on to pursue a doctorate degree, and became psychologists, but I didn`t, with some regret.
Skinner believed in “operant conditioning”, and within this theory, he had two magic words, namely, “punishment” and ‘reinforcement”. “The main difference between the two…is that the effect of punishment involves the suppression of a behavior rather that the strengthening of it as in reinforcement…”4
Needless to say, our headmaster, with the whipping cane, was looking to “punish” a student who had been misbehaved. “Punishment does not guarantee that a child knows the appropriate behavior to display in the particular situation. Additionally, students who are punished by being sent out of a classroom are actually in a way reinforcing the problem behavior…”5
In the context of operant conditioning, reinforcement “involves the presentation of a pleasant stimulus or the withdrawal of an unpleasant stimulus as a consequence of behavior…(Reinforcement) increases the probability that a response will occur”6, that is, for example a praise from the teacher.
This well respected psychologist B. F. Skinner has therefore paved the way for the development of Positive Behavior Support. “It has … been realized that in order to most effectively deal with problem behaviors, children need to be taught how to act and the appropriate way to act, rather than simply confirming and pointing out that they are behaving badly and punishing them for doing so.”7. “In recent years, many schools have been moving towards employing more positive means of dealing with problem behavior through the use of positive behavior support, after it has been shown that punishment, which had commonly been used as the most widely used technique of dealing with problem behaviors, may actually do more harm than good.”8.
My memory also brings me back to some decades ago when I saw my uncle punishing a student in a school. My uncle created this school on Hong Kong island. He had a passion to become a good educator, and had hired some of the best teachers in town. Although there was already a headmaster, my uncle assumed a supervisory role in the management of the school. You could easily see my uncle`s office, because he didn`t want to hide himself in a big and cozy room, he tore down a wall and replaced it with a huge piece of glass. The effect was that my uncle would see things outside his office, and most importantly everyone was able to see him caning any student of having unwelcome behavior.
In North America, behavior scientists call the student`s visit to my uncle`s office as an Office Discipline Referral or simply “ODR”. It is arguable that physical punishment would have any long-lasting deterrence effect. What I know is that even now the punishment which I witnessed is still vividly clear in my memory. I saw my uncle raising his hand about a foot high and then whipping the cane onto the student`s palm. Shucks, it must have been painful, and I can imagine that the punishment did give the student something that he did not forget for many years.
In order to sum up my advocacy for positive behavior support, it`s been said that “positive behavior support programs provide an alternative to the use of punishing methods such as suspension and expulsion.”9 “Additionally, what is unique about positive behavior support programs is that they do not focus solely on those individuals with problem behaviors, but rather focus on the entire school climate and allow schools to examine why problems are occurring on a larger scale.”10
David Tai-Wai Lam, JP
1 Laws of Hong Kong, Education Regulations, Cap. 279
2 to 3 United Nations` Report of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2008
4 to 10 kristinhricko.weekly.com (Skinner`s Theory of Operant Conditioning as seen Through Positive Behavior Support)
The boy who climbed out of the window (June 2021)
SCHOOL MANAGEMENT –
The boy who climbed out of the window (June, 2021)
One day, I was driving near a school. It was a red light, so the car stopped. What I was about to see on my right side made my heart pumping. I saw a young boy at the age of about 10 having climbed out of a classroom. He was standing on a stretch of concrete, holding onto the exterior part of the classroom window, and with his back facing the ground three storeys below. About half a dozen of students appeared in the windows, some trying to grab hold of him, and some shouting “don`t do it, don`t do it”.
Where was the teacher? Has the teacher gone for help? Probably so, because the police had not arrived, nor had the ambulance. I couldn`t have done anything to help, I was not within the school compound. Even if I was at the school building, I wouldn`t have known how to handle such serious situation. Owing to the traffic conditions at that time, my only choice was to drive away when the lights turned green. I didn`t feel good for the rest of the day, until I heard no news about the incident, then I realized the student was alright.
What has triggered the event? Was there a bullying incident that had taken place? Was there someone else in the class whose behavior had caused the student to almost loose his life, or to suffer a major injury. It didn`t look like the student had planned the incident, it looked like it was out of impulse. Something must have been happened inside the classroom. I don`t think the teacher had anything to do with it because if the teacher was there, he or she would have prevented the student to climb out of the classroom.
Bullying is defined as “aggressive behavior intended to hurt another individual, physically, mentally, or emotionally.”1 The boy didn`t look like he was being beaten at all. He looked scared, he was trying to escape from something. There was no other way for him to go, except out of the window, not even through the classroom door. But this could be all speculation from me. There might be another reason for the boy to have climbed out of the classroom.
Assuming there was a bullying incident, the methodology of Positive Behavior Support would help both the “bully” and the “victim”. The behavior issues of the “bully” would be addressed, and the ways for the “victim” to confront a bully would be taught. “Positive Behavior Support not only solves the problem in a dramatic moment but also prevents the moment, teaches skills to redirect the moment, defuses the moment, prevents the moment from repeating ...”2
Having studied the subject of bullying in school for a while, I venture to say that a bullying incident is not only an individual problem involving the “bully” that is the person who asserts the aggression against the other person, it can be argued that it is also the problem of the school.
By promoting the proper school culture, and by creating the proper classroom environment, it will promote positive behavior among students. “Building meaningful and genuine relationships with and among your students is an essential aspect of creating a learning environment that supports their learning and promotes their positive classroom behavior...”3
It is easy to adopt a policy, but implementation requires the school`s commitment and the support of the staff. I remember when we were students in secondary school, we were given the choice to join different interest groups; we had the Boy Scouts, Astronomy Club, Camera Club, Soccer, etc. Each interest group was headed by a teacher. It was in those extra-curricular activities outside the classroom setting where students were given an opportunity to talk to our teachers, share the interest in the subject with the teachers, and let the teachers know them better, and ultimately there was some sort of bonding between the students and the teachers. As I had a great interest in photography, I did gain the respect from some of the teachers which boosted my morale.
It is understandable that teachers in certain schools may have a busy agenda, trying to meet the school`s curriculum and convey the learning materials to the students, thereby there can hardly be any time left within the classroom to build any meaningful relations with their students. Hence, if extra-curricular activities are available, better relations between teachers and students can be achieved.
Once there is trust in the teachers, students will become more motivated to learn when the setting is changed back to the classroom.
You will find the school`s vision and mission on some of the school websites.
Accompanied with the vision and mission, there would be pictures showing the school`s beautiful campus and the enthusiastic teachers with highly motivated students by their side. An example of the vision and mission would be:
“Our school will foster an environment to nurture individuals academically, socially, and emotionally so that they are equipped to tackle academic challenges and become productive members of society.”4
Having a team of teachers supporting the school in creating the right learning environment should increase the students` interests in studying and reduce the opportunity of unwanted behavior of students like bullying. Hopefully, with a systematic framework like Positive Behavior Support in place, or any other methodology which works, schools can achieve their vision and mission, parents will be pleased, and most importantly students will be equipped to face different challenges in life.
David Tai-Wai Lam, JP
2 Positive practice framework, A guide for behaviour support practitioners, Health and Human Services, Victoria State Government.
3 Creating a Classroom Environment That Promotes Positive Behavior, pearsonhighered.com
4 79 Examples of School Vision and Mission Statements, Chris Drew PhD, helpfulprofessor.com.