Artefacts of practice; learning in lockdown
Thirty years ago, I spent several summers as an unskilled archaeologist, scraping and wheelbarrowing sediment away from Roman and Bronze-age settlements to reveal hidden structures and to carefully retrieve artefacts of past daily lives. Pots and metal-wear paid testament to domestic scenes and were carefully excavated, gingerly removed and expertly stored and archived. Very few items became museum pieces; they were often one of thousands of similar remnants. However, each carefully labelled artefact was unique; each item being discovered in a specific location, in unique spatial and temporal associations with other items and structures.
The homeware, construction materials and military fragments were indicative of the practices of the past. They revealed evidence of what was commonplace at the time, detailing the skills of the people who lived and passed through each site, providing insights into their lifestyles, their roles and the relationships between them. On each site archaeology students worked alongside more experienced supervisors and site directors, learning new skills and engaging in conversation about what was emerging through their shared work. Questions were asked, hypotheses were shared and debated, and explanatory narratives were constructed.
Let us focus for a while on the strange and difficult times we are living through and what is rapidly emerging in our educational landscape. As children and young people are confined to their homes the expectations of how, what, where and when they should be learning are shifting rapidly. Their parents, carers and teachers are in new roles, with new responsibilities and altered co-dependencies. We know that the landscape is not even, we know that some will feel relatively fortunate in being able to grab new opportunities, but we also acknowledge the very real challenges we experience juggling multiple roles have escalated for many. Inevitably and rightly we worry about a widening attainment gap, and that’s in addition to deep seated concerns about children’s wellbeing, health and safety.
We know that schools have been reframing the ways that they enable and manage learning, but as this new reality came so quickly, we are even struggling to determine the language we use to describe it. Are we home-schooling, distance or online learning? Has learning been opened-up to new experiences, has it been made more inaccessible to some? How do we balance the demands of the formal curriculum, the opportunities for revising and consolidating what has already been taught, with the space that has become available for more creative informal learning? Education researchers are already working out how to capture this time, with rapidly constructed ethical approval leading to research projects which no-one would have even imagined possible or necessary a month ago.
Even without such research what we are seeing are new artefacts of practice emerging from this landscape. Some of these are the methods and objects of communication between schools and homes, often aiming to maintain continuity and create structure and a degree of normality for children and young people. Some of these have resulted from the opening-up of previously unmapped landscapes; children with unexpected time to fill and parents juggling their own paid work and responsibilities with their new roles in learning support and as supervisors. Much is being shared on social media, and as such is viewed far beyond the intended audience.
When a school publishes a home-schooling timetable for each day, uploads resources, links learners into webinars and determines ways that teachers will give feedback it is doing so because this maps onto the known territories of formal schooling. Many parents and young people are relieved to have a familiar structure offered to them, and others worry about the difficulties of more than one child with a parent working from home, with limited or no access to digital devices, all trying to stick to the timetables. A parent might express frustration at the unrealistic pressure they see exerted on their child in a home environment that a teacher isolated in their own home might not anticipate. For that parent and the teacher, the child has become the pressure point of a system that has not yet worked out how to respond to changing norms and expectations of families, organisations (such as schools) and society more generally.
A teacher might seem over-zealous or unempathetic, but it is likely that this is in part the result of an educational system anxious to maintain standards driven by relatively narrow measures and habitual scrutiny. That same teacher might be phoning round their tutor group and families ensuring pastoral care is offered and relationships are sustained.
The timetables, resources, phone calls and emails are not the whole story, but between them they offer insights into dominant narratives that have determined some of our first professional and personal reactions to this public health crisis. In archaeological excavations artefacts are prized because they reveal details of past lives. The artefacts of new learning practice do the same for our contemporary socially-distant lives and resulting dilemmas.
The wonder of social media, such as Twitter, is how quickly we can see new practices, new roles and new relationships emerging. We can readily see teachers reading stories to their classes via YouTube, freelancers using their unpaid-for time building new learning platforms to open new educational experiences, and blogs and newsletters published by school leaders to reassure anxious parents that health and wellbeing should be everybody’s priority. Shifting expectations and concerns result in communities within and beyond schools reshaping their work at urgent speed in this digital age. Each day brings another layer of interconnected and associated artefacts. They do not need to await a team of archaeologists from the future to become the source of learning about this time.
Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.