A ‘learning buzz’ in the virtual learning world

I recently wrote about missing the sense of, ‘a learning buzz‘, during these times where many of us have moved to virtual learning spaces. It made me wonder, how can you generate a ‘learning buzz’ in this virtual space? It of course would be fruitless and frustrating to try to copy and past the same approaches into an online space – context matters and what works in one will not necessarily work in the other. However, whilst the ‘learning buzz’ may not look and feel the same, how would we define this in an online space I wondered? What opportunities might there be? How do we adapt our learning environments?

Learning, teaching and leading in an inquiry based, PYP School, one of our challenges has most definitely been honouring the values of our learning and teaching principles. Despite pressures faced, focusing on our beliefs and values to foster curiosity and inquiry at the heart of our daily approach to learning.

This prompted me to refer to the PYP guidance on creating learning environments and think about the different elements that are defined as going into cultivating these and intentionally exploring how these evolve.

‘PYP learning spaces affect and reflect values and beliefs about learning. They play a role in shaping the culture of the learning community by facilitating certain ways of acting and interacting. They support a constructivist and social-constructivist (Vygotsky 1978) approach to learning and teaching. They are multifunctional, emphasizing personalization of learning, promoting independence and engagement.’

My IB – Connecting pedagogy and design

So how do we nurture that magical ‘learning buzz’ in whatever context we are in?

This diagram shows the elements I believe contribute to enabling a ‘learning buzz’ to flourish and as a way to illustrate what this could look like in a classroom or school community. I use the word ‘enable’ intentionally as this learning buzz is not something any one person can create but from my perspective is about letting this have space to flourish and blossom. Below are some examples I made connections to from experiences during Distance Learning at my School. I would love to know of others that you may have to get further inspiration!

Sense of being ‘me’

Finding space for individuality to be celebrated and to bring community together in an inclusive way is so important. During lockdown we could not run our Home Language Program as usual so we made this into a community event. We created an interactive map of where we feel at home for everyone to anonymously share, shared our languages through poems and sayings and students (and adults if they wanted!) created Language Portraits. This was all done virtually through a live stream assembly and recorded activities and video calls.

Shared Values & Understandings

Making sure to share beliefs and values with community ensures learning is effective, and it can be done in a fun, informative way! We made a series of video clips to remind everyone about online meeting etiquette and created Community fact sheets with our rules and essential agreements reflecting our Community Values in the virtual learning space.

Rituals & Routines

Rituals and routines are part of every learning environment, of every school community; whether it be a morning greeting, check in circle, or roles and responsibilities that are assigned to the class each week. These all form part of a shared classroom culture. In the online space, we saw morning check in circles often replaced with a morning prompt in the chat in MS Teams, a way for everyone to say hello and connect before starting their learning day. Or for the younger grades, a morning video message. I also observed the beauty of new rituals or routines forming – a favourite way to end a call in one of 6th grade classes for example, has now become an embedded ritual for the class to say goodbye!

Teachers found ways to adapt roles of responsibility also in the virtual space, assigning chat moderators in video calls for examples or continuing to use hand signals in video calls to show agreement/disagreement/ connection/questions and so forth. We also tried to keep to our regular school assembly schedule and routines to bring everyone together as part of our regular routine.

Purpose and relevance

Ensuring learning is purposeful, challenging and relevant for all students became ever more complex in a distance learning world where differentiation strategies and the ease of interaction between teachers, students and peers is more challenging. Finding ways to engage in learning with materials and experiences at home, ensuring learning engagements are open ended and encourage further student led inquiry all can help ensure that learning remains purposeful and relevant for the individual. We had great examples with students carrying out science experiments, building machines, testing theories and recording their experiments as learning evidence.

Interaction – Dialogue

Here are some examples of teachers finding ways to promote interaction and dialogue using tools such as Padlet to share in online lessons. We also used Padlet to encourage interaction within our community too, with the song sharing and virtual arts day as some examples!

Fun & Connection

Bringing community together through shared events and having fun together! We celebrated Earth Day, Sports day and other events together and brought a bit of fun to lockdown life. I feel fortunate to work with such a dedicated, fun team!

Love for the Learning Buzz!

What have I missed most over the past months of school life? We have been roller-coasting through school closure – distance learning – hybrid learning – back to school – quarantining – distance learning.

There are many things – but my first reaction was ‘There‚Äôs a learning buzz’. 

If I asked you to describe what an optimum learning space looked like when students are engaged in learning, what would you envisage? Would it be students sitting diligently at their desks writing in their notebooks? Would it be quiet? Would it have an atmosphere of excitement? Of calm? Of fun? Of concentration? Of questions? Of noise? Perhaps a whole melange of the above and more!

If I had had to answer this question 20 years ago, I would probably have included adjectives such as calm, hard-working, learning-focused, and organized.  Now, I feel as though I have a completely different answer. In my experience, the classroom that may appear at times bustling, busy, noisy and ‘out of control’, may indeed be the complete opposite.  If you scratch beneath the surface the classroom in which the teacher has most ‘control’ and in which students are the most engaged learners tends to be one where activity is busy, can be chaotic and conversations are fast-paced with questions and ideas flowing.

To clarify – I am not talking about a scene where students are running all over the classroom and the teacher is straining to be heard. No, I am talking about that type of learning buzz that gets noisy, where there is laughter and chatting and everyone is working their own way at their own pace. ‘Classroom management’ and ‘control’ of the classroom are terms that I am not fond of. A classroom space, a learning environment, is not in my opinion one that is best forcibly controlled, but one that is nurtured – a space that allows everyone to stretch their minds, feel safe, and find freedom. This allows students to engage and truly deepen their learning through activity choice, discussion, debate, and reflection of well constructed questions.

Often, when I have visited a physical classroom space just for fifteen minutes, and especially during a time of transition, this provided a wonderful opportunity in just a short space of time to develop an understanding of the particular culture and personality in this classroom. I really do believe that classes form their own distinct personality and develop their unique culture.

In the best cases I observed a hive of activity. So much so that the teacher did not even notice I had joined the classroom. Students were navigating the room focused on routines whilst still chatting about the learning they had just completed. The teacher used a multitude of ways to incorporate reflection, incorporate choice, refocus the students, and all whilst giving students an opportunity to also ‘take a break’. On occasions, when you have the pleasure of visiting a classroom like this, you can feel the cohesiveness of a group and how there truly is a ‘learning buzz’ in the room. 

This is what I have missed the most. It leads me to the question – how do we find ways to develop a community culture and ‘learning buzz’ in online virtual classroom communities?