2020: An Extraordinary Year in Education

How has Covid-19 changed the way teachers teach and children learn in Singapore? WhichSchoolAdvisor.com talks to educators and students from international schools to share what 2020 has meant to them… and what they think 2021 will hold.
2020: An Extraordinary Year in Education
By Carli Allan
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What a year it has been – one none of us could’ve predicted. After a period of school closures, there’s a new normal in education where children can no longer sit side by side to work through a task or take part in physical activities that involve close contact. Group events such as assemblies and parent-teacher conferences are held online. There are temperature checks at the school gates, hand sanitisers in every classroom, and even stricter controls over who enters campus.

As we near the end of 2020, we ask principals, teachers and students at international schools across Singapore to reflect on what has been the most extraordinary year in education.

In a year where schools closed, learning moved online, and campuses reopened with social distancing measures, what were the biggest challenges you faced?

Martin Schmitt, secondary school teacher, GESS: "When we initially moved to home-based learning, from a teaching perspective, it was a challenge to supervise learning processes directly. Usually, in a classroom setting, teachers can quickly realise it when a student has difficulty with tasks, learning material etc. In a home-based learning environment, it is more challenging to have the same level of awareness of students’ experiences and to follow up on each student and provide individualised support.

"However, I was surprised by how quickly students adapted to the new learning arrangement. I have learnt that human curiosity, the desire to learn and to collaborate will not be stopped by a pandemic, but instead it will be strengthened. In each class and group, a huge number of students regularly volunteered to present their learning results in our video conference during the last 10-20 minutes of a lesson. The keenness to volunteer was sometimes even greater compared to regular lessons, which was impressive."

A GESS student goes online for home learning in 2020

Allan Forbes, head of senior school, Tanglin Trust School: "I imagine all headteachers would give a similar answer. It has to be the cancellation of examinations and the Leavers’ Prom; the handling of the A Level results before the U-turn and return to CAGs; then balancing the elation of many who reached their chosen grades and University destinations with the disappointment of those who did not have the chance to show what they could achieve in their final examinations.

"Tanglin’s IB, A Level and (I)GCSE headlines still make for impressive reading, but this year will be remembered for putting students, parents, teachers and schools through great stress, uncertainty and worry, with some our cohort still negotiating to secure their dream university destination. Maybe the US universities had the edge this year as they are happy to accept students in advance of the final exams and results."

Julie Demange-Wodtke, head of music, International French School (Singapore): "My biggest challenge is to continue vocal practice sessions with the choir. Keep the joy of singing together in the context of home-based learning and set up virtual concerts to keep students engaged in the subject area. For each student, it is a very different way of singing. They have to face their own voice and understand all the technical settings to be able to record and video themselves.

"For the teachers, time-consuming with preparing tutorials (scores and recordings), listening to all the videos, select and synchronised them. Our virtual choirs were amazing and required a great number of efforts. I hope that we can all meet very soon and sing together. "

Atima Joshi, principal, Middleton International School: "Providing emotional support across virtual platforms has been my biggest challenge in these unprecedented times. The value of a physical hug or a gentle hand on the shoulder cannot be conveyed through the most sophisticated e-platforms! It can be a challenge to maintain the optimism and energy as a community, especially when the majority of our community members are far from their home countries and are worried at so many different levels.

"Regular communication through videos, write-ups, motivational write-ups, virtual calls and messages take time but these have been vital to ensure that people felt heard, valued and supported. I am grateful for my team that has kept me energized and left no stone unturned to reach out to all our community members."

Middleton International School principal Atima Joshi reminds students of new social distancing rules 

Hannah Coulstock, GCSE student, Tanglin Trust School: "Something that I found quite difficult was adjusting to remote learning and trying to motivate myself while there was still uncertainty about whether my GCSE exams would be cancelled or not. It was challenging to learn content to the same standard as I would have done if I were in a usual classroom with a teacher to help me."

Isabella Buchan, Year 2 student, EtonHouse Broadrick: "There wasn’t a choice not to wear the mask. With masks, you have to use hand gestures to represent your words because they can’t see your expressions under your mask. Also, whenever I’m really happy or with my best friends, I want to hug them and say hello and give hi-fives. Instead, we have to stay 1 metre apart. However, I liked that I could hang out with family at home and with my friends and teachers virtually on Zoom."

After such an eventful year in education, what will be your biggest memory of 2020?

Allan Forbes, head of senior school, Tanglin Trust School: "The virtual Graduation for the Class of 2020 was the outstanding occasion and memory for me this year. Our 58 IB students and 118 A Level students were still given the chance to don their gowns, receive their scrolls and even perform the ‘leap of faith’ by jumping with members of their family in their own homes to represent that transition from school life to their next adventure.

"I loved the personal messages from parents and family members (even the family dog!), the photograph collages showing each student then and now, and the destination videos celebrating chosen university courses and locations. The event lasted nearly four hours but you could not move away from the screen!"

Isabella Buchan, Year 2 student, EtonHouse Broadrick: "Not being able to see my friends abroad. My friend has a brother who was born when the virus was spreading and it made him ill. He was hospitalised and had to have a tube coming out of his hand. My mum and I sent clothes, toys and presents to both of them. He got better and we are happy that he’s okay."

Atima Joshi, principal, Middleton International School: "The evening we closed school for the circuit breaker, will forever remain etched in my mind. I recorded a video for my staff to let them know that we are closing campus till further notice, and it felt so surreal! Multiple memories flashed across, the first day we started Middleton, the last whole school Lion Dance event without masks, students’ laughter … all seemed dreamlike and very far, as I cast a final glance on the desolate campus.

"And then, came the first day the children returned after the circuit breaker! It was a joyful, teary welcome! I don’t think anything will beat the beautiful memory of seeing and hearing the little feet patter into the school grounds this year."

Hannah Coulstock, GCSE student, Tanglin Trust School: "My biggest memory of this year has to be the GCSE process in general and it coming to an end. All of the hard work of the past two years came to a head this year, along with, naturally, all the stress of exams. However, in the end it was amazing to see all of my efforts pay off in the form of results. I believe I’ll always remember that feeling of happiness."

Social distancing has become the new norm in classrooms at Tanglin Trust and all other schools across Singapore

What changes do you hope to see in education for 2021 and beyond as the Covid-19 pandemic starts to come under control?

Allan Forbes, head of senior school, Tanglin Trust School: "Recent months have brought social distancing, temperature checks and live Teams lessons but I feel the biggest challenge has been the loss of our CCA programme. Through Co-Curricular Activities, students develop skills across a range of areas including sports, the arts, academics, overseas expeditions and community service projects.

"I firmly believe that students are just as likely to learn something amazing outside of the classroom as they are inside it. The biggest challenge, or biggest disappointment, has been the cancellation of almost everything that falls into this category. Having said this, I was delighted to attend several virtual concerts and music competitions with students performing from their homes. We are working towards a gradual return to CCAs over the coming weeks in the Senior School but many restrictions remain in place. I hope these are relaxed and lifted soon."

Isabella Buchan, Year 2 student, EtonHouse Broadrick: "My birthday is nearing and I hope the five people rule will change when the cases go down so I can see my friends and play with them. I want to be able to interact with friends from other classes as well as make new friends. However, I am grateful that I can still communicate with some of my friends in person and the others, virtually." 

Atima Joshi, principal, Middleton International School: "I hope that normalcy will return in terms of play and social interactions for our children in particular. I also hope that travel restrictions get easier so that our expat families can visit their loved ones. I wish that the economy recovers fast but we embrace the lessons learnt from the pandemic to make the world a greener, peaceful and happier place for all."

Hannah Coulstock, GCSE student, Tanglin Trust School: "This coming year, I hope that we will be able to return to regular school life with no social distancing measures in place, both in the classroom and during break and lunch. It will be really nice to be able to get back to doing group work properly. Although I do enjoy independent learning, I have missed being able to do classwork in groups and tackle problems together."

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