Rachel Womack explores the benefits of online learning and gamification for young learners
A priority for every country, school and teacher around the world will be ensuring that children do not become disenfranchised from loss of education because of Covid-19. But what can we do to mitigate the lockdown’s effects on learners?
If we want to look at strategies to alleviate the effects of school closures, firstly we need to know more about those effects. Aside from lack of face-to-face lessons, the isolating effects of lockdown means that students have not been able to interact with their peers or their teachers, which can have a serious effect on motivation.
In addition, the stress felt by many parents can bleed into their child’s learning. This also impacts motivation, and has a wider and more worrying impact on the brain, says neuroscientist Katarina Gospic.
“Emotions can be contagious – we pick up on what people we look up to are feeling, and this affects how we feel. In general, this makes us learn what we should and should not do, according to social norms.”
“In this current context, parents who are worried about their financial future, or their family’s health, could pass on their fears to their children, which could affect their state of mind and their learning,” says Gospic.
“This is because emotions influence our perceptions and decision making. Negative emotions like stress can hamper our ability to think critically or even retain information.”
Put simply, to really help students, we need to think about their mental health and state of mind, and we need to avoid adding to any stress they may feel. In this context, there are several methods that can help.
Start with thinking about learning, and learning about thinking
Encouraging students to become more autonomous as learners helps when we want them to see learning as continuous, rather than restricted to the classroom. It also helps them catch up. Using metacognitive approaches to encourage children to think independently and take responsibility for their work can help improve outcomes by an impressive amount, as much as eight months (Hattie, 2012; Higgins, 2014).
The Education Endowment Foundation has useful guidance for introducing metacognition in education. Breaking the approach down into several areas, the EEF’s guidance begins with teachers’ own understanding of the metacognitive approach so that they can support their students in planning, monitoring and evaluating their own work.
The EEF then recommends that metacognitive strategies begin with activating prior knowledge before leading on to independent practice and finishing with structured reflection.
Can tech help and what role do parents play?
In short, yes, technology can help, but that comes with a caveat; we need to select carefully and we need to be flexible in how we use it. Ed-tech that connects homes and schools in the learning context could end up being a staple for schools in future, as could gamified content, which can resonate well with today’s digital natives. Meanwhile, parental engagement is another powerful tool to leverage.
Global language learning company Studycat saw this during the first wave of school closures, which put parents front and centre when it came to their children’s education.
The company made the decision to donate its schools solution from the beginning of February so that schools could still reach young language learners using the product’s digital classroom, play-based scaffolded content, student app and parent dashboard.
“We’re global but our HQ is in Asia and it was painful to see what was happening on our doorstep,” says Mark Pemberton, an ex- language teacher and one of the company’s co-founders. “We’ve always offered free trials of our product but it wasn’t a situation where business comes first, so the trial became a donation for as long as schools needed support during the outbreak.
“The schools we helped received a really strong, positive response from parents, and are beginning to implement Fun English for Schools into their language provision after schools re-open.”
A series of free teacher training webinars and forums discussing the future of education were also offered to help teachers navigate unfamiliar territory, along with free songs, quizzes and worksheets for English language teachers with young learners.
For free resources go to:
The content of the learner app is gamified, to help engage children, and aligned to Cambridge Young Learners English. The reason for the gamification was its potential to engage children in language learning, says Mark.
“We saw the power of games right away when we were teaching – get kids to play games, sing, complete puzzles and take quizzes in and out of the classroom and information sticks. Do this in a scaffolded way using really good content, make sure they can play games and learn at home and you can give kids a solid foundation for a new language and the secure learner data gives teachers insight into where each child is at.
“During the pandemic, anything that helps teachers, parents and children connect, and keep children having fun while learning in a virtual classroom is going to be useful. We designed the product to do just that, but we had no idea it would have such a unifying effect. We knew it worked because we were teachers, too, but we had no idea how important that connection would become in the context of the pandemic.”
All the smartest species in the world play
That gamified content works particularly well for young learners shouldn’t come as a surprise. With 90 per cent of brain development completed by age five, without formal education, it’s clear that play isn’t just entertainment for young children, it’s their single most powerful method of learning.
Researchers and educators have found that play can help enrich learning and also help children to develop key skills such as inquiry, creativity, expression and experimentation.
Neuroscientist Katarina Gospic also advocates play, not just to help children catch up, but to underpin the way they learn in general. “Play is incredibly important in learning, yet we don’t all make the most of this approach. It’s especially important in the early years setting as we learn more through play and human interaction than through formal teaching.”
As to why learning through play is so effective, research is still exploring this area. “I think the scientific question of why play supports learning remains one of the fascinating puzzles in the field,” says cognitive scientist, Professor Laura Schulz. “The smartest species play the most, so there’s every reason to think that play is connected to learning but working out the details remains a scientific challenge.”
Turning the traditional approach on its head
For methodology that uses meta-cognitive principles and technology together, the flipped classroom and blended learning are useful. The flipped classroom dates back quite a few years now but we are paying more attention to it, and to blended learning, as a result of school closures.
Although it relies on face-to-face instruction as well as autonomous learning, the method can be used online and, once schools are open as usual, it could be an effective way to reduce stress and encourage learner ownership.
The principle is simple. In traditional education, lower levels of learning, such as remembering and understanding, generally take place in the classroom, and students work on higher levels of learning outside the classroom. Swap this around and you have flipped learning; students complete the easier, lower levels of work before class and then engage in higher cognitive levels of learning with their peers and their teacher. For teachers who want to try this approach out, the free Study Cat webinars can be a useful guide.
Blended learning, meanwhile, is a mixture of face-to-face classroom teaching and online lessons that encourages students to think more autonomously about learning. Many advocates of blended learning believe it will become a favoured strategy for teachers concerned about future lockdowns, since it introduces the principle of learning online so effectively.
Priorities for the future
Over the next few weeks and months we will no doubt hear more about what schools are planning, and more policy announcements are highly likely as governments attempt to fund their preferred mitigation strategies.
In this way, as dire as this period has been, it could result in some very real, very welcome change. Education is of paramount importance, that pretty much runs through the core of teachers like the words in a stick of rock from Blackpool. But not every country sees it this way, and not every parent is engaged in their child’s education. If this pandemic changes that even slightly, then we all stand to benefit.
Laura Schulz said it well in her 2015 Ted Talk on the surprising power of babies’ brains and it still rings true today. If we invest in our children’s learning and development, applying the most powerful and elegant forms of technology, engineering and design, the way we invest in other areas of life, as she put it, “we will not just be dreaming of a better future, we will be planning for one.”