Over the past year, while schools around the world were closing and re-opening and offering new versions of online or “hybrid” education and we adults were thinking about and discussing the impact this would have on students, I decided that I would like to hear from students what they thought about their education this past year.
I began my project by speaking with my own kids and their friends about their experiences, and then I began our Bennett “mini-series,” Hearing from the Kids, a series of interviews with students around the world. For those of you who have followed along, you know that I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with a wonderful group of smart, thoughtful young people including Carlos, a Spanish university-age student studying in London; Samantha, an American student who repatriated to the US during the pandemic and enrolled in public high school in a town she’d never lived in before; Uma, a high school student at private school in Paris; Steven, a high-schooler at an international school in Hong Kong; and Karima, a rising 11th-grader at an international school in Doha.
First, I’d like to thank these wonderful kids for sharing their time and their thoughts with me—they’re a warm and insightful group of youngsters! Feeling these days that my own youth is a diminishing speck in the rearview mirror, I’ve been buoyed by the thought that the baton is now in the hands of these articulate, wise young people and those like them whose thoughtfulness and sensitivity shine a cheerful light on the future.
Although of different ages and nationalities and studying in different kinds of schools around the world, they all made similar comments and observations about their education, and I was struck as I listened to feelings they had in common.
First, they all talked freely about how difficult it is to remain attentive and focused when doing online learning, especially when permitted to turn off their cameras and be invisible in a classroom; but even in instances when they kept their cameras on and were trying to remain attentive, they were easily distracted and couldn’t muster the same level of engagement that they would have in a real classroom. “I don't really like [learning online] because it's really hard to concentrate and to stay focused on what the teacher is saying,” Uma commented. And as Karima said, “it's hard to think that the teacher is making eye contact with us. It's definitely easier to stay on track in class when you're surrounded by people who are also learning, and the teacher is right there.” Their experience was echoed by all of the other students I spoke with, including those whose conversations were not part of our Bennett “mini-series.”
It was interesting and a bit heart-wrenching to hear these kids, all of them good students (I’m guessing) talk very openly about their difficulty concentrating, and it made me feel as though perhaps we should be ringing some alarm bells on their behalf. In an age when learning disabilities are on the rise, many of them related to attention, we need to listen to what kids tell us about the challenges of online learning, especially since it’s likely here to stay. As my own daughter’s focus darts from topic to topic in conversation, I’ve often been quick to tell her that she needs to curtail her screen time in order let her mind recover from cyber-speed, and now I’ve spent much of the past year closing her bedroom door so that her screen time won’t be interrupted. What I heard these kids saying was: it’s not that we want to be unfocused. We’re doing our best, but the situation is too powerful for us.
Second, the students all commented on how they missed the natural contact and dialogue with teachers that regular classroom life affords. Specifically, if there was material they didn’t understand or if they wanted to ask a question, it was harder to establish the kind of relationship that would enable them to raise their hand in class or linger after a lesson to ask a question. As Steven said, “because you haven't gotten to know your teacher, it's quite difficult to approach them. And so, it's a very limited number of students who are actually willing to go see their teacher and ask questions if they're unclear, compared to in-person.” In the same vein, Carlos commented, “… because classes are online and virtual, it's hard to express yourself … through emails, when you don't understand something. So, let's say I don't understand a concept and I want to ask one of my teachers by trying to explain what my issue is through an email. I find this extremely hard, compared to just going to their classroom or their office and trying to come to a solution there.”
As a former high school teacher, I know that part of good teaching is watching and listening to students in order to understand what they haven’t understood or aren’t following. I’m not sure how this works on Zoom, especially if you can’t see your students, and I suspect that this is one of the many ways in which teachers, like their students, have been frustrated this past year.
Needless to say, the lack of a regular social life left a gaping hole in these students’ lives. Samantha enrolled in a new school in the U.S. and I asked her if she had been able to make friends, to which she responded, “I have not met anyone through the computer at school.” She did not have in-person school until February, at which point, she said, “it's been very awkward, especially because there's only been a third or so of us in the building at a time, and we all have masks on... for some of my classes, I've been the only one there, either because just not many people are coming, or some people are quarantined, or it's a small class to begin with.” Thankfully, Samantha has a very resilient spirit and a good sense of humor. “Height is very deceiving on Zoom,” she laughed. “It's been really funny because I hadn't realized how tall everybody actually was... that was kind of the funniest part.”
Uma didn’t move schools but still commented, “I didn’t really get to know my classmates,” masked as they were and permitted limited interaction.
Despite the various difficulties they faced with online learning, these kids also acknowledged some positive aspects, namely having more control over their work time and a more efficient schedule. “After school, you have more time to yourself and more time in your own room to do your own studying,” commented Steven, and his thoughts were echoed by the others; they appreciated more time to themselves, whether they spent it studying, sleeping, or discovering new hobbies.
This actually reminded me of a conversation I had with my then 16-year-old daughter last spring, when her school had closed and she was working from her bedroom. I expressed my regret that her school year was ending as it was—no sports, no hanging out with her friends, no end-of-year school festivities-- and she responded, “Mom, I am doing just fine! I would much rather be doing my work from home right now; if I were at school, I would be SO stressed with trying to do all my work, study for exams, go to practice and games, and just keeping up with everything.” As she spoke, I realized that she was voicing the relief of probably so many kids who, while they were missing their friends and the fun parts of school life, were also expressing another part of their reality: the fact that they are stressed and over-scheduled much of the time. Duly noted, I thought, as I vowed that I would remember these lessons should life every return to normal.
Additionally, the kids I interviewed acknowledged all of the efforts that had gone into making the school year as good as it was for them and acknowledged the need to adapt as best they could to a situation that is no one’s fault and that everyone has had to endure. “For people like us, it feels like a lost year... it was supposed to be the best year of our lives!” reflected Carlos, “but honestly, I've still had a great time. I feel like I'm learning a lot as well…I think just having the ability to adapt to what has been going on, just try to make the most of the virtual setting, is very important.”
Speaking with these kids, I felt in their responses an eagerness to talk about the last year and how profoundly it had affected them, and how hard they were trying to make the best of it, given that they all felt a sense of loss. Aware that they were not alone, they nonetheless needed to mark those things that didn’t occur, and they did so eloquently and thoughtfully. “The door wasn’t closed,” said Carlos, of his last year in high school. High school ended and university began, and there was no fanfare, no transition.
For others, it was a sense of community, born of human contact, that they missed keenly. “I just want people to remember that we're all human, that every single person needs some sort of human interaction, and that the most important part is to bring a sense of community, even if you're online,” said Karima. “Whether or not we're in online school right now or in-person school, we just have to try and interact as a community better and get a better understanding of each other so that we can maintain that interaction and maintain that community,” reflected Steven.
As we enter the next chapter of educating our kids—wherever and however we do it—I think we have much to learn from them, and they’re eager to give us their feedback. Online learning offers great possibilities and certainly has its place, but it must be complemented by in-person teaching and interaction. The kids I interviewed were bright, hardworking, and lucky enough to be attending good schools that had resources and a commitment to deliver a good education. Even so, these kids were clear in their message: Please don’t abandon us to our screens--We can’t focus and, besides, we miss you!
Elizabeth Sawyer, CEO
Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.