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Engagement at Home: understanding vulnerability and technology in remote learning

This article is part of the School’s podcast series. Read other articles from BGGS staff and listen to their discussions on Illumine—a BGGS podcast.


Ms Nisha Swanston, Technologies Teacher

If the global pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that young people in this world are a lot more adaptable than we give them credit for. Our students want to learn. They crave new information, and as their teachers, it is up to us to provide them with that. However, nobody could have imagined that the face of education would go through such a massive transformation in a short space of time. According to new research from the United Nations, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the education of about 95 per cent of students in the world, representing the largest disruption to education in history.

Luckily, humans are amazing creatures. We adapt well to new situations and find ways to adjust to the ever-changing world around us. This necessity to be ready for change has moulded teachers into powerful, strategic warriors, prepared for battle at any moment. Our arsenal of home learning equipment is extensive: we have mics at the ready and our home internet supercharged; we’ve upgraded computers, seats and lighting; we’ve crafted¬ backdrops and turned corners of living rooms into classrooms. We are ready to provide our students with whatever they need to grasp the content that would usually be delivered to them in a traditional classroom, face to face. However, technological tools alone cannot always overcome the less tangible, human challenges that home learning brings.

Brisbane Girls Grammar School recently underwent the unexpected disruption of two weeks’ mandatory quarantine, which was even more challenging than general restrictions for staff and students alike. Quarantine teaching and learning pose more difficulties than those that one may face in lockdown. Practical, outdoor activities are limited to the home and garden, and the lack of fresh space and air can often leave students feeling vulnerable, less motivated and, frankly, desperately bored. Retreating into to technology is inevitable. But sometimes, it is this technology itself that can cause unease. How do teachers inspire creativity and diverse learning in a limited environment?

American professor, researcher and author Brené Brown says:

To reignite creativity, innovation, and learning, leaders must re-humanise education and work. This means understanding how scarcity affects the way we lead and work, learning how to engage with vulnerability, and recognising and combating shame.

We need to seek to understand our students better during these challenging times. Vulnerability can surface in many ways—the most common of which is disengagement. Rather than responding with frustration at our students lack of interest, this is where teachers need to be understanding and try to incorporate a wider range of learning techniques instead of the ‘chalk and talk’ which can often take over Zoom lessons.

To overcome Zoom overload, we are forced to look outside of what we would typically do and seek more physical and personal connections. Those connections are missing when we are learning remotely or in quarantine and are the core of what makes schools and physical classrooms so important.

In 2011, Sir Ken Robinson touched on this topic in his book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative:

However seductive the machine metaphor may be for industrial production, human organisations are not mechanisms, and people are not components. People have values, feelings, perceptions, opinions, motivations, and biographies, whereas cogs and sprockets do not. An organisation is not the physical facilities within which it operates; it is the networks of people in it.

Our network of people at BGGS is incredible. We have dedicated support and IT staff and inspiring teachers and leaders who are willing to go above and beyond what is required to ensure that students get the most out of their time when learning remotely. Through my experience, I witnessed treasure hunts, authentic connections with family and pets and genuine, caring conversations, making sure that they let students know someone was there if they needed support.
While talking about human connection and the reality of physical distance when remote teaching is one thing, many will often ponder: ‘How does this distance affect students in their assessment items?’

This month, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has reported on 2021 NAPLAN test results, saying ‘compared to 2019 results, there has been no statistically significant fall in foundational literacy and numeracy skills despite predictions remote learning would see a dive in results’ (Duffy, 2021). ACARA CEO, David de Carvalho, said that these results were a credit to schools.

It shows that overall, this has not had a negative impact on our students’ literacy and numeracy levels, which I think should come as great encouragement to students, parents, carers, teachers, school principals. It is a testimony to their hard work.

What an achievement from the students that have studied through this pandemic. The hard work that is referenced here rings so true of what teachers at BGGS are doing. Some of the key learnings from quarantine teaching have been to make the most of the blended home/school physical environment, rather than trying to simulate ‘normal’ school. Teachers have encouraged students to get away from the screen and plan parts of the lesson where they are encouraged to interact with their environment, such as getting outdoors in the backyard or balcony. Taking photos of items within their home location for referencing later in class activities is a wonderful task. Students spend time thinking about how they can relate topics learned at school to their own lives and have the immersive experience of intertwining their personal belongings with their academic studies rather than separating them, which is often the reality.

The use of technology is necessary when remote teaching and learning, but bringing in game-based learning, such as a Kahoot, or providing explainer videos, makes self-paced learning and flipped classrooms so much more engaging and powerful.

Ultimately, in my own experience, ensuring that you still have a connection with your school community through such a time has been vitally important. The vulnerabilities and uncertainties that can cloud the minds of teachers and students in times like these are so often calmed by the kind word or email from a reassuring colleague. So maybe, for the foreseeable future, we can give tools other than zoom a go when we seek to inspire those who need it most. Embrace the reality; what does learning at home look like in your unique space and family for you? How can we best use the resources around us—both technological and otherwise—to achieve a richer and more personal learning experience?



Brown, B., PhD. (2012). Daring greatly. How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. Penguin Random House.

Duffy, C. (2021, August 24). Hotly anticipated NAPLAN tests are in and it’s top marks for the COVID class. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021–08–25/naplan–results–in–for–covid–year/100403702

Goodwin, C. (2021). The Benefits of In-Person School vs Remote Learning. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/parenting–translator/202108/the–benefits–in–person–school–vs–remote–learning

Robinson, K. (2011). Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (2nd ed.). Capstone.