Can A School Be ‘Catholic’ Online?
By Dr Mark Potterton – The coronavirus has caused major disruption to education around the globe.
UNESCO reported that nine out of ten of the world’s children were out of school at the start of April. The challenge around the world is how to ensure that the impact on children’s learning is minimised.
As soon as it became clear that the Covid-19 pandemic would impact on schooling at Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg, where I serve as principal of the primary school, we began talking about how we would continue school using the online platforms available to us.
Can we still be a “Catholic” school online? A lot has been written about the nature and purpose of the Catholic school.
The best definition, in my view, was written by the late Prof Peter Hunter and Paul Faller, who proposed: “The purpose of the Catholic school is to provide a good all-round education in the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus, aspiring in particular to live out its central message and challenge: to worship the God who loves us, to love and help our fellow human beings, and to learn to exercise responsibility for the world around us.”
Most of the descriptions of the Catholic school are really about the culture of a school. These descriptions speak about the lived values and attitudes which influence all aspects of the school’s life.
They include activities in and beyond the classroom, relationships among staff members, parents and students, and disciplinary procedures. The emphasis is around people and relationships and how they deal with each other.
These dimensions are all very difficult to replicate online. In the some of the Church’s documents on Catholic schools, a major focus has been the upholding of the dignity of the human person, of all beings, and of all creation, with a special concern for the poor and the marginalised. Hunter and Faller argued that the essence of this is “outreach to others, pastoral care for all, and celebration of the school’s religious character”.
When Sacred Heart College (and, I’m sure, other Catholic schools) saw that Covid-19 would affect learning, staff discussed how we would continue schooling using the online platforms available to us. In the high school and in Grade 6, teachers were familiar with Google Classroom, and that’s the technology they went with.
The preschool uses WhatsApp, and does so very creatively, sending videos and photos of what children are doing.
In the primary school, study packs and workbooks were sent home and teachers make use of email, the school App, phone calls and WhatsApp.
But the danger of running online education is that it is remote and that a primary concern becomes the “transmission of knowledge”.
This, in my view, is the antithesis of what Catholic education should be. It has to be about relationship and meaningful knowledge.
The Church documents speak of preparing students “to take their place in society as responsible, honest and compassionate citizens”.
Teaching and learning must be shaped by a Catholic vision of life. At our school we decided that we would make it personal and include weekly phonecalls to the parents, as well as make the services of the school counsellor available.
The feedback from parents suggests that it is the personalised dimension of online learning that is appreciated by both them and the students.
In a recently published UNESCO document on online learning, the authors argue that distance learning doesn’t have to mirror learning as it normally happens in school.
In fact, they argue that trying to replicate the pace and type of work that would be done at school is unrealistic.
Schools must decide on a daily structure, a timetable, or a to-do list of what the staff want for students.
The authors strongly suggest that less is more when it comes to the scope of work which teachers set in distance-learning, especially in times of uncertainty and instability.
The time we have had teaching from a distance has allowed us to see what works and what doesn’t, for both our students and parents.
It has also allowed us to better understand the pace at which work gets done. We have learnt that teachers need to be flexible and need to adapt wherever possible.
The UNESCO document provides instructive guidance for Catholic schools, reminding us to focus on the “whole child”.
The UN agency argues that children at home don’t just need education, but that they first and foremost need to be fed and protected.
Health, safety and wellbeing must always come first. These are indeed unprecedented times and Catholic schools are urgently called to respond as best we can.
It is vital that in addition to worrying about the impact on teaching and learning, we think about the spiritual, psychological and social needs of children too.
Dr Mark Potterton is the primary school principal at Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg.
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