InsightOut: A Year of Learning Differently

David Byrne is a doctoral candidate in theology (ethics) at the University of St. Michael’s College. David is also a professor in the Community and Justice Services program at Centennial College in Scarborough, Ontario. David lives in Oshawa, Ontario with his wife and two children.

A Year of Learning Differently

Photograph of girl looking at a math problem on a laptop

I have developed a motto over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. A year of living differently. I have said it so many times, it has become a mantra—a way to refocus when my family and I are faced with change, or when we have to give up something we love to do. No more visits to museums or the zoo? A year of living differently! We camped instead, exploring Ontario’s provincial parks. No big family celebrations or barbecues? Just a year of living differently! So, we gathered virtually and at a distance. Postponing a trip my wife and I were hoping to take for our ten-year wedding anniversary, opting instead for a long bike ride and dinner at home… a year of living differently… though, that one with less panache.

As a professor at Scarborough’s Centennial College and a father of two young children, for us there is no place that the impacts of this year of living differently have been more noticeable than in the classroom. Mornings used to be rushing around to get everyone ready before dropping them off at their schools and driving into Scarborough to teach, coffee in hand. Now, with my wife and I working from home, and our children doing online school, mornings are waking up slowly and making sure everyone is fed and set up with their technology before our various Zoom meetings start.

Though I appreciate the extra time that this change has provided, it has been a hard adjustment. My children miss their friends and teachers, and I miss my coworkers and students. My wife would happily return to the office if able. There is nothing that technology can do that can replace the transformational experience of working and learning together, face to face, despite the enormous efforts of educators over the last eight months. And in many ways, it is getting harder, as we all grow tired of the seclusion and endless hours spent staring at screens.

Though, the pandemic has not been the only major adjustment for our family this year. In the spring, after months of testing, my daughter was diagnosed with a learning disability. As a baby and toddler, my daughter shone brightly. She walked early, she talked early, she was creative and engaging. Though, despite her social skills, we noticed that she struggled with some aspects of learning. Though she would carry on conversations with anyone who listened, she struggled to recognize letters. By the time she reached Third Grade, she was a year or two behind most of the other kids. This meant that in an educational environment where grades are prioritized, we had to adjust our expectations and support her as she struggled through her work, knowing that even with her best effort her report cards would be more a moment of recognizing and celebrating small victories than big ones.

Even with her diagnosis, and the creation of an Independent Educational Plan (IEP), my daughter would struggle in a regular classroom environment. There, with a single teacher whose attention is split between twenty or more students, our daughter cannot receive the support she needs to thrive. Though my daughter’s teachers have been fantastic in their efforts to support her, there is no way in our education system to provide the level of flexibility it takes to meet the demands of children who face complex barriers to learning. So, even though the psychologist who diagnosed my daughter asserted that my daughter could a get a PhD with the right accommodations, I found that hard to believe.

Then COVID struck, and with it the longest March Break in history.

With all of us at home, my wife and I took turns helping our daughter with her work. We supported her to get organized. We taught her to use a laptop with voice technology to help with her reading and writing. We helped her to overcome the frustration that accompanied her constant feeling of inadequacy. It was not a smooth or linear process. There were lots of strategies we tried that did not work. Lots of days where the demands of our own jobs meant that our daughter was on her own. But over time, we saw a change.

Tears became less frequent. Her reluctance to try new strategies gave way to excitement for new learning technology, especially the programs that let her express herself creatively. She started answering more questions in class and, to our surprise, helping her fellow classmates to understand their assignments. And when her recent progress report came out, the results reflected what we were seeing—our daughter was “getting it” for the first time.

I witnessed the positive impact of a flexible, empathetic and unconventional approach to learning. I watched my daughter shift from apprehension to enthusiasm. And, as a professor, I immediately thought to my own students. Especially those who struggle the most—and thought, how might a similar level of support and flexibility benefit them? What do they need to unlock their hidden potential that they have not had provided to them?

As a doctoral candidate in theology at USMC, whose research is rooted in liberative theological ethics, an approach to doing ethics that begins with the concrete experience of people as a primary source for ethical reflection, I was called to think more deeply about who my specific students are. I teach in a program at a school in a community where many of the students face barriers to learning. Many of my students work full time to afford their education. Many provide care for parents and young children. Many are first- or second-generation Canadians. And many are the first from their family to attend post secondary education. Few of them enjoy the same level of support and stability that my daughter does.

What I have found is that in this year of living differently, with my life unrecognizable from a year ago, I am called to embrace how to learn differently, too. As everything I know about education shifts, as I am shaken from my habits, as an educator I am called to change. To change the way I lecture, the way I assign and assess work and the way I view the different approaches to learning of my students. I need to look for ways to identify their unique needs and provide them with accommodations. I also need to see this task as an opportunity as opposed to a burden—one that I admit makes me feel vulnerable, but one that also enables me to see the face of my daughter in each one of my students—the little girl who found her love for learning in a radically different space than the one I imagined.

Read other InsightOut posts.