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Flexible learning showing promise preparing high school students for post-COVID, hybrid working world

Like most high school students her age, Sheridan Connelly struggles to balance the competing demands on her time.

The year 12 student plays weekend sport, works a part-time job, and lives on a rural property in the NSW Wollondilly region which means she travels up to an hour and a half to get to school.

“I was stressed about finding time to get all my homework done and then the extra work that you have to do in year 12,” she said.

But she has found some reprieve in a new flexible program her school is trialling which allows her to do her school work at home on Mondays.

“I can spend that [time] either studying or catching up on sleep or just spending it in a way that works for me,” she said.

“I think it’s just a different way in which you can learn to be an independent learner. You can go at your own pace.”

Sheridan sits at her desk wearing a white jumper and jeans and reads a book.

Sheridan’s mother Laura says her daughter has “really blossomed” hybrid working on Mondays.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Catholic private school Chevalier College has just finished its first term of flexible learning.

So far, more than 100 senior students have opted in to the trial which gives students greater flexibility in their timetables.

The new schedule is also working for Sheridan’s mother Laura.

“We have had a very good experience and Sheridan has actually really blossomed, in a way,” she said.

“Isn’t it great to have kids leaving the school that can already hit the ground running and can actually embrace hybrid working, or hybrid studying?”

Family smiling

Sheridan Connelly and her parents have embraced flexible learning.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Students not ‘spoon-fed’

When the school announced the change last year, parents were worried their child’s education would suffer and some even pulled their kids out of the school. 

“It’s not a four day week,” Sheridan said.

“On the Monday you still get allocated work that you have to do. There’s still set work.”

Chevalier College assistant principal Rebecca Graham said part of the challenge has been explaining the goals of the program.

“Schools like ours often have quite a big dropout rate once kids get to university,” she said.

“[Students] have been spoon fed, and they haven’t had to be self-directed.”

Rebecca Graham smiles outside, wearing a green blazer and white shirt.

Assistant principal Rebecca Graham says the school has had to convince parents of the merits of the new model.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

The school has been conducting surveys of students to learn how they are adapting to the new schedule.

The positive responses have helped win over some of the sceptical parents.

“The first survey results when we sat down and had a look at it were actually far more positive than what we anticipated,” Ms Graham said.

“It is not perfect at the moment, but we certainly know that the balance that kids are finding in the day is a positive one.

“[Parents’] big question is ‘why? Why are we doing this?’ And I think once our students and our parents understand the why, they have really come on board.”

The flexibility has also given teachers like Louise Glase more time to help her students and plan lessons.

“I have been able to, on my Mondays, co-plan with colleagues. I have been able to have time to myself to actually do core business,” Ms Glase said.

“I think it’s exciting to be part of a possible solution, to actually see that there are potential ways for us to use our time in a better way.”

Louise stands inside a classroom with students, smiling and wearing a blue blazer and colourful shirt.

Chevalier College teacher Louise Glase says she now has time to better plan her classes.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Face-to-face schooling not yielding results

Remote learning is not a new concept for Australian school students who were forced off campus during COVID lockdowns.

Education expert from the University of Melbourne, Pasi Sahlberg, said since then only a few schools have kept that flexibility.

“I think, unfortunately, most schools probably are returning back to where we were before COVID when it comes to the flexibility and how the school is organised, and what it looks like,” he said.

It is difficult to say how many schools in the country have adopted flexibility into their curriculum, Professor Sahlberg said, as the data is not collected.

Female student working

Around 25 per cent of all senior students at Chevalier College now learn remotely on a Monday.(ABC Illawarra: Tim Fernandez)

Australian kids spend more time in the classroom than kids in any other OECD country, but there is growing evidence this does not lead to better results.

“The research evidence is very clear that the instruction time — in other words how long children spend in schools — has very little to do with the actual quality of the learning outcomes,” Professor Sahlberg said.

Professor Sahlberg has compared instruction time in Australian schools to the performance of students on international tests and found a negative correlation.

“It is evidence that not only does more face-to-face schooling not improve educational outcomes for students, it also actively might make them worse,” he said.

Chevalier College is currently conducting its own research project on the trial and will decide whether to adopt flexible learning permanently at the end of the year.

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