Engagement and Connection Through Opportunity

What the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Taught Us About Teachers and Teaching

Andy Hargreaves, University of Ottawa

This article is found in the report Children and Schools During COVID-19
and Beyond: Engagement and Connection Through Opportunity August 2021

I have chosen to share extracts from the following topics here;

Teaching Digitally, Teachers and Self-Determined Learners, The emotional practice of teaching, Professional Judgment and Professional capital.

Teaching Digitally

If the school districts choose to go digital part-time, or no more remote teaching, it is clear that we expect and assume that the digital proficiency is an integral part of all teachers’ pedagogical repertoire. Digital learning and digital proficiency entail much more than mastering apps and tabs. They go far beyond knowing how to use digital tools like drop-down menus, chat-boxes, breakout rooms, methods of posting completed assignments etc.

In The Digital Classroom, Michaelsen (2021) notes that when students are literally left to their own devices, they don’t learn very much, they make less progress in reading than they do in books, and they end up distracting their peers around them. After reviewing the often confusing and contradictory research on digital learning, Michaelsen concludes that digital tools “are less important for students’ learning than the ways teachers are able to use these tools”. Yet, until now, newly qualified teachers typically had a limited repertoire related to digitally supported teaching. The topic was also accorded minimal attention in teacher preparation and ongoing professional learning and development, Michaelsen notes. Digital proficiency and ability to teach online as well as in-person should now be a mandatory part of teacher preparation, and something in which all existing teachers should become fully competent within three years.

Teachers and Self-Determined Learners

One aspect of digital proficiency is being able to be a responsible, self-directed, and self-regulating learner. Some students do possess self-directed learning habits, but these are unevenly and unequally distributed and cannot be left to chance. They must be taught and developed among everyone. Hattie (2021) points out that many learners developed skills and habits of self-direction during the pandemic because necessity required them to, or because they had previously been prevented from being self-directed in their schools. But this hasn’t been true of all learners. We must now make deliberate efforts to make learning more self-directed among all of them. Self-directed learning has many elements. These include time management, capacity for selfassessment, ability to screen out distractions, ability to judge when assistance is required, self-regulation, and self-motivation. In an oncoming era of more blended and personalized learning, innovative and problem-based approaches in a digital environment echo long-standing traditions of project-based, topic-based and child-centered learning, by proposing that teachers become facilitators, rather than presenters of information. Self-directed learning environments are led by the student, and supported by their teachers, within scaffolded frameworks that enable the students to progress through advancing levels of expertise and mastery. Deeper than the concept, skill, and strategy of self-direction is the closely related one of self-determination. The theory of self-determination was created by Deci and Ryan (1985).

Building on the 1940s research of Harry Harlow (1950), who invented the concept of intrinsic motivation, Deci and Ryan used experiments to study how people’s motivations for doing inherently interesting tasks affected their performance. Although short-term performance could be boosted by external rewards, they found, intrinsic rewards mainly worked better, especially on tasks that were creative, complex or ambiguous. Self-determination happened when inherently interesting tasks were combined with high degrees of autonomy in completing them. Self-determination is ultimately about much more than the self-management that is entailed in being self-directed. It is about being empowered and having voice and choice in one’s learning. These skills and dispositions can be especially valuable during a pandemic, and also after it. Zhao and his colleagues recommend that teachers should leave at least 40% of school time for students to develop their own interests and abilities. Kieran Egan (2010) has proposed that true learning in-depth can be achieved if students study one particular topic in great depth for a day each week for their entire educational careers. “Creating value for others, for the community, and for the world” will result from greater self-determination, they say (Zhao & McDiarmid, in press). Self-determined learning is also about pursuing learning that has meaning and purpose for one’s present and future life, and for one’s understanding of and wider contribution to the world.

Being a facilitator does not mean abandoning being a teacher. It doesn’t and shouldn’t put an end to direct instruction or give up on inspiring students through the use of brilliant storytelling or other intriguing forms of delivery when the moment calls for it. The fashionable switch to facilitation sometimes overstates its case. Square roots, the theory of relativity, great literature, the histories of our indigenous peoples, and necessary awareness of genocide or racism, for example, are not going to happen solely through self-directed or self-determined learning. The teacher doesn’t have to and indeed shouldn’t relinquish teaching in order to be a facilitator (Biesta, 2013). But especially in a more digitally infused learning environment, becoming a better facilitator of learning, and becoming a teacher who can let go of some of their own power in order to embolden greater self-determination among their students, will be an essential aspect of every teacher’s expertise.

The emotional practice of teaching

Teaching is an emotional practice, not just a cognitive and intellectual one (Hargreaves, 1998). It arouses, inflects and engages with the emotions of others, and with teachers’ own emotions too. The rewards that teachers find in their work include a significantly emotional dimension. Teacher well-being and student learning and well-being are interconnected (Harding et al. 2019). Therefore, to uplift the people we serve, we also have to uplift the people who serve them. Teachers who care about their students and about making a difference in their lives grieve the loss of their ability to connect with them emotionally, online, because, as we saw earlier, reading emotional cues in a digital environment is difficult. Even worse was just losing touch with vulnerable students altogether. There needs to be caution about ramping up online learning, not just because of the students, but because of the teachers too. Instead, those elements of teaching and learning that provide teachers as well as students with positive senses of accomplishment, that honor teaching and learning as emotional practices and not just cognitive ones, and that grasp how important in-person relationships in schools are as a foundation for learning and wellbeing, must be strengthened. We need to build our teachers back better as well as our students.

Professional Judgment

For professional work to feel fulfilling, people need to feel trusted and able to exercise judgments on behalf of those they serve. This is especially important when local circumstances and needs vary, and when professionals have to draw on their expertise to provide unique responses to each group or situation. Judgments are emotional as well rational in nature. If judgments were purely cognitive, they could be made by algorithms. But human judgment is inherently emotional. Emotional attachments and preferences narrow down the mathematically infinite scope of decision-making into a manageable set of options (Damasio, 1994). In their report of the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, the OECD noted from their TALIS studies of teachers’ working patterns that “when teachers reported more … collaborative relationships with other teachers, they also reported significantly higher levels of self-efficacy” (teachers’ self-efficacy is, in turn, a predictor of student achievement) (Schleicher, 2018). In addition, “the extent to which teachers can participate in decision-making has a strong, positive association with the likelihood of reporting that teaching is valued by society.” After several months of educational turmoil due to the pandemic, the OECD published a policy review of how countries were managing COVID-19 in education with different degrees of effectiveness. Many of the systems that seemed to have had the greatest success had established collaborative teams, working groups or committees, including with teachers’ and principals’ associations, and then collected and analyzed data together, at the highest levels of policy, to determine and lead the response. Less effective systems, by implication, issued what often seemed like arbitrary, shifting, and contradictory edicts from governments to which the teaching profession and school districts then had to respond (OECD, 2020).

It is hard to have self-determined learners without self-determined and empowered teachers,
who are able to use their expertise and use their professional judgment together, in high-trust
environments, on behalf of the children they know best.

Professional capital

Professional capital is defined as a group’s professional worth that enables it
to achieve its goals (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012). The professional capital that accrues in teaching comes from investment of human and material resources in teaching. There are few professional returns in teaching without proper investment. Professional capital has three components: human capital, decision-making (or decisional) capital, and social capital. Human capital comprises the knowledge, talents and capabilities of individual teachers. It is accrued by selecting and recruiting highly qualified and dedicated teachers, providing them with sufficient monetary rewards and status in the society, and expecting them to engage in continuous professional learning and development throughout their careers. Human capital becomes depleted when low status and diminished rewards fail to attract the best talent, when resources that are essential to high quality work are withheld, and when self-determined professional learning and development is replaced by mandated compliance with government directives. Decisional or decision-making capital consists of the professional judgment and expertise that teachers develop over time, through repeated yet also varied experience, continuous professional learning and development, and effective coaching and mentoring. Decisional capital is depleted when teachers’ judgments are not trusted, when they are excluded from important decisionmaking processes, and when their expertise is not valued. Social capital—is about the professional capital that is circulated among teachers and shared by them (Leana, 2011; Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Day et al. 2007). It is about relationships of trust that speed up and strengthen decision making, about the effectiveness of judgments that are made collectively rather than individually, and about knowledge and ideas in teaching that are disseminated throughout the profession via collaborative cultures and professional networks.

From the early 1990s onwards, research has demonstrated a clear connection between teacher collaboration and improved student outcomes (Rosenholtz, 1989; Hargreaves, 2019). In this respect, collective social capital adds value to human capital. Some elements of collaboration have a more positive impact than others, but the overall benefits are consistent. OECD (2019) data on high performing systems show that these systems are characterized not only by high trust for the teaching profession, but also within it. Collective efficacy—the shared belief that all students in a school can succeed with the right support—has one of the highest effect sizes in relation to student achievement (Donohoo, 2017). Teachers are more likely to sustain their commitment to teaching if they feel valued by each other and by their leaders as trusted colleagues (Sahlberg & Walker, 2021). Collaboration also builds resilience to adversity when teachers work with students in challenging family circumstances of poverty, for example (Gu & Day, 2013) Teachers’ clear readiness to collaborate on their terms, for the needs of their students and themselves, especially when top-down solutions are insufficiently agile or responsive to local and rapidly changing conditions, is an immense asset of teachers’ professional capital that must be saved with accruing interest once this pandemic is over. Given the clear association between social capital and student outcomes, this can and should be a policy priority across all provinces and territories once the pandemic has passed.


Improve digital expertise by including digital competence in all teacher preparation programs. Develop a clear plan and strategy so that all Canadian teachers will have full digital proficiency within 3 years. Digital expertise should not only include knowledge of apps, tabs, platforms, and other technical resources, but also ability to determine when digitally-based resources do and do not provide unique added value for effective learning compared to other resources. Digital expertise should also include knowledge of how to identify, minimize and manage the risks that
often accompany digitally based learning.

References: In order of appearance

Michaelsen, A. S. (2021). The digital classroom: Transforming the way we learn. London and New York, NY: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2021). What can we learn from COVID-era instruction? Educational Leadership, Vol. 78, No. 8, pp14-17, May.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Harlow, H. F. (1950). Learning and satiation of response in intrinsically motivated complex puzzle performance by monkeys. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 43(4), 289–294. Accessed at https://doi. org/10.1037/h0058114

Egan, K. (2010). Learning in depth: A simple innovation that can transform schooling. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zhao, Y & McDiarmid, W. (in press). Future Tense: Rethinking Education in an Uncertain World, New York, NY: Routledge

Biesta, G.J.J. (2013) The Beautiful Risk of Education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm

Harding, S., Morris, R., Gunnell, D., Ford, T., Hollingworth, W., Tilling, K., et al. (2019). Is teachers’ mental health and wellbeing associated with students’ mental health and wellbeing? Journal of Affective Disorders, 180–187.

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. New York: Grosset/Putnam

Schleicher, A. (2018), Valuing our Teachers and Raising their Status: How Communities Can Help, International Summit on the Teaching Profession, OECD Publishing, Paris. p.99 http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264292697-en

OECD (2020). Education and COVID-19: Focusing on the long-term impact of school closures. June 29. Retrieved from: https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/education-and-covid-19-focusing-on-the-long-termimpact-of-school-closures-2cea926e/

Hargreaves, A. & Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, New York, NY: Teachers College Press

Leana. C. R. (2011). The missing link in school reform. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall, pp. 29-35.

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A key resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage

Day, C., Sammons, P., Stobart, G., Kington, A., & Gu, Q. (2007). Teachers matter: Connecting lives, work and effectiveness. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.

Rosenholtz, S. J. (1989). Teachers’ workplace: The social organization of schools. Harlow: Addison-Wesley Longman Ltd

Hargreaves, A. (2019): Teacher collaboration: 30 years of research on its nature, forms, limitations and effects, Teachers and Teaching, DOI: 10.1080/13540602.2019.1639499

OECD (2019) ) TALIS 2018 Results. Volume 1. Table 1.2.4. Change in teaching practices from 2013-2018. Paris: OECD

Donohoo, J. (2017). Collective teacher efficacy research: Implications for professional research. Journal of
Professional Capital and Community, 2(2), 101-116. doi:10.1108/JPCC-10-2016-0027

Sahlberg, P. & Walker, T. D. (2021). In teachers we trust: The Finnish way to world-class schools: New York: Norton

Gu, Q. & Day, C. (2013) Challenges to teacher resilience: conditions count. British Educational Research Journal, 39 (1), 22-44.

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