The School of the Air, located in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia, has been remote home-schooling the children of the Outback for 69 years. Often referred to as the world’s largest classroom, the School covers more than 1.3 million square kilometres (502,000 square miles), this is ten times the size of England!
In more normal times, tourists can visit the School and visitor centre. However, while borders are closed the principal, Kerrie Russell has put together a Q&A offering some welcome advice for parents who now find themselves helping their children to learn from home.
What technology do you use to teach the children and how that has advanced since 1951?
As our students live in very remote locations, often 100s of km from anyone else, they connect to the internet via satellite. We use a video conferencing software (called REACT) that was specifically written for use over satellite. There have been massive changes since the School commenced back in the 1950s as with REACT our students can see and hear their teachers and their classmates each day, helping them feel they are part of a class, rather than working away on their own in their home. While radio communication, which our students used for many years, was innovative in its time, it is so much better now for our students due to the internet and satellite technology.
Please could you tell us more about the students, how old are they, how many in a class, and how far are they spread across Australia?
Our School is for Preschool (4-year-olds) up to Year 9 (the third year of high school, typically 15-year-olds). Class numbers do vary, with typically smaller classes in the high school years as many students leave their homes to attend boarding school. In our Primary School, the average class sizes are 15, and in high school, it is five pupils. Within Australia, we have students in the lower half of the Northern Territory, covering an expanse of 1.3 million square km. Today, we also have students enrolled with us who live overseas, so our geographical spread is larger than ever.
How many hours of lessons do students participate in, and how do you motivate and interest them during lessons?
Our students learn through a combination of the learning materials we provide to them (some hard copy, some on their class website) and the online lessons. They are learning for a whole school day in all the subjects in the Australian curriculum through both of these modes. The online part for primary students is typically in two 30 min lessons a day and for high school students three one hour lessons a day (however there is a lot of variation for the high school students throughout the week due to many variables).
Do you think there are any attributes that students may gain from this type of education that perhaps wouldn’t be learned or gained from ‘mainstream’ school?
As students are not physically with their teacher they learn to be more independent, and also need to develop good communication skills, as well as the confidence to email or call (age-dependent) if they have a question. Our students are also very appreciative of when they do get face to face time with their peers (4 times a year we have an ‘In school’ event) and make the most of socialising then.
On a non-schooling level, how do the students cope with their isolation from a social perspective? Do you have any advice?
For many students, they grow up in this context, so it is normal for them, and they don’t feel isolated. Often where they live, for example, a cattle station has a lot going on and they love that lifestyle. Also, they fell connected with their friends at school, even though physically remote from each other, they do interact each day and love finding out what is going on in their classmates’ lives.
Children and young people must stay connected as much as is possible given the circumstances, and they are usually very innovative at using tech to help them do that. While not the same as peers, playing with their siblings is another way of socialising, and so they can make the most of that during the time they are stuck at home.
Do the children make friends via School of the Air, and what is the interaction like between students?
They certainly do. Often there are friendships between families who live close to each other (maybe just a few hundred km away from their neighbours), and so they will catch up from time to time, and then there are the friends they make at School. Although not seeing each other on a regular basis, firm friendships are made and maintained as much as possible while back in their homes, and then reactivated when they get to see each other face to face.
What advice would you give to parents in the UK who are embracing home-schooling due to the current Covid-19 circumstances?
Don’t be too hard on yourself! It is not reasonable to expect you can recreate what happens in a classroom at home, especially when the parents are working from home as well. So concentrate on what you can do. As much as possible have a routine so your children know what to expect each day, and make a timetable with 30 min time slots on what you are expecting your children to be doing (add simple pictures/icons to this for those who can’t yet read). Your children can cross off each activity as they accomplish it.
Ensure your child knows what they are meant to be learning (as opposed to doing) with each activity they do. They do of course need to know what they are meant to do, but it is really important they know what the point of each activity is. “You are learning to spell the ‘g’ sound”. “You are learning about the structure of an essay.” If you do not know what your child is meant to be learning in an activity, ask the teacher.
Keep the atmosphere positive; if they or you are getting frustrated, take a break. No one can learn or be productive if they are angry, upset or frustrated. Physical movement is a really great way of resetting the brain ready to learn. If they can move (in whatever works for them in your circumstance) for a few minutes that will often really help.
Remember, there is a lot of great learning that can happen in the home that is not what we think of as traditional school learning such as cooking, building, creating, performing, inventing, playing. Encourage your child to develop a ‘passion project’, something they are interested in, and take it as far as they like.
Reinforce all the positives you see, often.
About the principal Kerrie Russel
Kerrie’s children studied through School of the Air for a number of years when her husband was a remote nurse was working in Papunya, a small aboriginal community 240km North West of Alice Springs. Kerrie then taught at School of the Air before returning as the principal in 2017. She has a wide appreciation of the School of the Air having experienced it from a number of perspectives.
When borders re-open travellers to the Northern Territory can visit the School of the Air visitor centre in Alice Springs. For more information, visit www.assoa.nt.edu.au.
For more information on the Northern Territory, visit www.northernterritory.com.
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