BettFest2021: Education adapts to increase focus on skills and student wellbeing 

Higher level cognitive, technical, and social-emotional skills are being prioritised alongside traditional curricula following the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Vice-President of Education at Microsoft. 

In her keynote speech at the annual BettFest education conference, Barbara Holzapfel focused on how schools and learning are changing due to Coronavirus. She also said school leaders and teachers were in a great position to help young people develop their social and emotional skills. These will not only help them cope with adversity and disruption in their lives but will also make them more employable, she added. 

A recent McKinsey & Company report found that employers are looking for a mix of cognitive, social-emotional and technical skills. These are the same skills that are helping students to navigate remote learning. 

Schools across the world had to accelerate digital plans last year as governments tried to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic by bringing in lockdowns, with many children learning remotely from home. This has led to a surge in the number of students using digital tools such as Microsoft Teams to engage with their teachers, collaborate with classmates and complete schoolwork remotely. 

Home schooling: A father holds paper while helping his young son, who is using a laptop

Barbara Holzapfel said the pandemic has shown that it’s critical teachers and students continue to communicate and engage with each other. 

COVID-19 has caused the convergence of three crises: a public health crisis, an economic crisis and, in many parts of the world, a humanitarian crisis. Education is at the intersection of all three,” she said. “Schools have responded to this crisis, transitioned to a new school year and are reimagining how learning will continue in the future. 

“It’s important as we move forward and reimagine learning to focus on the individual learner and critical skills, prioritize social and emotional learning, create a safe and secure environment for all learners and drive scale to keep all students engaged in learning.” 

She added that students feel there are some benefits to remote learning: they like not having to spend time traveling to school, and appreciate the more flexible schedule that allows them to work at a pace that suits them. Additionally, they value having family members more engaged in their learning. 

During BettFest, which usually takes place in London but was held virtually this year, Microsoft announced a number of software and hardware updates for inclusive learning environments of the future – inclusive, collaborative, engaging and prioritizing student wellbeing. 

Reflect, for example, lets educators use Microsoft Teams to connect with individual students and invite them to share, one-to-one with their teacher, how they are feeling in general or about specific topics, such as learning from home, assignments, current events or a change within their community. 

During BettFest, Microsoft announced that Reflect will be easier to deploy via its own Teams app and will integrate with Education Insights in Teams. 

Barbara Holzapfel added: “How students feel has a big impact on their ability to learn. In a traditional classroom setting, teachers can see nonverbal cues on how a particular student is doing. That’s more difficult in a virtual setting. Reflect can help address thatThe app allows the teacher to hold a one-on-one check-in with the student and ask him or her questions on how they are feeling. It’s only a few questions but it gives the teacher a critical insight into their pupils. These quick reflections support emotional transparency in the class setting, create a more positive school climate and foster great wellbeing – even when students return to the classroom. 

“Articulating how you’re feeling is actually quite hard, so Reflect also helps children develop a language around that, which is a key learning in itself. Children can begin to recognise and label their emotions, and that’s a critical skill for everyone.” 

City of Peterborough Academy – part of Greenwood Academies Trust – is one of many UK schools placing more focus on pupils’ mental health. It has launched after-school and wellbeing clubs as well as the Thrive app for its students, who are aged 11 to 16. This allows them to express their emotions, feelings and concerns through their smartphone or tablet. A YMCA counsellor can also visit to talk to young people in more detail about their mental health. 

Natasha Epton, Head of Digital Curriculum at Greenwood Academies Trust, said: As a Trust, our focus has always been on the whole child. Educational achievement is built on the bedrock of social and emotional wellbeing. Our Trustees, the CEO and all staff at every level in all our schools focus on enabling young people to thrive. Technology is a powerful tool to provide young people with another route through which they can express their emotions, feelings and concerns.

“The Microsoft 365 suite is used in different ways in all of our schools but a common thread is the creative approach staff have taken to use it to support wellbeing, whether this is through Minecraft: Education Edition or Flipgrid. The pandemic has presented a unique challenge to all educators of how to maintain a community of learners when they can no longer meet physically. The use of Microsoft 365 means learners and staff can still meet and work together despite the unprecedented challenges they face. 

Barbara Holzapfel added: “2020 proved that everything can change without warning. In education, the importance of personal connection was highlighted, the integration of technology was accelerated, and the role of teachers was amplified. It’s encouraging to see the dedication to moving learning forward, to a future where all students have the opportunity, the support, and the tools to be creative, confident and optimistic learners, realizing their full potential. 

To learn more about how Microsoft is designing learning experiences that help students be creative and confident learners, read our BettFest blog.

See our remote learning hub for educators, which features events, demos and courses: