What Does Virtual Learning Look Like with Our Youngest Students?


A Conversation with Lower School Principal Geoff Heney of Hong Kong International School

Geoff is a teacher who has taught primary students in Ottawa, Canada in between international experiences in Seoul, Korea and Shanghai, China. In the past 13 years, he has been a counselor and principal in Doha, Qatar, and is currently the lower primary principal at his present home at Hong Kong International School.

By Allison Zmuda, Bena Kallick, and Lorena Kelly.


Every day when we are working with school leaders, there are persistent questions on what remote learning should look like with primary-aged students. We connected with Geoff Heney, Lower School Principal at Hong Kong International School, for insight on how he has led virtual learning over the past 4 months in PreK-Grade 2. One of the things that immediately stood out was his collegial and inviting tone. He said, with regret, that the urgency of this time called for immediate and clear decision making. He realized that he had to become a “benign dictator” and provide clear and mandatory guidelines for staff in the design, delivery, and engagement with students. Although that first weekend before home learning was sketching out how to approach this, for 17 weeks, Geoff collaborated daily with his two Associate Principals, two instructional coaches, and the senior leadership team to guide the process and ensure vertical alignment. They needed to intentionally develop connections, consistency, and avoid “teaching” or instruction as simply the assignment of work.

Geoff set forth a sequence of practices to guide virtual learning.


In recognition of the importance of the teacher-child relationship to young children, they made this a valued priority by focusing the first week only on each teacher setting up 1-1 sessions with the child where they could learn more about their interests, where they like to study, and generally, how they can learn together. After this first week of personalizing, they intentionally moved to setting up some small group work. This offered another level of relationships — communication with classmates and collaboration to deepen their connections and foster a sense of the classroom. After time, they realized that there was a need for students to have a greater sense of community. They decided to have whole group learning take place with the specialists where, for example, the music teacher could have them sing songs, the physical education teacher could have them play games. This provided a rich way to mix 1-1 sessions, a variety of grouping possibilities, and whole group experiences to foster a sense of a classroom community that the students dearly needed during this time.


Common agreements and expectations are key. Geoff established common agreements within the first week of remote learning for both staff and families. He acknowledged that balancing teacher well-being and what is best for students was an important part of the process. For example, each homeroom teacher must do a morning meeting video 2 minutes or less welcoming students and clarifying the day’s agenda. This provided a foundation for teachers and clarity regarding the learning focus with flexibility in the selection of strategies and activities, and it provided students and parents with clarity and understanding of the learning intentions. Creating an atmosphere where teachers and parents are in alignment with student learning.

Present learning in a way that parents can understand, participate in, and provide feedback on. Geoff leveraged his instructional coaches to develop learning grids that are clear, brief, and family friendly. He also enlisted his technology coach to develop helpful tutorials for parents on an established set of software platforms where learning will take place. Parents completed three surveys since the closure in February that provided important feedback on the school’s instructional approach. In addition, parents were able to voice their home learning tips with other families.

Use Engaging Instructional Strategies

Focus on teaching points. Because the learning grids were developed by the instructional coaches, PreK-2 teachers focused on designing and filming mini-lessons. Typical practice is that the lesson is no more than 4 minutes of direct instruction so that students can immediately begin applying their learning. There was flexibility for grade level teams in how to divide up the labor. Grade 2 for example shared responsibility for filming reading and math teaching points but decided that each teacher would individually do writing points as it was more responsive to student work. Geoff reported that most staff found the effort put into crafting mini-lessons quite rewarding. There was rich dialogue with one another regarding instructional approaches and strategies.

Face to face connection is key. Teachers have a weekly 1:1 Zoom call with every student to conference about progress with their reading performance. This typically lasts 20-30 minutes in which they can hear the student reading as well as discover interests in what they are reading. In addition, they have two small group Zoom calls (3-5 students) per week, 1 for math and 1 for writing. Geoff shared that one of the surprising benefits was how students reading scores continued to grow over the springtime. He credits this to the 20-30 minutes of 1:1 teacher-student reading conferences each week as well as the use of RazKids in Zoom to work on their individual reading levels.

Students benefit from being together — playing, sharing, and learning. Beginning in week 5, the teachers recognized that students were missing the opportunity to be a part of a whole class community. In week 5, to avoid putting an additional burden on the classroom teachers, specialists and counselors led meetings with the whole class in order to build a classroom community. Since students missed so many months in isolation, they decided that students in each class will be remaining with one another as the progress to the next year.

Parents need support too. The school made certain that there was regular communication with parents about what was expected of students with key indicators of where parental support might be necessary. Schedules were designed with as much asynchronous learning as possible, giving parents the flexibility to develop at home routines for learning. Parents are provided with updates on their child’s learning. The school is continuously revising reporting and feedback strategies to affirm the learning that is taking place in an effort to assure parents and students that despite the new platforms academic growth is taking place.

Geoff was very clear that all of the plans are providing a reassuring sense of organization, care, and growth in a very unstable time. He acknowledged they are struggling to remain adaptive in a time when planning is captive to so much uncertainty. Yet, as you follow the links to their website, you will see the incredibly imaginative and responsive work that they, as a whole school community, are doing on behalf of keeping student learning learning as the epicenter of their decision making. Using student voice, parent voice, teacher voice, and his knowledge of best practices, Geoff leads the youngest of our learners through powerful educational experiences in a novel and unexpected situation. There is much to learn from his example to support others during this time.

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