I just read a New York Times article about the state of U. S. schools today, based on the question, “‘Are American children getting adequate schooling in the pandemic?‘” [NYTimes 1.22.21]. It warns that inconsistency and disruption have been the only constants, that lack of guidance from the federal government has left districts to fend for themselves, that “there has been no official accounting of how many American students are attending school in person or virtually” [Ibid.]. This guarantees that we cannot know how many students have had face-to-face learning or what the educational outcomes might be, but the author argues that “some of the early data is deeply troubling” [Ibid.]
Given the variety of situations, the study chose to provide snapshots of seven districts that, together, provide a cross-section of America. While the snapshots offer interesting contrast, they also suggest confirmation that disadvantaged students suffer disproportionately. “‘Lower-income kids, kids of color, kids with unique needs like those who have a disability or other challenges — the numbers look very, very bad,’ said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy organization based at the University of Washington Bothell” [Ibid.]. They also confirm that students are suffering not only academically but also in terms of their mental health.
An earlier article in The Washington Post supports these findings. In December “A flood of new data — on the national, state and district levels — finds students began this academic year behind. Most of the research concludes students of color and those in high-poverty communities fell further behind their peers, exacerbating long-standing gaps in American education” [Washington Post, 12.6.20]
As a teacher, I’ve always cared about my students’ academic progress. As an activist, I’m working to impact the educational inequities that plague our less advantaged children. Yet I think we’re missing the boat here. Certainly, we need to improve online learning and work for more equity in educational opportunities to limit further harm that the pandemic may inflict on our students. Even more urgent, however, must be our efforts to address the mental and emotional consequences of the pandemic and the strain our students are under. If we ignore the trauma many students – and many families – are enduring for the sake of academic progress, we will ensure that neither improves adequately. Too many of our students will not succeed without more emotional and psychological support.
Last December the Superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, called for an immediate Marshall plan for education, a national commitment to address the national emergency in education [Washington Post 12.12.20]. I agree that such a plan is overdue, but it cannot focus on achievement without addressing mental and emotional health first. Our students are struggling. We’re all struggling. Those who feel helpless and overwhelmed will not achieve academically until they feel more hope. Let’s get our priorities straight here and serve our learners by meeting these needs.
My blog has been MIA for far too long while I dealt with some medical challenges, but I am back. Throughout this absence I’ve been pondering the future of education, convinced that teaching during the pandemic has created an opportunity for meaningful change yet concerned that we aren’t seeing that change come to fruition.
In my optimistic naivete, I had envisioned a more student-centered approach with more time for collaboration and independent work. Zoom fatigue is real for both learners and teachers –surely we would see a shift like this.
Sadly, I don’t think we have seen that shift. Teachers are overwhelmed with hybrid learning, with the challenge of keeping students engaged in virtual platforms that don’t foster relationships, with student absenteeism and distraction… and the list goes on. Students and their families also seem overwhelmed by the challenges of hybrid and virtual learning.
Sal Kahn, founder of Khan Academy, confirms this: “These traditional lessons are also too long and not interactive enough to hold a student’s attention over a video conference. The traditional paper-based homework that’s being assigned does not provide students with enough feedback or teachers with enough information to understand what students are learning” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/13/opinion/coronavirus-school-digital.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200819&instance_id=21408&nl=the-morning®i_id=71948775§ion_index=3§ion_name=idea_of_the_day_how_to_improve_remote_learning&segment_id=36497&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2].
Torrey Trust offers a clear vision for a better of way of doing things. A University of Massachusetts – Amherst professor of Educational Technology, she shares graphics that demonstrate alternative approaches to serve educators and their learners. The one I chose to include above offers concrete options to improve teaching and learning. Each link provides specific approaches and activities. For example, her “Connected Learning” link suggests multiple team-based activities, including team challenges, virtual board designs, and community quilts. Each strategy provides another way for students to actively learn together if the teacher provides a framework related to content. The National Writing Project supports this kind of connected Learning: “Young people learn best when actively engaged, creating, and solving problems they care about, and supported by peers who appreciate and recognize their accomplishments” [https://lead.nwp.org/knowledgebase/what-is-connected-learning/]. Her link to Universal Design for Learning strategies offers ways optimize individual choice and autonomy, customize the display of information, and vary methods for response [https://goalbookapp.com/toolkit/v/strategies].
Classrooms that use strategies like these employ active learning. The Harvard Gazette reminds us, “Study shows students in ‘active learning’ classrooms learn more than they think” [https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/study-shows-that-students-learn-more-when-taking-part-in-classrooms-that-employ-active-learning-strategies/]. The authors describe classes in which they “start each topic by asking students to gather in small groups to solve some problems. While they work, we walk around the room to observe them and answer questions. Then we come together and give a short lecture targeted specifically at the misconceptions and struggles we saw during the problem-solving activity. So far we’ve transformed over a dozen classes to use this kind of active-learning approach. It’s extremely efficient — we can cover just as much material as we would using lectures” [Ibid.] Compared with a control group that experienced only lectures, the active learners scored far higher on tests on the material.
During my own teacher training, one of my supervisors told me I was too focused on content, that I should consider teaching college because of that focus. By the time I was teaching my Problem-Based Learning class in the late 1990s, my focus had shifted to process so dramatically that even my traditional curriculum classes grew more student-centered. Over time, my students clearly showed more engagement and satisfaction.
My naïve hope that this kind of shift would be forced by our emphasis on online and hybrid learning may have been foolish, but it’s not too late to move toward this kind of teaching. We need a better way. Our teachers would be more fulfilled, and our students deserve it.
Parents, teachers, and administrators all reeled from the frustrations and challenges of the sudden shift to remote learning last Spring, so it’s no surprise that everyone needed a break. But it appears that remote learning cannot go away, and we have squandered a summer in which all those stakeholders might have prepared for the new reality.
School districts are struggling to determine what’s best for learners even as they acknowledge that 25% of teachers are high-risk and that support staff [nurses, secretaries, bus drivers] are essential to re-opening. Some have pushed back their opening date even for hybrid learning that combines in-person with remote; others have opted to go all remote from the beginning. Given the current stats for the pandemic, I suspect that most hybrid programs will find themselves having to close at some point in the Fall. Clearly, learning will be remote for a vast number.
How do we make it work better? How do we use this opportunity to improve teaching and learning? Surely it’s not enough to make do when this is our new normal. Just a few options:
- Reconsider educational roles. The Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state superintendents, outlined some roles schools might consider to focus attention in key areas: academics, technology, emotional support, and family outreach. Specialist leaders can help their colleagues succeed. For example, schools might consider having the teachers who were most successful with remote learning last Spring become School Remote Learning Leads with release time to support their colleagues. Academic Content Leads can be teachers with deep knowledge of standards, principals, and assistant principals. The principal, assistant principal, counselor, or social worker might become the Care Team Lead. This approach supports all faculty and staff in adjusting to the challenges of remote. If teacher contracts prove an obstacle, perhaps teacher’s associations will grant a temporary waiver.
- Do the work to establish classroom norms and build community that you’d normally do in person before you move to academic work.
- Recognize the inherent inequities in remote learning: internet access, access to devices, parental support, speed of internet, etc. Record Zoom sessions for later access for students who were unable to participate; seek ways to provide paper tools where internet is not available.
- Don’t depend on Zoom alone. Jennifer Casa-Todd writes, “We should be asking, is it more effective to have my students watch a video I created to learn a concept and then meet in real time to go over any issues or is it more effective to teach an interactive lesson in real time?” (https://jcasatodd.com/synchronous-vs-asynchronous learning/?fbclid=IwAR0sYP0Pf6FjuqJ0)
- Embrace technology, since we’re stuck with it, and seek out more digital tools like Screencastify and Padlet. Let students offer you ways they might want to share their learning.
- Rethink the purpose of learning. Never has it made more sense to move to a constructivist approach, to address real-world problems. Consider using problem-based learning for small groups. Real world topics promote engagement and make the relevance of the work obvious.
- “Pandemic pods,” groups of families organizing remote home schooling groups, perhaps even with hired support, offer a model for those who choose remote learning in publice schools – why not partner up with one or more families to provide additional support and share efforts?
- Make online learning as interactive as possible. Use breakout rooms in Zoom for small group work. Use Zoom surveys to create “quizzes.” Create an open forum or discussion board so that students can support and mentor each other.
- Provide ongoing feedback, not only in Zoom sessions. Consider emailing embedded comments on student writing sent to the teacher.
- Recognize that social/emotional learning and mental health have taken a hit with schools moving to online instruction. Work on ways to build in community-building. Reach out individually to students who seem to be disengaged or struggling.
These ideas provide a mere beginning. Remote learning remains essential. It’s up to us to make it worthwhile.
Articles about education, its current challenges, and its possible if uncertain future abound. In educational webinars I see committed if often exhausted educators problem-solving, keeping the focus on what’s best for their students in these unusual times. Too often our education system seems hopeless.
We don’t even know if schools will reopen later this summer or this fall. But despite President Trump’s prediction that “I think you’ll see a lot of schools open up,” all but a few states have suspended in-person classes for the rest of the academic year, and some are preparing for the possibility of shutdowns or part-time schedules in the fall. Illinois officials have gone even further, warning that remote learning could continue indefinitely. “This may be the new normal even in the fall,” said Janice Jackson, the chief executive of Chicago Public Schools. Yesterday “California State University, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, said on Tuesday that classes at its 23 campuses would be canceled for the fall semester, with instruction taking place almost exclusively online.”
Glaring inequity in access has never been more apparent. “The digital divide is real. Only two-thirds of rural homes have broadband; low-income families typically lack access to Internet-enabled devices beyond smartphones.”
Parents are burning out as they try to help their students with at-home learning, and there is “widespread concern that even with remote learning in place, many students will return to school behind where they would have been if they’d been in the classroom.”
Concerns for special education students have become particularly acute. “It is not only because their students’ challenges often make it more difficult for them to learn remotely, but also because districts are required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide specific services and meet particular goals within a certain time frame to any child deemed to be eligible for special education services. That can include not just academics, but related services such as occupational, physical and speech therapy.”
Nor can we hope to resume a functioning economy until schools reopen. “Now, with schools and child care centers closed, it’s obvious how much child care is a societal, not just an individual, need. Essential workers can’t show up without child care, and remote working parents struggle to work anything close to full time.”
Although these obstacles may seem insurmountable, we have the power to use them as steppingstones to reshape education. It is up to us to turn these obstacles into opportunities. Educational reform, long overdue, can no longer wait. We need to demand change:
- Learners need universal internet access.
- Effective schools must build stronger partnerships between parents and teachers.
- More research into what online learning can do well, and where face-to-face instruction is superior is now essential.
- Students need more ownership for their learning, and teachers need to coach and facilitate and create learning opportunities.
- We must recognize that schools are an essential part of our functioning society, not only because they prepare students for the future, but because they empower parents to function now. All of us benefit when schools serve students well.
We cannot afford to feel hopeless. Our schools have not always met the needs of their students or of society. If our educational system has been further broken by Covid-19, we must seize the opportunity to change as we rebuild. As we seek to reopen, we must reinvent.
As I watch my teacher friends and neighbor parents deal with remote learning, I find myself wondering about both the short-term and long-term impacts of the current upheaval.
Certainly teachers, students, and parents are likely gaining some technology skills as they navigate online learning and teaching. EdWeek insists that “[t]hese are not normal teaching and learning conditions. What we are experiencing now is emergency remote teaching and learning—or as some have called it, “pandemic pedagogy.” In that article, Natalie Milman assures us that well-designed online teaching can be effective, that “the truth is that it is not the medium that matters but the design of the learning experiences, the quality of the content, and the engagement of learners.” But, she warns, our emergency response to Covid is quite different, and the context of fear and uncertainty further challenges online instruction.
The current chaos causes questioning and exploration. How much remote learning is enough? When is it too much? Can Zoom gatherings replace face-to-face interaction? How can we fairly assess learning under these circumstances? How do we collect data about all this to inform future decisions?
Though the questions and options may often seem overwhelming, I hope they suggest a true opportunity to transform education. Now that we cannot continue business as usual, now that our traditional models of teaching and learning, and of assessment, have been upended, where do we go from here?
I hope we seize the opportunity to build on some of the very best changes occurring right now: more ownership of learning by the learner thanks to good facilitation of that learning by the teacher, more project-based and problem-based experiences that cause learners to think critically about the world around them and to solve problems, more collaborative learning made possible through technology, more self-publishing and sharing – these are the first that come to mind for me, but they are only the beginning.
In our home we start each morning with an expression of gratitude. Lately we’ve sought to include gratitudes for the occasional good changes brought to us by this pandemic. The challenges we all face may also become a force for good if we have the will to fight for positive change. Some would struggle to return to “normal” and business as usual. I would like to see us embrace the uncertainty that this pandemic has created and choose how to shape teaching and learning for the future. We can do better. We must do better by our learners. And if we do, then we will have found one silver lining in the current tragedy.