The Secret to Distance Learning during the Coronavirus Pandemic? Learning Is Still the Focus

Distance learning in a pandemic doesn’t change the focus on learning.

At a time when educators are typically gearing up for the annual grind of standardized testing and the other chaos associated with the last quarter of the school year, we happened upon the most significant health crisis in 100 years. The coronavirus pandemic has upended education as we know it for the time being–shifting education almost entirely into a distance learning format. Because there are almost no professionals as scrappy and resourceful as educators, teachers have hopped into action across the country to implement distance learning for students at an unprecedented scale. 

There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about this effort. It is challenging, if not impossible, for schools to replicate the full experience of in-person learning. When factoring in practical issues of equity and access, this mission becomes even more complicated. It is one thing for school systems and public-private partnerships to come together to ensure 100% of students have working devices and access to broadband internet so they can participate in distance learning. It’s an entirely different challenge to deliver effective distance learning to children who may be too young to read and are not in a position where parents can spend a lot of time helping them at home. And for children with special needs or children who are emerging multilinguals who require the kind of support that cannot be met by a one-size-fits-all distance learning model. And for children who struggle academically in the in-person context who may have even less support now.  

But if we are honest, is this really all that different from the challenges we face in the brick & mortar classroom? The most dramatic shift in education in the last few years is the transition from focusing on teaching to obsessing over student learning, and not all teachers have made this shift. Educators can be gifted orators with compelling learning activities that look amazing on Pinterest, but if students do not demonstrate evidence of learning, none of that really matters. To be clear, it is important to allow for some grace considering the tremendous lift teachers are being asked to pull off as they attempt to transform their traditional instruction into distance learning models. Something is certainly better than nothing, but if the “something” students are asked to do is not designed with clear learning outcomes in mind and concrete opportunities for students to present evidence of their learning, this will not be enough. 


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The interesting thing about obsessing over learning is that it necessitates an individualistic approach designed to meet the needs of each student. The sudden implementation of distance learning presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the K-12 education system to shift from a model serving “all” students to a model custom-designed to meet the needs of each student – something that should have been the focus even in the in-person context. Most, if not all districts have implemented some sort of distance learning program on at least a temporary basis. Here are three tips for optimizing your distance learning program in a way that prioritizes learning over everything else: 

1. Ask what families need instead of assuming you know best. 

As much as school systems say they value parent involvement, the practice of “we’re just going to make this extremely complex decision with tremendous consequences and just fill families in after the fact” is much closer to standard operating procedures. With the rapid move to distance learning, including parent feedback and ideas into the frontend, the “good enough for now” version may not have been practicable. But continuing to move forward without meaningful parental involvement is a sure way to sabotage student learning outcomes.  

To fix this, do not presume you know what parents need to support their child’s success. The question, “what do I need to know to help your child succeed academically” is a question that has always mattered and matters even more in the distance learning context. Schools are rightfully concerned with making sure children in poverty have access to the two free meals a day schools typically provide for them. Schools are also doing an incredible job thinking through the complex issues around access to technology, leveraging everything from free internet service from local providers, public access television, and making sure students have access to devices. But if we really ask families “what do I need to know to help your child succeed academically” and really listen to the responses, we might just get insights into problems we never would have thought about. 

We could learn, for instance, that access to devices and wifi is not as much of a challenge as the fact that some families with 4 or more children and working parents just do not have the time to effectively monitor and support learning from home during working hours. That might lead school systems who are requiring daily work to be turned in at 3 pm every day to rethink this process. We could also learn that parents that want to be helpful do not have appropriate physical spaces in their homes for their children to concentrate. That they have a sick person in their home being quarantined and are extremely limited in what they can have their children accomplish academically. That parents who are normally super-involved have seen their economic worlds crushed as a result of this pandemic and are too worried about basic survival to worry about whether their children are logging on this week. We could learn that parents are most worried about their students zooming through assignments too quickly and are worried about how to keep their children engaged in learning beyond what your distance learning program requires. 

We don’t know what we don’t know. And we cannot set up an effective distance-learning model if teachers do not know about potential barriers to learning and develop solutions with families to help them overcome these barriers.  

2. Emphasize intellectual prep over “lessons” 

“I’ve got all my lessons up” is no more of a “mission: accomplished” sign than saying you completed a lesson plan in the in-person context. The idea of intellectual prep is a fancy way to think about your learning goals for a particular lesson with each student’s unique learning needs and the context in mind. There are three questions to consider for effective intellectual prep:  

(1) Do they know what they need to know to begin the learning process for this lesson? Before diving into new content, assessing whether students have appropriately mastered the prerequisites to a specific learning objective is crucial. These students still deserve an opportunity to complete the on-level assignment but must have access to mini-lessons, at a minimum, to ensure they have the foundational concepts, key vocabulary terms, and any other “they should already know this” information. This question can be extended to “do they already know what I’m about to teach them” in the case of advanced learners. This is also crucial information, giving you the data you need to differentiate by providing extended and/or accelerated learning opportunities instead of having students work through content they already know how to do.  

(2)  Do they know what is happening right now? Covering new concepts, vocabulary, algorithms, and procedures mean little without a mechanism for knowing that students are actually understanding what they are doing in real-time. Thinking about concrete questions to ask and appropriate evidence of learning students should produce to demonstrate their on-the-fly understanding is crucial. Even more crucial: having evidence to show you whether students are misunderstanding new material and knowing how they are misunderstanding it. You can preempt this misunderstanding by using mistake analysis as part of how you explain new concepts. This is formative assessment, which might look a little different in distance learning than it does in-person but still seeks to answer the same question: what do I need to do differently so that each student (again, not “all students” but “each student”) successfully demonstrates evidence of learning? 

(3) Did they learn it? The distance learning version of the exit slip gives you the opportunity to dive deeply into the extent to which students can demonstrate evidence of successful mastery of the learning objective. Can they clearly articulate what successful completion of this learning activity looks like? And if so, can they independently and successfully complete this learning activity?  

3. Remember that the “why” still matters 

There was a time when the only reason I showed up to high school was because my 3-on-3 basketball team in PE was pretty good and was getting very far in the playoffs where the only prize was bragging rights. In 4th grade, I once walked 2 miles to school in a snowstorm not because my teacher had some incredible learning activity that I didn’t want to miss, but because I simply loved being around my classmates. Let’s not forget that the “why” still matters. Giving students the opportunity to connect with their peers wherever possible might be that why. Being intentional about giving students opportunity for physical activity, access to the arts, something that feels like recess. It is a sad reality that schools are the safe haven for some of our students. This is one area distance learning can never fully replace. But even the overwhelmed teacher doing it all right now might be able to make time to do one-on-one check-ins for students who we know need that connection. Don’t get so caught up in the Bloom’s that we forget about the Maslow.  

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