Whether we like it or not, our future ability to keep teachers safe and at home in the midst of a deadly pandemic is largely dependent on our approach to distance learning. I’ve been talking to countless parents lately who are looking for extra help this upcoming school year. And in many of the conversations I’ve had, parents have talked about how challenging remote learning was for their family, and how concerned they were about their child’s lack of interaction both with their peers and their teachers.

Of course, we cannot talk about distance learning without talking about equity. While it would seem that improvements have been made in terms of access to digital technology and Wifi since March, access to remote learning is largely dependent on race and socio-economic status. The pandemic is disproportionately affecting People of Color, low-income folx, and working class people, and this is especially true for education.

And while this is most certainly an unfair predicament for teachers to be in–in the sense that we are having to pick up the pieces of a broken government who refuses to put policies in place that will support working families during this challenging time–the likelihood of teachers being able to stay home is quite low if distance learning goes poorly again this Fall.

Looking to improve your distance learning practices? Try these tips:

Choose your technology wisely.

This is not the time to drastically increase your dependence on education technology applications. Flipping the classroom has its limits, and making instructional videos is often labor-intensive and unsustainable.

In my book, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, I offer a four-question framework for choosing digital technology for your classroom, and this applies to distance learning, as well. Before deciding on a given app or program for your classroom. Ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Will the technology minimize complexity?
  2. Will it maximize individual power and potential?
  3. Will it reimagine learning experiences?
  4. Will is preserve or enhance human connection?

The final question is, perhaps, the most important. While it matters that education technology minimizes complexity, maximizes individual power and potential, and reimagines learning, what matters most is that education technology does not dehumanize learning. Learning is dehumanized when kids are forced to work in silos, consuming and regurgitating content in the form of videos and multiple-choice questions.

Instead, choose digital technology for its ability to provide points of convergence for students, including video conferencing apps like Google Meet, Hangouts, and Zoom, so that students can be constantly connected and learning through social interaction. Web-based, adaptive tools not only have diminishing returns and require a great deal of passive screen time to be effective, they also assume students are receptacles that need to be filled with knowledge. Good teachers know that content acquisition isn’t learning. Students need to connect with others in order to learn.

Make your synchronous learning blocks multi-dimensional.

In my opinion, there really isn’t a lot of purpose in an asynchronous block. Asynchronous learning is synonymous with work completion. Having experienced the detrimental effects of asynchronous learning–both in San Francisco when I worked for an education technology start-up company and network of microschools, and in the first week of remote learning this Spring–it’s clear that asynchronous learning blocks aren’t student-centered.

We all know that work completion isn’t learning, and if your asynchronous learning time entails students completing worksheets or flying through workbooks, you need to reconsider your approach. Not only is this approach isolating and dehumanizing, it’s bound to create an unsustainable workload for you, as you’ll have to look through all of that work or data later on.

Instead, adapt the workshop model to a digital environment. The workshop model, originally developed by Lucy Calkins and her team at the Teachers’ College Reading and Writing Project, consists of three main components: the mini-lesson, workshop, and reflection. Engaging the whole group in a mini-lesson allows teachers to model a reading strategy, engage in shared writing, or perhaps even model a new math game. By keeping this to 10 or 15 minutes, students are not required to stare at a screen for too long, while still allowing you to get your point across. After the mini-lesson concludes, use Zoom Breakout Groups or Google Hangouts calls to check in with groups of students or individuals.

This is what I mean by making your learning blocks multi-dimensional. By toggling between whole-group, small-group, and individualized conferences, both teachers and students get the transitions they need to keep engagement high, meanwhile allowing students time for small-group collaboration and time for independent work.

Use open-ended tasks and journals to make learning a conversation.

Sometimes the linear structure of the standard workshop model doesn’t meet your class’s needs. For me, personally, the mini-lesson, workshop, reflection model didn’t work for my math workshop lessons a lot of the time. In math workshop, we embrace the Singapore approach, which actually entails a great deal of whole-group discussion and discourse, in addition to pockets of collaborative learning and independent work.

Complex instruction is a style of teaching created by Rachel Cohen and Elizabeth Lotan in 1997. Complex instruction has three core components:

  • Multiple-ability curriculum
  • Human-centered instructional strategies
  • Culturally-aware pedagogy

Open-ended tasks and journaling allow teachers to teach to these three components of complex instruction. When tasks are open-ended, students of varying ability levels can find access points into the curriculum because students can use a variety of methods that are suited to their developmental readiness. YouCubed and Illustrative Mathematics have some great open-ended tasks. For instance, students who operate in a concrete stage of math can leverage concrete strategies like base-ten blocks or number cards to solve problems, while a students who is operating in an abstract stage of math can use more complex algorithms for problem-solving. What’s more, using human-centered instructional strategies like dialogue, discourse, and collaborative learning allow students to analyze other students’ methods, adding nuance and complexity to learning in math.

This expands beyond math, too. The workshop model provides students with opportunities for open-ended tasks in other subjects. In Reading and Writing Workshop, the notion of the minilesson-workshop-reflection structure creates points of convergence and divergence for students, allowing them to partner read, apply strategies and skills independently to choice-based texts, or even engage in book clubs or other projects that leverage literacy skills. At the heart of open-ended, multiple-ability tasks lies student choice–and not the type of student choice where students learn whatever they please, but the type of student choice that empowers kids with unlimited possibilities for paths to learning.

Let equity guide you.

To be human-centered and culturally aware means to ensure that every child in the classroom is getting what they need. We must remember that “needs” expand so far beyond academic content. In fact, I would argue that our students’ needs for human-centered practices and culturally responsive teaching come before their needs to academic content that is at their “just right” level.

This is not the time to download a bunch of apps or web-based, adaptive programs like Khan Academy. This is a time to maximize synchronous learning with discussion, discourse, and small-group learning. This is a time to use live learning blocks to conference with students, check in on their emotional well-being, and have endless conversations about learning.

We must remember that work completion is not learning. We must remember that simply providing worksheets or time on an app is more likely to make our students disengage from learning and reinforce problematic narratives about learning. While it may seem unfair, we have to prove to families and administrators alike that we can make remote learning work in the midst of a global pandemic.

And we’re going to have to prove that if we want to keep teachers and students safe while we figure this whole pandemic thing out.

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