Reflections on Remote Learning

Without students of our own, we’ve had the unique opportunity to be able to objectively observe the transition to remote learning around the country. We’ve talked to numerous parents, teachers, and kids about their experience and thought a lot about what is working and what is not working, and here is a bit about what we’ve learned:

  1. Remote learning is not and cannot be just school learning that happens at home. Some models we have seen have tried to just take the learning that would have happened in school over the rest of the year and converted them to an online environment. Worksheets that would have been completed in class get uploaded for students to print. Lectures that would have happened in class get pre-recorded or delivered live via Zoom. Assignments that would have been given in class are given in almost the same way, but at home. The problem is that it doesn’t work this way because the curriculum that was designed to be delivered in class was not designed for a remote learning environment, so it’s very much like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Instead of retrofitting assignments and activities, the learning should take advantage of the benefits of home learning -- flexible schedule with blocks of time, for example -- and focus on overarching goals such as improving student reading skills.

  2. Sitting all day is not good for anyone. When in class, students need time for recess or to go to the bathroom or to stretch, and that is built into the schedule along with other opportunities to move (go from the carpet to the tables, cross the room to meet a partner, etc). Additionally, since the pandemic began “Zoom fatigue” has been oft discussed as the reason adults are much more drained after an online meeting than they would be after an in-person meeting. So, too, our students suffer from this fatigue and just generally need to move. Also, some students don’t learn best in front of a computer; it’s draining and distracting, and mostly appeals to only certain kids. We need to recognize all of this and ensure remote learning isn’t synonymous with “site in front of your computer” learning. Students can still be on the floor building or in the backyard observing or on the coach sketching. The computer doesn’t have to be involved always.

  3. Students need agency and control over their learning. Developing intrinsic motivation is essential to the success of a remote learning program. When in a traditional classroom setting, some students are motivated by pleasing the teacher or a pom-pom jar or extra recess, and there is always the potential threat of being sent to the office for misbehaving, if all else fails. Additionally, being surrounded my peers, give some students a needed push. That just isn’t the case for an online learning environment. Students need to want to learn and want to be engaged for the whole thing to work, and the best way to do that is to develop that intrinsic sense of motivation. The long blocks of time at home provide ample opportunity for students to identify and work towards a passion or specific interest, and when they are “working” on something that genuinely interests them, it feels a lot less like “work.” Cultivating self-directed and independent learners is (or should be) a goal of school, and for a remote learning environment this is an essential characteristic to foster.

  4. There is a real opportunity for civic engagement. While reading, writing, and math are (and will always be) important, we need to be working with our kids to instill in them a sense of community and citizenship, which means that they look beyond themselves and consider how they can help those around them. There are always problems to be solved and ways to help (just check out our Mission: Possible program!), and the need is even more severe now. There are masks to be made and delivered, thank you cards to be written and given, food and diapers to be collected and distributed, letters of advocacy to be drafted and sent, restructuring to think through and implement -- problems to be identified and solved. Getting students involved in these and other projects is not only an educational opportunity, but can also give them a sense of purpose during a really hard time, supporting their social-emotional growth.

  5. Parents should be a support system, but not relied upon to be the teachers. Parents are key stakeholders in any educational system and should be viewed as partners. It’s very stressful for many families to have that line between parent/educator blurred, however, not only because it means that parents have to be more available to their children much of the day, but also because it means that kids don’t have that same safe space with their parents. Yes, a remote learning environment requires a bit of a shift in the role of the parent, and the parents can and should help set up their kids for success by ensuring they have the right technology and supplies, helping them think through where the best space would be to engage in the learning, and supporting their ongoing learning needs just as they would in a normal school environment, but parents shouldn’t have to be homeschool educators as well. The activities and assignments outlined for the kids should be tasks they can do mostly independently or with the support of their teachers. Let parents be parents during a time that kids really need them to play that role.

  6. The measure of success is student learning, not teacher teaching. It does not matter how seamlessly the technology works or how flawlessly the curriculum was adapted to a remote learning environment if the students aren’t learning. It does not matter if the rest of the math standards were addressed or if the rest of the reading was assigned if the students aren’t learning. It does not matter if four forms of technology were used to create really fun activities if the students aren’t learning. And none of it matters at all if the students are developing negative feelings towards learning during the process. Students should always be at the center of the learning, and that is even more important during a remote learning environment. As such, we need to be constantly considering the student perspective and gaging where and how learning is happening. Worksheet completion and meeting attendance are not measures of learning, so we need to figure out how to assess student learning accurately and make adjustments as needed.

For us at Einstein Academy, these are all principles that we have built into our school from the start, making sure students are always at the center. By maintaining focus on what’s important, schools everywhere can ensure they stay there, even during remote learning.

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