As we all anxiously await a return to normal, the worst thing that could happen for schools is just that—return to normal. If we do not emerge from the situation COVID-19 has placed us in with lessons learned in how to think, teach and learn differently, we have failed.
This is a vulnerable time for anyone, especially for those who are struggling to adjust the way they do a job that has always been understood as a face-to-face interaction. One of the realities of being forced into a remote environment is that we all have a learning curve—nearly every educator has had to become a learner again. It is also a powerful opportunity to learn and unlearn who gets to provide knowledge and who gets to gain knowledge.
The structure of our traditional classrooms heavily relies on the teacher as the giver of knowledge and our students as the recipients. A virtual environment quickly taught us the difficulty of replicating that structure. There is not the same level of engagement, and students have an element of choice. Where the teacher becomes the learner is whether or not we are paying attention to the choices our students are making, and why.
For example, we had a middle school math teacher share that one of their students had not been completing any of the skills practice assignments, but maxing out the time on a puzzle-based math program that is aligned with the skills practice. Could it be that the puzzles created a novel learning process that motivated the student? Was the puzzle program more accessible?
Educators must be asking themselves these questions as they see the choices their students are making when it comes to completing assignments in a remote learning environment. Our students’ choices tell us something: Whether or not they watch an instruction video, complete practice problems, or log-in to small group lessons—or, whether they are choosing project-based learning or open-ended tasks. Thinking about ourselves as not just teachers, but also learners, allows us to wonder about what students know and want to know, how they are making sense of things and what motivates and engages them. Who are our students now as readers, mathematicians, scientists, theorists or historians? This is an opportunity to look deeper than just whether or not students are completing assignments, but rather to look and discuss the why behind their choices.
The virtual environment has offered us time and space to have 1:1 meaningful, affirming, and inquisitive conferences with students about what they are thinking. Physical proximity pre-COVID-19 did not guarantee these interactions were happening. Often our pursuit of content mastery took priority and diminished these opportunities to judgment, adjustment and intervention. We now have until the beginning of the next school year to enhance our own inquiry skills as teacher-learners—our listening, observation, and study skills that push us to interrogate, communicate and provide forward-moving feedback as a means to learning. In a virtual setting, where we are spending less face time with students, we are providing them more opportunities to showcase and guide their own learning. This structure gifts us time and space to communicate with students and families in a more intimate and personalized way to drive ownership of learning.
Blended Learning Can Shift Our Practice
Over the past five years, the Zeroing in on Math Initiative, a partnership between nonprofit school improvement organization EdVestors and the Boston Public Schools, has exemplified how blended learning can shift our practice, perspective and approach to learning using technology. One major lesson this initiative has taught us is the importance of teacher facilitation of learning with a digital interface. To apply that to the current situation, it is important we remember that online learning does not replace the teacher; but rather, it is a tool that gives students the space to exercise choice in a personalized learning path and teachers the opportunity to focus on facilitating this learning environment.
Online learning is not about task completion—it should free up the teacher to observe what students can do when they are given independence. We now have the space to make curious inquiry of student thinking, ask clarifying and probing questions of our learners and give thoughtful forward-moving feedback to students. This is an opportunity to relearn and lay a path for a new way of educating that is affirming, responsive and growth-focused for all.
The world has changed, and our schools must change, too. In this new era, we must engage students to think deeply, and position teachers as learners of students’ strengths, assets, needs and growth areas. Measuring engagement by accuracy and completion makes us information processors and taskmasters, not learners. Let us use this time to be, and do, different.
Our classrooms must shift to encompass this dual path of learning and re-invention. We must create more experiences where educators are the learners, too, just as much as the students. Learning drives teaching, not the other way around.
If we as educators commit ourselves to learning the motivations and strengths of students, we will be better equipped to teach them at their point of understanding. This idea is not novel, but often underutilized as a learning and teaching tool for educators. We must adjust our affinity for a banking model of education to a more communicative and inventive medium for inquiry for both students and teachers. That is where knowledge and progress is found.