Will Education Embrace Remote Learning?

“Remote learning is here to stay for a while,” said Kristen Brody, a CPS parent who spoke at a recent online panel organized by Raise Your Hand, a parent advocacy group. “We need to plan for the long term and we need to have something in place for our families and our students.”

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March 13th, will mark the 1-year anniversary of remote teaching for me personally. March 15th I will transition back into my physical building (to continue teaching remotely) and then students come back a month after that. It’s all part of a nationwide trend to return to “normal” however, the new normal might not be so great. I’m wondering if we’re overlooking the power and potential of remote learning in our rush to return to in-person instruction.

I have connected with new students, in new ways,; We show off our pets and plants, and I’ve noticed a lot of growth in a lot of students. I’ve seen new friendships form and grow in these digital environments. My lessons to have evolved, what was at first a glorified Zoom singalong, is now an engaging and fully interactive experience that has students showing off a wide variety of talents. Many of my students are safe healthy and happy, but I worry that all this will be lost in the coming months as attention shifts to mask-wearing, social distancing, and sanitizing routines to keep everyone safe and healthy.

“Our first instinct is this panic, kind-of-makeup-for-the-lost-time approach that educators might feel pressured to take, but really it’s self defeating,”

I might be biased, but it’s worth praising and celebrating teachers who, at the drop of a hat, had to reinvent their entire field. Everyone panicked, people claimed it was impossible, and we all knew for certain that there would be massive learning loss. Yet, a year later the world has moved on and virtual instruction has evolved to meet the needs of students, and the “learning loss” was far milder than expected. Administrators and policymakers are really out of touch with what’s happening in education. I have joined Facebook Groups, Reddit subs, virtual meet-ups, and I am blown away by the content teachers are putting out. It is truly 21st-century learning, instilling soft skills in students, providing critical thinking opportunities, and collaboration that might not have been possible in the traditional classroom. We teachers, have changed teaching for the better, and hopefully forever. Remote instruction has strength and value, and I encourage us to not overlook it as we return to more traditional opportunities.

A Hidden Voice

When you think of your class or your students, there’s always one (or three) that jump to mind. It’s usually a loud, disruptive challenging student that you’d developed a fondness for. You think of how returning to in-person learning and the added structure and stimulation will help them. I’m sure that’s true but often overlooked are the other students, who don’t benefit from that time.; those who thrive in remote learning – and there are more than you think. In a number of ways, this time has allowed many students to gain their voice and grow confidence that would never have happened in the regular classroom. These students are often shy and would die if they accidentally drew any extra attention to themselves. However, when online, they can turn their camera off, enter a breakout room, or send an individual message. For me, these students and their hidden voices have really been the biggest success of this time. Often everyone is better for it, they make connections, ask interesting questions, and move instruction forward in a meaningful relevant way. Students are always more willing to listen to their peers, and when a quiet boy wants to show us the Globe Puzzle he just put together, we have a wonderful impromptu lesson about geography. Not from me either, taught by him. This is something that only would have happened during remote learning – and for each student, that benefits from in-person instruction there is problem one that prefers elements of remote learning more.

Increased Agency

“My children were in the house like if they worked a full-time job,” claimed one parent. It’s easy to hear these complaints and see remote learning as “too much” for students. Yet, many of these parents also complain that schools don’t so know enough to prepare students for the “real world”, we need to focus more on the skills and habits to make students independent. We started implementing a course for all middle schoolers at my school called the “5 Habits of Success” and while the title talks a big game, the content is a bit lacking. It’s common to see courses like this at the beginning of the year, trying to encourage the development of successful habits, but they rarely go beyond that. There isn’t a long-term commitment to these goals because the content takes over and there is no time for anything else. However, in remote learning, those skills become seamlessly integrated into the content. I used Google Classroom for years, but this year I’ve really noticed students being proactive about using the planning and organizing features. They use the calendar features and can see what is due in each class on their dashboard.

“Allow schools to create schedules that aren’t bound by their bell schedule and really fit what their students and their communities need,”

There also has been a lot of choice in both how and when assignments are completed. Remote learning isn’t in the traditional classroom and doesn’t keep traditional hours. Students can work hard for an hour and finish their work quickly and efficiently, or spread it throughout the day taking breaks in between. Obviously, the type-A teacher in me thinks one of those plans is better than the others, but it isn’t about ME. The learner is the one deciding and if they might fail that’s ok – there’s room for growth and improvement. They’re having more say now than they’ve ever had before. Anecdotally and possibly as a by-product of agency, I’ve received more direct emails from students this year than in any year past.

Learning Loss is not Low Rigor

Much of the negative press surrounding remote learning likes to highlight lagging test scores and what they refer to as “learning loss.” The term itself is actually quite a misnomer, since students aren’t actually losing learning at all. If you see a statistic or a headline that reads “Learning Loss leads to a 30% drop in reading scores,” you could easily rephrase that as “Students learn and retain up to 70% of their new content.” The idea that students aren’t learning during this time is absurd. It’s insulting and does a disservice to both the teachers and students to even suggest that. We already know that standardized tests don’t actually measure how much students learn and are a poor judge of educational quality. To score high on these tests you need immediate recall of specific knowledge and skills, often not what we think a “quality education” should be. Parents, teachers, and students all want to learn about things with real-world application, to be more independent and functional. Stakeholders want schools to teach soft skills, how to manage one’s time, how to schedule and plan, or things like prioritizing work and meeting deadlines. This is all being taught now more than ever. Those who lament “learning loss” and weakened academic rigor should be celebrating an increased rigor on these essential life skills, the same we’ve desperately sought for years.

Education as an Agent of Change

We all know the drawbacks, failings, and shortcomings of traditional schooling, yet we have only just begun to experience the potential benefits of remote learning. In less than a year teachers transformed their field through innovative ideas, best practices, and a sheer force of will. The entire pandemic has exposed both the cracks in our system and the light that shines through them. A sudden surfeit of resources and support rose to meet the challenge last year. Suddenly standardized tests were called off, students were allowed to borrow tech when they needed it, and compies were literally giving away free internet. All the demands teachers had been calling for, suddenly met. Schools began implementing and embracing Social and Emotional (SEL) curriculum and teachers were given time in their schedules to check in with students. Morning circles and community meetings were the new football games, suddenly every student was heard and every student was seen.

“My priority is to reestablish that sense of community and belonging in the classroom,”

Don’t take that away, normalize it. This is growth in the right direction, it is better for students, teachers, and society. Schools do more than dispense facts and students are more than just a test score. I know that this has been a difficult shift, and much of the burden has been placed on low-income and working-class families, so we need to empower not just teachers but schools to address this. When you think of the ‘heart of the community’ you often think of a church or a school. We know that disparaged communities are often best served by individuals in that community and who is more invested than the local school? Micro-grants, federal aid, and programs should expand out through schools to provide and empower local individuals and agencies. Imagine schools as community hubs, addressing the needs of the communities they serve. The benefit would be twofold: first, the community’s needs are addressed by people serving in it, but also education becomes more effective for students who have their basic needs met. Education is the driving force of innovation and prosperity and we need to value it, empowering those who care and serve as we begin to build a brighter future. The change is coming, I just want it to be led by teachers instead of bought by Bezos.

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