Traditional Classroom Practices to Leave Behind During Remote Learning

Higher Ed May 20 / May 30, 2020

-Anthony Rebora-


Anthony Rebora:
Hello, I’m Anthony Rebora. Welcome to Educational Leadership’s monthly podcast, a special installment of ASCD’s Learn Teach Lead Radio. I’m joined today by Justin Reich, who is an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Failure to Disrupt: Why technology alone can’t transform education, from Harvard University Press. Professor Reich has an article entitled, Keep It Simple Schools, and educational leadership’s recent special report on remote learning during the pandemic. That’s what we’re going to talk to him about today. Welcome, Justin. Thanks for joining us. Let’s talk about the article first. Obviously during this spring, as a result of the pandemic, a lot of schools have transitioned very quickly to remote or distance learning for the rest of the school year. Now in your article as a professor of educational technology, your advice is really not to overdo it, to hold back a little bit. What should schools be focusing on right now?

Professor Justin Reich:
So I think the best reference point we have for remote learning are the virtual schools that already exist in the United States and other parts of the world. And the best way to understand these schools is they use a coached homeschooling model. So there are very, very few K-12 institutions that try to do distance learning by using video conferencing to replicate what schools typically look like. Instead, what virtual schools do is they create curricula that are largely asynchronous materials packaged in one week, two-week bundles, and they provide that to families. And the expectations is that students will proceed at their own pace through that material with the full-time support of a parent or a caregiver. And the teacher’s role is to make that curriculum available and then to regularly check-in, provide lots of feedback, occasionally gather all the students together, but mostly spend their time reaching out individually to students and families to coaching them. And I think some version of that model is the most realistic thing for most schools to be trying to do right now, particularly with younger students.

Anthony Rebora:
As opposed to continuous online learning, you mean?

Professor Justin Reich:
Yeah, there are very few places that have the capacity for continuous online learning. I mean, the first thing is that for young students, they simply don’t have the self-regulated learning skills, the executive function. You can’t give a seven-year-old an iPad and say, “Participate in class for three hours a day and just do whatever your teacher says.” I mean, they’re going to wander away. They’re going to do other things. It’s not possible. Even for older students, who I think have more capacity for that kind of learning, people really need to think about American households are not equipped to have everyone in the house be able to participate in synchronous learning.

There are millions of families that don’t have access to broadband. There are millions of families that don’t have adequate devices, and even if they do have some devices and some access to broadband, it’s probably not enough for the whole family. So it might have been perfectly suitable last December for the family to have one laptop that they share between three kids and each of them does about 20 minutes of homework a night and they have a DSL internet connection and what they had was fine. But if what you’re trying to do is hours of synchronous learning, hours of online learning every day and mom and dad need to be able to work from home or they’re away from home because they need to do essential work, that technology infrastructure, which was fine for doing some homework occasionally in December, is not enough to allow everyone to participate in hours of synchronous learning every day.

Anthony Rebora:
Right. And as you point out, there are equity issues involved in that too. But you do talk about the relevance of project-based assignments and enrichment activities. Can you give some examples of what you mean by that and why they’re the most viable types of instruction right now?

Professor Justin Reich:
One piece of feedback that really struck me is there was a group of New Mexico educators who published on the state education site there. I think they were science educators. And they shared a message, which says, “It’s really hard to do school at home.” We have all kinds of structures that are in school from the routines we have in the day, to the norms that we create, to the resources that we have available. Trying to replicate school at home, in a lot of cases, is going to lead to frustrations and difficulties and insurmountable challenges. But there’s lots of great learning that can happen at home.

I was interviewed by a reporter from the Arctic Sounder, a newspaper on the north slope of Alaska. And in the north slope of Alaska, they have huge connectivity issues between schools and internet connections with families and things like that and villages connected by float planes. So, online based distance synchronous learning wasn’t going to work for that, but what a lot of their teachers said was this is a great time to reinforce traditional Inupiaq values and traditions. This is a great time for kids to learn to bake and to sew and to bead and to fix snow machines. Let’s do the kind of learning that we’re most well equipped to do, which can have really rich content connections. And then let’s try to get ourselves ready in the fall to do the kinds of learning that school is best suited for.

So in my own household, one activity that was a huge hit was our third-grade teacher sent home a time capsule, which I actually think is something that’s extensible to lots of different age grades. There is a series of challenges of information to gather each week. What are you seeing in the news? What have been the hardest parts of the quarantine? What have you learned most from this experience? What have been your favorite things to do? And we’re trying to record all that and we’re going to put it in a coffee can and bury it in our backyard and dig it up when my third grader is getting ready for graduation.

Anthony Rebora:
Yeah. That sounds like a great project. So getting back to one of the things you just said, you had mentioned also in your article that one of the things school should be focusing on now is planning for reentry or whatever comes next in September or late summer, in particular in helping students make up for lost time. So what should schools be doing right now on a practical level to plan for next school year, given all the continuing uncertainties?

Professor Justin Reich:
So I think schools, in partnership with their state health authorities, with state education departments, have to start figuring out what some potential models of school look like. I’ve been really struck by Denmark’s model. They’ve gotten the kids back to school early, and they’ve really emphasized bringing younger students into school first. Get all the littles who don’t learn very well remotely and who can’t stay at home alone back into school buildings, maybe even into high school buildings, and then continue with older students having them be more home alone and do more remote learning, while of course, accounting for students with special needs and people who we need to prioritize getting back into buildings. Other districts are talking about Monday, Wednesday for some kids and Tuesday, Thursdays for others. I don’t really know how that works with parents’ employment schedules, but I think schools need to start imagining these different scenarios and then figuring out how they’re going to address those scenarios.

I think there’s so many details to be worked out, but two pedagogy focused things, next year is going to demand more from homes and parents and families and caregivers than the American school system has ever asked. There is no scenario under which we do as much school learning next year as we do in a typical year. There are going to be disruptions. There’s going to be viral flare-ups. There’s going to be limited use of buildings. If school learning goes down, and we want to try to keep advancing student learning as much as possible, home learning is going to have to go up. And that means building partnerships with families and schools like we never have before and really thinking about how we can do that with our most vulnerable families, with essential workers, with single parents, with people affected by the recession and pandemic and all those kinds of things.

And then a second thing is there’s a lot of discussion right now of helping kids catch up. And I don’t want to minimize that because I think some of that is important, but if we send all the kids back to school and the message they receive when they arrive is, “Boy, you’re really behind now,” that is not going to be a welcoming way to bring schools back. What we really need to do both at the end of this year and the beginning of next year is to bring an asset framing to this, to think about all the incredible resilience that youth have shown, celebrate the incredible learning that’s happened in homes, even if that learning wasn’t what we intended and it wasn’t on the standards. We need to start next year building from the celebration of student strength of youth resilience and using that to launch us into what I’m sure will be one of the most challenging years in American education history.

Anthony Rebora:
Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. I know that your group, MIT Teaching Systems Lab, has done some analysis of state guidance and remote learning during the pandemic. What stands out to you about the way state education offices have been approaching this? Is there anything that needs to change?

Professor Justin Reich:
Well, I think the thing that Americans should just be heartened by and educators and really celebrate is that there’s such a focus on issues of equity right now. I mean, the pandemic has laid bare some really gross inequalities in our society and virtually all of the guidance you can find in any state really emphasizes, we need to think about the families who are not well connected with the internet. We need to think about students with disabilities and English language learners and other vulnerable populations like kids facing housing insecurity, kids in incarcerated settings, kids in foster settings. And I think we just need to continue to … the early guidance said that these were really important areas and populations to address. And I think subsequent guidance needs to get into more specifics around that.

I think for the most part in state policy, there was lots of good things in there. There was a real emphasis on flexibility and on grace and on making sure that our seniors graduate. A lot of emphasis on switching from a grading model that we typically have to credit/no credit or pass/fail, all of which I think was really appropriate for the emergency school closures and the pandemic. What that guidance really needs to start working towards now is what’s the best thing we can do for next year. I think the hardest decision that state agencies will have is what to do about standards and assessment. Looking at it from my vantage, it seems very unlikely that we will do as much learning next year as we do during a typical year.

So one option that states could do is they could say, “We’re going to hold our standards at the exact same place and we’re just going to measure how far we fall short of them.” That’s one approach. Another approach is to say, “If we know that we’re not going to get as much coverage of different kinds of materials and standards, maybe we should just be deliberate about that in the beginning.” Again, when I hear the twin messages of in the face of adversity, we need to be ambitious about meeting these challenges, but we also have to be realistic about what’s possible, that makes me think that a less is more approach doing fewer things well may be a smart way for states to think about tackling this. And you can’t do this everywhere in the curriculum.

One of the things that we found in our state analysis was that even though a lot of states are saying, “We should probably be aiming for three hours less of remote learning right now,” within that three hours, almost every sample schedule you see has recommendations for exercise and for creative expression every single day. Our kids are going to need that in school next year to stay healthy and to build the resilience to face all the challenges our society, our civilization faces.

Anthony Rebora:
So, do you think this period is going to change education going forward, even beyond this pandemic?

Professor Justin Reich:
I’m a student of Larry Cuban, the great education historian. And his research in mind to suggesting it’s often a good idea to bet on continuity. The practices that we have in schools are often developed and refined to meet the practical needs of teachers and students in classrooms. And so, I think there will be some lasting shifts from this, but I think at the end of this, we’re going to say, “Oh my gosh, we desperately miss having our students being together in rooms.” There’s some ways that online learning can help. Maybe we identify some new roles for technology, but I don’t think they’re going to profoundly change the need for young people and adults to be physically together. I think we all desperately miss being able to put a hand on each other’s shoulder, to give each other a hug in appropriate ways and to be together.

Anthony Rebora:
Okay. Thank you, Justin Reich, for joining us. Thanks to all of you for listening. To read Justin’s article and others in educational leadership’s special report on a new reality, getting remote learning right, visit www.ascdorg/EL.


Join us as we discuss the ideas in the article with educators around the global at the Second Wave Summit | 2020

Editorial Leam
Editorial Team
This article was written by a collaboration of editors and columnists on the FLR editorial team or guest contributors.

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