Most schools are now moving into the final stages of the craziest school year ever. With little notice, we were plunged into the existential storm of replacing physical schooling with Zoom or D2L or similar online schooling. There has been a very rapid learning-curve for everyone involved – school leaders, teachers, parents and students. Not surprisingly, there have been both successes and failures. As we begin to turn our attention to slowly returning to more normal school life, we must ensure that we reflect on what we have learned, ponder what might be incorporated into our ongoing practice, and consider how we can benefit from the experience we have gained.
Implications for lesson planning
Teachers reinvented themselves from familiar face-to-face classroom instructors, mentors, leaders and confidants to more distant screen presences. While new technology skills had to be quickly mastered, which was especially demanding for less tech-savvy teachers, a greater challenge confronting all teachers was learning to adapt instructional approaches to the on-line environment. Let me give you an example:
When I work with teachers and student teachers, one of my mantras is “a plan is not a promise.” By this, I mean that as important as lesson planning is (and I am one of those who believe it is very important even for experienced teachers), the way the lesson plays out will seldom be exactly as it was planned. The teacher is constantly adjusting the lesson based on the numerous signals coming from the class. Are the students engaged or losing interest? As the teacher monitors student individual or group work, what does she discern about the students’ understanding of the topic or task? What additional explanations or encouragement or redirection must be given? However, in an online lesson, much less verbal and non-verbal feedback is available to the teacher. Therefore, the lesson delivered will likely be much closer to the lesson planned, as the opportunity to be as responsive to emerging student needs will be so much less. If a consequence of the current crisis is that online learning remains part of the educational mix, we will have to consider the implications for lesson planning.
Incorporate additional online learning
I have found comments from administrators, teachers and students about their online experiences very interesting and sometimes surprising. For instance, high school educators have told me that some students who they had considered to be weaker, even “at risk,” in the normal school environment, are thriving on-line, being more engaged in the material and more motivated to do well. Conversely, others, including some academically very strong students, seemed much more negatively affected by being isolated from their class-mates, and are very upset about not being physically at school. This is yet more evidence that there is no form of schooling that is optimum, or even minimally successful, for every student, and that the availability of a variety of schooling choices is very important. Perhaps that is an important reason to further incorporate online learning into the educational landscape, even after we are past the current crisis.
More emphasis on active learning
I was surprised to hear from both a grade 7 and a grade 12 student, both of whom typically do very well at school, that they found it much more difficult to concentrate during Zoom teacher presentations than they did in the classroom. Another student told me that of all his online lessons, he found his physical education classes most successful, because he was constantly active. And a grade 1 student told me that it was her online art classes that she liked best. Was it also because during art she was constantly doing work rather than just listening to the teacher? Perhaps this reinforces what we already know, that there is a very limited amount of time that students (and adults) can learn by listening rather than by being active. I am beginning to wonder whether much of what we know about effective teaching is even more essential in the online environment. With distance learning, none of the social or psychological benefits of the classroom experience can mitigate the impact of less than “perfect” teaching. The future success of online education will be tied to an emphasis on active learning.
Assign appropriate teachers to online learning
Like students, faculty members differ greatly in their feelings about their role having changed from classroom teacher to online instructor. Some thrive, enjoying the challenge and rejoicing in their growing repertoire of technology and instructional skills. Others dislike it, some experiencing intense feelings of loss from the absence of being in school together with their students and colleagues. It reinforces my view that while a (very) few wonderful teachers (and administrators) can be happily successful in any setting, most of us can’t. When I am evaluating a teacher or administrator who is struggling, I always ask myself whether the problem is mainly one of inappropriate assignment, and if he could do well, or even very well, in a situation better suited to his skills and personality. Assigning the most appropriate teachers to the online environment will further the success of those initiatives.
Parent feedback is a vital source of information in helping us learn from this experience. Like students and teachers, parents’ feelings about having their students do their schooling at home varies very greatly. A huge determinant of these differences is the circumstances in the homes. Is the technology sufficient in quality and quantity for the number of students? Is there adequate space for each student to have a quiet, distraction-free place to work? Are parents also working from home, needing access to quiet space and adequate technology? How do they feel about the amount of school-work expected of their children? As was always the case with homework, some parents will want more, others less. A lesson that has emerged is that in both online and onsite learning it is wise for teachers to assign only homework that is essential, and provide additional optional work for those who want and can do more.
Use surveys to capture perceptions
Last year, I conducted a satisfaction survey of about 250 independent school teachers. Although only a year ago, it feels as though it was a century ago, given the cataclysmic events that have transpired since. Much was learned about what was important to teachers and that could be used by the school leadership to enhance the morale in their schools. Based on that experience, I suggest that rather than depending only on the scraps of anecdotal evidence one gains through the odd casual conversation, or from expressions of appreciation or complaint, much more would be gained through systematically gathering feedback from students, parents and teachers. Schools should consider having a well-designed survey administered from which they can learn the perceptions of everyone who has been involved in this dramatic and sudden change in the experience of school. To get the greatest benefit from this, the surveys should be administered soon after schools have returned to “normal” so that memories are fresh and rich detail available.
Let us learn from our recent history, so that we can incorporate the best of it.