Are you ready for probable school closures? If schools remain open, are you prepared for that, too? We teachers must be ready for both eventualities.
I wrote a concerned email to a supervisor earlier this summer expressing my worry that teachers in our context might be expected to handle online and in-person learning at the same time, saying that I didn’t think such an ask would be reasonable. Meanwhile, I went to work solving the problem for my university and my middle school classrooms. I want to share that thinking with you in hopes that you find it useful.
There are technical and philosophical / theoretical challenges involved in being totally prepared for all possibilities this year. If we think we’re going to teach classes like we’ve always taught them and somehow render them suitable for online or in-person consumption, the expectations become overwhelming and the time-related challenges insoluble. So – getting to it – let’s solve a theoretical problem or two first and then move to the technical challenges.
Challenge and Solution # 1
“I have been doing this for years / I’ve been training to teach a certain way. I can’t rely on that training/experience and have everything ready to go for online and in-person contexts.”
What I’m about to pitch sounds like a cliche answer, but hear me out.
We have to ditch the old approaches to teaching and learning. Let’s allow necessity to be the mother of invention and approach both differently. Rising the challenge here doesn’t have to mean merely muddling through. We can make our product better than it was before the pandemic forced us to change everything.
We still should be planning backwards with specific content and skill goals in mind, and we still need to create lesson plans of whatever type suits our needs. However, we ought to – as was true before the pandemic – focus less on maximizing content delivery and instead really hammer home specific critical thinking and executive functioning skills. Hit the content as necessary, but remember that the content is just window dressing, and the kids will forget it soon anyhow. The content had better be interesting, and practicing the skills had better be fun, because what matters is that we build lifelong learners who want to learn more and love being a part of our classes. We ought to design our skill-building assignments around developing mastery of various skills, and we ought to assess only the skills we’re teaching.
So far, things are pretty vague – but remember that we’re talking about theoretical problems first and technical problems second. This really is about mindset and general approach for items 1 & 2.
Ditching the old ways leads us to the second challenge and solution.
Challenge and Solution #2
How do we ensure everyone has the same experience? If we design flexibly, then everyone won’t get the same experience. If we ensure everyone gets the same experience, then we can’t truly be flexible.
This is a great example of a false dilemma. That everyone has the same experience doesn’t mean that our students should all do literally the same things at the same times, hear all of the same things, and be assessed in precisely the same ways. Not every person needs the same number of minutes practicing with coordinate planes in math or the same number of hours spent finding locations on world maps. We must support each student the way each student needs it – and that means building that flexibility into the course design. Getting the same opportunities to learn doesn’t mean having identical experiences. If every kid has the same experience in all particulars to every other kid in the room, that is a failed educational experience rife with missed opportunities.
We need to take the idea of students having the same tests and assignments they’ve always had, and we need to trash that idea. Similarly, we must discard the idea that students will all have the same type of assignments, even learn the same content, and be assessed in precisely the same ways.
Everyone needs something different, and we can handle the technical challenges this reality – and it is reality, whether or not we wish to accept it – presents.
Once we accept that this is the way (nod to The Mandalorian), we’ll find that we’re massively freed up to innovate according to the needs of our actual students rather than a non-existent average student.
Challenge and Solution #3
So how do I get ready for both online and in-person delivery? Even without the shift in pedagogical approach, this is a problem we all face (whether or not we recognize it).
We’re into the technical problems and solutions now. The answer to this one is that we should design our courses for online delivery, full-stop. If it comes to moving to a virtual setting, we don’t want to wind up where we were last March – May, scrambling to explain to our students how to handle the (newly) online design of our class. If and when we’re in person, we can offer an improved product with additional opportunities for relationship-building, for reteaching and review, for skill-development projects, and for assessments. But the setup of the course – the curricular design and delivery mechanisms – should be designed for an online class.
Challenge and Solution #4
How do I get my students to pay attention when we’re learning synchronously online e.g. on Zoom?
Talk about a challenge we’re creating for ourselves rather than one tied to an actual problem. We should be designing our courses to be delivered almost exclusively asynchronously. Synchronous learning times are best for making connections, answering specific questions, offering challenges to the group to consider all together, and the like. No content that you care about – no direct instruction – should be delivered synchronously. There are many reasons for this, but that’s a different conversation. The solution of designing for asynchronous learning is the solution for the challenge of worrying about students (of any age) losing focus during Zoom calls.
Create videos, 2 to 5 minutes (really, five minutes at the most) in length, delivering any direct instruction, keeping in mind that less is more. If it’s unreasonable for you to create the videos for every single item that you’d hoped to deliver in class, it’s too much to expect your students to cover on their own.
Create assignments that are doable independently or in a classroom setting. Ideally, the assignments offer students choices between ways of practicing the target thinking skills for the unit – and even choices between content. The work shouldn’t change significantly for those learning in class or at home. (This has the benefit of being able to be shifted to a remote model without any additional adjustment or communication explaining changes.)
Challenge and Solution #5
How do I design so that students get individualized learning experiences and not go completely out of my mind? I have 30 students per section across three sections!
This gets to a much larger conversation, but some of it is worth sharing right here and now. And the truth here is that my approach isn’t a cure-all, and this gets tougher as class sizes increase. My classes range from about 12 to about 25. I do believe the system is scalable, but I haven’t been forced to scale it up, so I’m not certain in what ways it would have to change. I’d really like to team up with other teachers to develop this model further and see what it’d look like if replicated on and adjusted for a larger scale.
Here’s the approach, in a nutshell.
Lay out your units with curated resources categorized by sub-topic and assignments categorized by skill area. Do this in your digital learning management software (LMS) – ours is Instructure’s Canvas, but others like Google Classroom and the rest can do exactly the same thing.
Next, allow students to choose an assignment (or two, or three, whatever seems necessary to you) from each skill area and apply the assignment to content of their choice. Perhaps the assignment is content-specific. That’s fine, too. Ideally, there’s some content choice in each unit. It’s not going to be 100% choice 100% of the time, but that would be a nice target for us to aim for.
What does this look like in practice?
I’m teaching students the skill of reading maps in terms of longitude and latitude, I might have one map of Canada, one of China, and one of Australia posted to my unit hyperdoc. All students might be asked to do the same skill practice up front – to find specific cities based on coordinates, or to identify the correct coordinates for a list of cities – but each student can select which content they want to use as their avenue for practicing that skill. Then, based on outcomes, I might ask a given student to do another exercise on this skill, whereas other students may not need additional practice right aay and in this unit of study.
Maybe the skill is cause-and-effect thinking and I’m teaching about the ancient world. Students might choose to learn about Egypt, Rome, or China – and I have pre-curated a selection of resources that allow me to ask them about cause-and-effect irrespective of their content choices. When it comes to assignments and assessments, as long as the type of assignment or assessment isn’t the skill I’m teaching – e.g. a speech for public speaking skills – then it doesn’t matter how I assess, as long as the various methods of assessment actually assess the skill in focus. So, students can choose their own ways of communicating what they’ve learned – perhaps from a list of options, and perhaps to decide on their own what they want to build or how they want to communicate what they’ve learned.
If you get in-person time, it’s the same as synchronous online time: this is an opportunity for conferencing, guiding students through reflection about their skill development and through designing their own assessments, and otherwise personalizing their learning experience. With the designing-for-everything-being-online approach, though, this is not the time to deliver new content. They might get your lesson by watching those five or six minutes of lessons in class – remember, though, that the synchronous class time is for other pursuits. Feel free to reteach, play a quiz challenge game, or just talk about what they’re learning and how the students are feeling. You’ll get more growth out of them this way, anyhow.
There’s a lot more to follow up on with regard to this solution, and I’ve given you the shortest version I could manage in this space and context.
What I’ve realized through all of this is that the problems around the COVID crisis are the same as they were before COVID – it’s just that the pandemic exacerbates them. We should take the kick in the behind for the opportunity that it really is and make everything about teaching better.
I want to acknowledge that these challenges aren’t uniformly challenging to the same degree, nor are the solutions universally available across all contexts. Students in a district without the resources, or teachers who are given 24 hours of teaching contact time per week, or those teachers with students in any number of challenging situations, won’t find what I am offering here to be useful as it is. That said, there are nuggets of thoughts that I hope everyone can find useful one way or another. I do believe that educational personalization is the future of all effective education, and we need to find a way to make this education accessible to all learners in all contexts. My solutions here are not that. Not yet.
I also want to note that I used the phrase “totally prepared for all possibilities” above, and that seems on its face absurd. What I mean by this isn’t that you’ll have everything planned exactly as it will be delivered. In fact, what’s required of us is a mindset as much as a level of physical preparation. We need to be nimble – and I hate management-speak, so let’s instead say we’ve got to be flexible, ready to shift, etc. Keep in mind that it’s not all mindset. The courses we build must have that mobility and flexibility built into them.
If you’d like to see my earlier version of this personalized approach as designed for a college course, I shared this post with a syllabus as a concrete example of structure about a month back.
I’ve pitched some of these ideas to AMLE for the fall virtual conference. Let’s hope they invite me to present them to the teaching community.
Teachers and families: let’s continue to share ideas about improving education. That’s what’s at the heart of my attempt here.
This is just the beginning.