Some of our emergency strategies look a lot like best practices.
In the time it takes to cough, COVID-19 flipped the entire K-12 education system on its head. Schools have undergone lightning transformations to move from contexts of brick and mortar to remote learning environments.
Once the dust has settled and the threat from this pandemic subsides, what will be the lasting impacts on education?
1. Improved responses to learning inequities.
In the remote learning environment, successful student participation often requires that they have their own devices, reliable wifi, suitable workspaces, and supportive parents.
Before the crisis, students possessing none of those requirements could attend school and actually survive. But once school buildings were shuttered, these students had no chance.
Moving forward, I think we’ll see schools, districts, and states change policies to mitigate these factors more aggressively. In some districts, this will look like a move to a 1:1 device policy for students. Some states will eventually pass laws to provide reliable wifi to every household. And some schools will strengthen partnerships with parents amid efforts to better support the home learning environments.
We always knew there were tremendous inequities in our education systems, but this crisis has exposed them on a whole new level. Schools, districts, and state bodies will respond.
2. Increased attention to the social-emotional needs of learners.
Social-emotional learning was already a big point of conversation in education before the COVID-19 crisis. Now, with weeks of social distancing and emotional trauma upon us, it’s enormous.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 36-country body of which the United States and Canada are a part, has identified 7 Universal Principles of Learning. My favorite principle has to be the third: “Emotions are the Gatekeepers of Learning.”
People have the capacity to learn when they feel happy, content, and safe. As we often hear in edu-Twitter, it’s Maslow before Bloom.
Yes, SEL was already a big deal in education. But this crisis has rocked us all to the core. As schools, districts, and communities, we know we’ll be grappling with collective PTSD for the foreseeable future.
And in that space, as Joe Sanfelippo says, we must attend to emotional needs first. Asking “How are you doing?” and “Do you need anything?” must become cultural norms.
And they must remain so long after this crisis is over.
3. Refined assessment practices.
Schools and districts have been unanimous in their decision to avoid any sort of punitive grading during this crisis, and many have stopped grading entirely. Chief among reasons for this move is the reality of inequities between learners I described above.
As a result, for the most part, and in most areas, the only kinds of assessment that students will receive from teachers will take the form of feedback that moves learning forward.
For schools and districts accustomed to traditional rank-and-sort grading systems, this is strange new territory. But they would do well to stay there long after this crisis is over.
Letter-grades and percentages don’t help students learn. Ranking and sorting students by ability doesn’t help students learn. Fear of academic failure doesn’t help students learn.
Formative feedback that is kind, specific, and helpful does.
4. Increased emphasis on skills over content.
Schools and districts have also acknowledged that under the challenging conditions of remote learning, there’s little chance of covering normal course content in its entirety. And in my view, that’s okay.
In this environment, it makes sense to focus less on the information that students absorb and more on the skills they develop. To focus less on what they know and more on what they can do.
A good example of this shift in approach to learning can be seen in the new curriculum from the Canadian province of British Columbia, where the emphasis on specific content has been reduced to a point of invisibility.
Pictured here is the simplified curriculum for 8th grade Social Studies. Although the course is built around the years 600 CE to 1750 CE, you won’t find the name of a single individual, event, place, or date. Instead, you see a heavy emphasis on skills — what students can do — and how they engage with big ideas and themes.
The scarcity of time and resources created by this crisis has convinced education leaders that it’s actually okay if students don’t memorize every Googleable fact mandated by traditional curriculum plans.
Instead, we’re going to focus our energies on building student skills. And in the twenty-first century learning environment, that’s where the focus should be, anyway.
5. Greater investment in asynchronous teaching practices.
As any remote worker can tell you, video conferencing is something of a painful experience best enjoyed in small, strategic doses. And as I can personally attest, a day spent in video conferences leaves one exhausted in a way that somehow exceeds the fatigue one feels after a day in a full classroom.
It’s not pleasant. And if educators with well-honed self-regulation skills come to that conclusion, expect the student experience to be even worse.
Before the current crisis, your average K-12 teacher had never made an instructional video for their learners. They probably couldn’t have explained what a screencast was, let alone how to make one. But the remote learning environment is changing that.
When teachers explain a concept or procedure in a normal classroom, they must contend with students who are hungry, tired, distracted, confused, or entirely absent. That’s par for the course. Every teacher has had the experience of reviewing explanations or instructions one, two, or three times in a period. Sometimes more.
But a well-crafted explanation on video changes that. Students can watch, pause, and replay video instruction on their own time and at their own convenience. Teachers can conserve their energies a little by explaining something well the first time and then directing students back to that first explanation when further questions arise.
Asynchronous video instruction makes a ton of practical sense in the remote learning environment, where everything from late bedtimes to babysitting duties dictate the hours that a student can actually focus on learning activities. Not surprisingly, teachers are posting more video resources than ever.
But once the crisis is over and normal school resumes, I think we’ll see this growth of video content continue. Learners will benefit as the quality and variety of learning resources increases, including the sharp rise of how-to videos on Youtube. This practice will also allow teachers to build growing archives of useful video resources that can be used again with future classes and shared between colleagues.
This blog post is an example of asynchronous communication. The same goes for content on YouTube or podcasts. On-demand content is the shape of the world we live in and it deserves a bigger role in education.
6. Increased reliance on horizontal sharing and learning in community.
In traditional education paradigms, most student learning and work was shared vertically: teacher to student and student to teacher. In some classrooms or contexts from days gone by, this relationship was so pronounced that students never actually saw their classmates’ work. The only opinion that really mattered, the thinking went, was the teacher’s.
That’s been changing in recent years, as education researchers and theorists recognize the value of peer assessment and more eyeballs on work. In general, as the size and authenticity of the audience increases, so does the feedback for learning.
We also know that students learn through demonstrations, exemplars, and modeling. As students see more of each other’s work, they gain insights, ideas, and fresh perspectives that they can apply to their own work.
And if you’re worried about copying or cheating, take a look at Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is Remix, where he makes a convincing case that virtually everything we create is a remix of other influences.
Horizontal sharing of learning and work is just good pedagogy, but in the remote learning environment, where teacher-student communication is restricted, it simply makes more sense than ever for students to share their learning with each other.
In my practice, I use tools like Google Docs, Slides, the Seesaw blog, Flipgrid, Screencast-O-Matic, and Padlet to facilitate greater real-time collaboration and horizontal sharing of work.
It’s been fun and effective, and students have shown that they love to learn from each other. I believed in horizontal sharing back in the normal classroom, but I’ve ramped it up in the remote learning environment. It’s a shift that I hope becomes a permanent part of my classroom culture.
7. A clarified vision of teachers as learners.
Teachers love to call ourselves lifelong learners, but the current crisis has pushed our learning to the next level.
Educators the world over have had to improvise and innovate like never before as our classes moved from physical and virtual environments. It’s been a stressful experience for many, yes, but there have also been phenomenal stories of learning and professional growth.
One of my favorite stories of professional learning and growth in the remote learning environment came from Russ Richmond, a guest on the Make Learning Magical podcast and veteran pottery teacher.
Before the crisis, his practice was proudly zero technology — computers and the online learning environment played no role for him or his learners. But thanks to COVID-19, Russ has quickly evolved to adopt tools like Google Classroom, Flipgrid, and Youtube.
Rather than be resistant to these forced changes, Russ has embraced them. He is learning. He is growing. He is showing vulnerability in front of his students. When he eventually returns to his pottery classroom, he’ll be bringing some of these online tools with him. For example, why not record his pottery demonstrations on video and archive them for future reference?
This crisis has forced Russ Richmond — and virtually every other educator — into a mode of learning and growth unlike any professional development book, resource, or event. We’ve had no choice but to grow and build our repertoire overnight. And our learners will benefit.
8. Increased flexibility and choice in high school schedules.
Online learning is nothing new. I completed a MEdL degree at Vancouver Island University between 2017–2019, and only about eight weeks of that span were spent in physical classrooms on campus. Other educators complete degrees entirely online, and virtual high schools are growing.
Still, the vast majority of high schools remain tied to brick and mortar facilities, and for good reason. There is simply too much learning that works better in physical environments with proper resources. Think no further than physical education, the fine arts, industrial arts, media studies, chemistry, or a host of other examples. But with that admission made, the current crisis is proving that students can still participate in learning without being on campus.
Where does that leave your typical high school? Well, it creates options and flexibility.
For some schools, it may mean that students attend school every other day. For others, it might mean that every Friday or every second Friday is a remote learning day. Or, without any changes to the school’s schedule, certain courses may be offered partially or entirely online.
Many high schools were already developing or at least exploring their distance learning programs before this crisis. COVID-19 will push them to improve and expand their online offerings even more. And students will benefit from the improved choices and flexibility.
9. Strengthened student agency, autonomy, and empowerment.
I’ve already discussed the advantages of asynchronous instruction and learning. For the student, such an environment creates more agency, autonomy, and empowerment.
The remote learning environment gives students more choice and control in terms of what their learning looks like. On a practical level, students suddenly have full control over the timing and nature of eating, sleeping, clothing choices, and bathroom breaks.
If they love working in the mornings, they can go hard in the mornings. If they prefer working in the evenings, they can go hard in the evenings. The choice is up to them.
I’m not blind to the risks there. Some students have yet to develop the self-regulation skills they will need to be productive and healthy in this environment. They’ll go to bed too late, wake up too late, skip exercising, and eat too many ramen noodles. They’ll need a little coaching, a little mentoring, a little extra teacher support in order to participate successfully in the remote learning environment.
But there’s no denying the choice and independence that our learners will enjoy. Some will learn to self-regulate. They’ll learn to set goals. They’ll learn to block time. They’ll learn to ward off distractions. And they’ll do it all while listening to their favorite music, munching on their favorite snack, and wearing their favorite hoodie.
They’ll make more choices. They’ll assume more agency. They’ll take greater ownership over their learning journeys.
They’ll move from passive spectator to active participant.
And let’s hope it stays that way.
Again, none of us would choose this crisis. Social isolation is awful, and school shutdowns hurt, for lots of reasons.
But as Brian Aspinall asked in a recent episode of the Code Breaker podcast, “What are the opportunities that this crisis gives us?”
How can we grow and learn and evolve during this time?
If we’re asking that question, if we’re approaching these challenges from a growth mindset, if we’re determined to grow and try and fail forward, we’re going to win.
Schools will win. Learners will win. And K-12 education will never look quite the same.