Conversations with students, teachers and families throughout distance learning were insightful and inspiring. Collectively, I believe, they will help shape the future of learning and provide guidance for shifting best practices. Here I have compiled the thoughts and reflections of our community from our experience with distance learning to think about shifts in best practice.
Best Practice #1: Trim the Fat
“The key to school reform is throw out half the curriculum – any half.”Brian Harvey
WHY: Less is more. This call for a consolidation of the curriculum has been shared before; Gary Stager calls the curriculum today “morbidly obese.” Seymour Papert is quoted “At best, school teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly over which billionth of a percent is important.” And more recently our students themselves have been asking us to reconsider: “Students call for shorter classes, less work in post-COVID classrooms.”
- Step back and look for meaningful learning opportunities and let go of the rest. Ask ‘what truly matters, what is essential learning, what do our students really need to know’ to focus on more powerful learning and build experiences that have depth over breadth. Clarify, edit, and curate for powerful learning.
- This is a great opportunity to consider the idea of “power standards” = longitudinal, integrated (interdisciplinary, latitudinal connections), foundational, building blocks. Ask yourself, ‘Is there anything we have to do this year that is essential for next year?’ The opportunity for going beyond the identified power standards can be a part of intentional unit design, especially when we have helped develop self-directed learners.
- Look for the big ideas and concepts that are transferable within your content and the key details to support students in building skills and understanding.
- Prioritize the process of learning and skill building over memorization.
- Review your units across the year; are there connections and clear links between units, then consider combining them to create integrated, transdisciplinary units. Make connections between disciplines through concepts and develop transferable skills.
Further reading: “Marie Kondo The Curriculum” by Jal Mehta and Shanna Peeples
Best Practice #2: Build Independence
WHY: Children want to be independent, we need to be purposeful in supporting these skills. Independent students know how to be self-directed, they can follow passion into purpose and have the potential for life long learning.
- Provide predictability through routines and clear guidelines that allows students to know what to expect and navigate the learning on their own. Allow for choice in the routines and time and learning so students can become self directed.
- Create daily schedules, pacing charts, and calendars for students. Or better yet, support self-directed learners to do this for themselves.
- Focus on goal setting, allow students to set their own goals and reflect on their progress to understand where they need to go next. Follow students where they lead and honor their process.
- Model or walk through the process together step-by-step so they can then try it out on their own.
- “What am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?” ~ John Spencer Invite students in as active participants in their learning as co-planners and co-assessors. When students know expectations (co-created success criteria, clear objectives) they can push themselves.
- Video is a tool for self-directed learning, students can pause and go back to rewatch to access the lessons as they need.
- All resources should be accessible so students can be independent, try to make it as easy as possible for students to find and get what they need without having to ask for help or permission. Curate content and resources that allow students to self navigate (less is more, too much choice can be overwhelming).
Best Practice #3: Cultivate Relationships
WHY: Learning is a social, we learn from each other through our interactions and communications with others. We can create learning environments (online and off) that maximize our students’ opportunities to interact with each other through communication, collaboration, and feedback.
- Asynchronous learning experiences need to be complemented by synchronous experiences to maintain community and relationships. When we added on live meeting times (synchronous) we saw an increase in engagement and participation in the asynchronous learning.
- Have fun together and make time for celebrations and “social calls” (ie. Zoom games, exhibitions, writing celebrations, birthdays).
- Build a class community virtually through regular opportunities to meet and connect. Synchronous sessions (such as with Zoom) are a meeting point, and enable teachers to bring students together who wouldn’t normally have met. But also, consider other platforms that will allow students to interact with each other (ie Flip Grid, SeeSaw blogs, live word cloud, live polling).
- Pre-recorded morning messages are a great way to start the day, set the stage for learning and touch base with students. Students need experiences that allow them to communicate with each other and as well as with their teacher. You might add in a Q&A session or “office hours” for your students to select when they need to meet with you for extra attention.
- Small groups allow for better collaboration and communication, it has been indicated (and we found through our distance learning experience) that an ideal size is no more than 4 students.
- Design projects that encourage collaboration between students, each one might take on a different role or area to combine with the strengths of others. We might learn from how businesses collaborate across distances (“How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote” ~HBR)
- In face to face school students continuously share their learning and work and provide each other with a real time audience. Online exhibitions of work can cultivate relationships by allowing students to connect and share while also giving them that peer audience and feedback.
- Knowing our students before we entered distance learning meant we had already established relationships, if we are to do this again we might want to consider looping teachers or looping classes and dedicating the first “unit” of the year to simply getting to know each other (identity and community).
Cultivating relationships is equally as important for our family community. Parent communication and partnership is key for student success, bring parents into the classroom community.
- Keep an open line of communication. Host parent workshops, share best practices and pedagogical beliefs, explain why we are teaching this unit in this way, share unit objectives, encourage questions.
- Suggest resource lists (or provide materials if possible) for families to collect and set up in an area that is accessible to the student so they can be independent. This might include designing a home makerspace.
- Help families feel comfortable with distance learning (and/or hybrid learning if this is the direction your school is moving in). Parents can help set the tone for the success of students, children will watch their parents and follow their lead, if families are worried students will be worried too.
Do not ignore the relationships within your teaching team. Teamwork is so important, teachers have been more actively planning and problem solving together than ever before.
- Team norms build trusting, collaborative relationships. New team norms had to be discussed in the new online environment. Alignment and agreements created an intentional work culture and helped with accountability and consistency.
- Agree upon a regular meeting time each week (or multiple times per week) to connect with colleagues “face-to-face” and co-plan, co-reflect. Stay in touch across distances by using other communication tools too (ie. WhatsApp). And don’t forget about the social calls!
- Accessing the curriculum online allowed for specialists to contribute their expertise to the learning and boarden the repertoire of all teachers.
- CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning)
- Trauma Informed Teaching during COVID
- Teaching Tolerance Frameworks
Best Practice #4: Personalize learning
WHY: We live in a world that believes in the myth of the average learner, but understanding learning variability is critical for designing environments that allow success for all. By personalizing learning we can recognize talents that might otherwise have been overlooked. These are the takeaways from a talk delivered by Todd Rose, “Variability Matters.” His work with learner variability later led him to author the book Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. He talks about this on the Harvard EdCast: “How Personalized Learning Can Lead to Success.” He learned from his research that fulfilment is about what matters to you, it can’t be dictated by standards or norms. But we (teachers) can help students find out what matters most to them by helping them better understand their own identity and what skills they need to achieve their goals.
- Distance learning has provided us with the opportunity for a paradigm shift, to trust children! If we are ready to accept this new perspective and relationship with our students then we are ready to dive into personalized learning.
- What if we trusted students to decide how they will meet the standards/objectives? @TheStoppelsShow suggested we might give students the standards (not textbooks, worksheets, or packets) and allow them to decide how they will meet those. But why stop there, provide students with provocations (essential questions) and outcomes to design their own learning project (there is never only one right way to do something). Help them to become inquirers, researchers, curators of information and resources, and to become creators who “do” something with their learning. Ask them “What do you need/want to learn, how do you want to learn it and what will you do with the learning? How might it benefit others/yourself?” With our students being at home in so many different environments and with access to so many different materials this approach is even more crucial for equitable learning opportunities.
- Continuing on with this idea of trust, shared ownership and personalized learning has caused a shift in assessment practices (see below). When learning is personal it cannot be solely yours to to grade, judge and critique, it must be shared.
- Technology has always been thought of as the key towards personalized learning, I might disagree (personalized learning does not take place through an adaptive online curriculum that is based on an algorithm) but I do think it is a great tool for supporting self-direction. The key is to remember not to rely on technology but to use technology to your benefit; humanize distance learning through the use of technology, get to know students, their needs, their interests and how to help them feel personal fulfillment through growth.
- Students have been given the opportunity to discover new passions at home. Let’s harness those new found passions and also continue to provide more options and choices for learning about future passions. Provide students with a menu of choices for learning, have them discover what motivates them and reflect on why.
- However, only focusing on student interests means they’ll never know if they have any other interests. Ask them to take risks and try new things, tell them they have the choice to decide if they love it or hate it but they must try it out (perseverance). Giving them the reflective power to learn about themselves and what truly motivates them will shape the path to self-directed learning.
- Personalized learning has to be accompanied by reflection and responsibility. Students have to be responsible for their choices (agency) but can only learn about this through reflective opportunities. Instead of marking them off for not turning in work or not attending online lessons ask them “Why are you making the choices you are making?” As teachers we need to step back and not always provide the next step. Students need to find their own strategies and path towards success.
- Provide all students with opportunities and invitations to learning by designing more flexible “environments.” How do your students access content, directions, information for lessons? Does it all have to be read? What if you vary it with audio, video, visuals, and other written formats like infographics with less text? Be intentional, differentiate learning plans before hand and tier tasks.
Best Practice #5: Be intentional
“What is the ONE area we can work on that will make the biggest impact?”Lee Ann Jung
WHY: This practice is directly related to the first practice, “Trim the Fat.” Teachers are designers of learning and should be intentional in their design; a student’s interactions with learning should be considered at each point of the design process. Piaget reminds us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience,” let’s be intentional as we design those experiences.
- Think about how you can get your students off the screen and exploring their community and environment.
- Make thoughtful decisions about which and how many platforms, new technologies or applications you introduce and why.
- Anticipate rather than react to learning needs. Use or develop a continuum for skill building (ie. skills for independent learning, skills for new technologies) that will allow you to meet and guide a student from where they are.
- Be even more purposeful with your choices as everything takes a bit more time in distance learning.
- Create a culture based on “Purpose over Power,” this may include focusing on learning progress over work completion and attendance.
- Set aside time to look at student work and then use the results to intentionally inform practice.
- Consider how you will provoke the learning in an online environment and invite students into the process (what resources are available?).
- Shape the path for learning with clear aims that will allow students to be self-directed and navigate the journey themselves and share this at the start of the lesson/unit.
Best Practice #6: Limit talk time
WHY: Be purposeful with your time with students, limit talk time, less is more. A Microsoft research study indicated that the average adult attention span is 8 seconds, this has been highly disputed but what is agreed upon is that our videos need to capture our audiences’ attention in 10 seconds (after 30 seconds if you have not been able to fully engage your audience, you could lose 33% of viewers and after one minute, 45% of viewers ). Further studies have shown that shorter videos are better. The average Youtube video length is 4 minutes (while 2 minutes on Facebook). Wistia has some great graphics that show that less than 50% of your audience will watch the entire video if it is 4-10 minutes, while almost 60% will stay until the end of a 1-2 minute video.
- Get the most important moments in the beginning of your video (cooking videos often show the finished product at the start of the video to hook the audience).
- If you have a lot to say chunk it into shorter, more digestible videos. You could create a playlist that links the process in interrelated videos that come together as a whole.
- These videos should be your lesson broken into individual segments, clearly titled and with “white space” in between. This white space might give time for thinking routines or interactive experiences, helping students reflect and consolidate along the journey.
- These same practices should be taken into consideration when adding text or designing slides/pages for lessons (less is more, hook them in the beginning, chunk lessons and provide “white space” or think time).
Best Practice #7: Teachers as researchers
WHY: The Cambridge dictionary defines research, “to study a subject in detail, especially in order to discover new information or reach a new understanding.” As teachers we should consider that the main bulk of our work lies in research for new understandings about learning.
- While looking at student work as a team is one tried and true way to research learning this has new meaning in distance learning as it sometimes is the only evidence of the learning process we collected. A helpful and simple protocol might be “What. So what? Now what?”
- Pedagogical documentation can be sustained by asking students to record themselves at work or to share an audio file of their explanation of their process or thinking.
- Teachers have developed expertise by planning and reflecting in one area and then collaborating to integrate the experiences and make connections between subjects.
- With the curriculum and lessons online we have learned more from the practices of our colleagues and built meaning together. Be intentional about learning from and with each other by “opening classroom doors” virtually.
- Trying new strategies in distance learning has afforded teachers the opportunity to research new best practices.
Best Practice #8: Assessment is learning
WHY: Learning is defined in many ways (here are 10 definitions) but is generally a transformative process that through experience adds knowledge, understanding or skills that contributes to future connections and learning. Assessment is the collection and analysis of data on learning used to refine and improve learning. If the objective for learning is to learn more and the object for assessment is to learn better then assessment is learning and learning is assessment. With this view assessment becomes a way of thinking that advances learning (not for measurement) and illuminates the path to self-directed learning.
- Looking back at intentionality, be intentional with assessments. Minimize the amount of assessments and carefully consider what evidence we need in order to know if learning is taking place. Students can record and explain their thinking with new digital tools, which means teachers can better assess the learning over the knowledge and students are given the time and space for reflection.
- Engage students in thinking about their own learning. When students are a part of the design process through co-designed rubrics or checklists there is more room for self-directed learning and self assessment. Ask them to be a part of designing what they want to learn (goals) and how they will know they have learned it (success criteria). Some teachers have been setting up self-check stations (though platforms such as Kahoot, Quizlet) to allow students to better know where they are and where they should go next.
- Because the learning has been shared and documented online teachers can have better records of growth/process and can help students move forward with more intentionality and personalized learning.
- Our students are now immersed in the internet and at home with siblings and parents; these are all great sources for information. Instead of worrying about if they are copying, Googling or getting help from others, let’s celebrate this collaborative and self-directed learning. Then, when we want to assess if this collaborative learning has been effective, look to the higher tiers of Bloom’s taxonomy and ask students to move beyond recall to think, synthesize and act, to become creators not just consumers of information. GOA’s “Designing for Online Learning” course suggested these 3 questions to guide the design of assessments:
- How can my students apply their knowledge?
- How can my students create something as a way to demonstrate their understanding?
- How can I create opportunities for students to justify a stand or decision?
- When it comes to reporting we had opportunities to move into a fully narrative report without grades. We used a strength-based approach to share what the students were able to accomplish, how they grew and their future potential (strength-based does not mean being dishonest about opportunities for growth but is a shift in how we view and speak about challenges).
- Some teachers included family and student reflections in reporting to take into consideration how they co-learned with their families.
- Teachers looked to the evidence observed and documented to share what they know about who that child is as a learner.
- As we look towards the new school year there are a lot of concerns about filling gaps. But I believe we have an amazing opportunity to change the narrative from falling behind to leverage the power of moments and hear about all the learning that did take place. Can we start the year by asking students and families to share with us their stories from distance learning then build on those successes and support the challenges identified?
Best Practice #9: From feedback to feedforward
“If you’re going to use your precious time to give feedback, plan classroom activities so students can respond and act on it.”Dylan Wiliam
WHY: Feedback is generated through learning, reflection and assessment but Joe Hirsch, author of The Feedback Fix simply stated the issue with this: “People can’t control what they can’t change, and we can’t change the past, and that happens to be the focus of most of the feedback that we give or receive.” So we simply need to shift feedback into feedforward – looking for next steps and positive actions. Read more here: “Moving from Feedback to Feedforward” ~ Cult of Pedagogy
- We have not been able to give feedback in the same way we may have in a face to face classroom so we need to be creative and responsive.
- Parents and peers are great sources for feedback and the power of self-assessment cannot be over emphasized, how will you design opportunities for self-reflection?
- Tech has provided us with a great tool for feedback, teachers can share specific information with students (via Screencastify voice messages, audio recordings, annotations) that allow students see their own work while listening to suggestions for next steps. Choice within feedback gives students options for different ways of doing things and ownership of their process. This idea of audio recording information allows students to hear their teacher’s voice, the tone, receive verbal encouragement and hear the thinking aloud.
- In addition to your Q&A sessions or office hours, create a discussion space for students to support each other.
- Let’s say it again, less is more. It takes more time to provide feedback in an online environment so think carefully about what feedback you’ll offer students; what are the one or two most relevant suggestions for moving them forward in their thinking?
- Through the modeling by the teacher for effective processes for sharing feedforward information students can view each other’s work online and give each other feedback.
- It is important to connect with our teachers to continue that relationship building (some one-to-one opportunities can be very effective for this). And many students want validation and praise for their work, while we do want self-directed learners, we all love to be reaffirmed that we are on the right track. Balance this with specific information about what you liked about their process and learning (beyond what is right or wrong). Also consider ways you can prompt further self-reflection, when they ask “How did I do?” respond with How do you think you did?”