Monday, January 4, 2021

The Kids Will Be Alright (And We Can Never Go Back To The Way Things Were)

It’s not the filling of a pail anymore. It’s not even the lighting of a fire.

It’s all about creating the conditions in which fire can occur in whatever the learning scenario may be.

Of late, there have been a lot of eduTwitterers, advocates, reporters, and educational sharers of all types that are woefully lamenting what kids have lost, what they are missing, or what they are needing during the pandemic. They are missing months of instruction. They will end up being a year behind in their learning. They will be lost in the next grade level. They are missing socialization and human interaction. They are spending too much time on screens.

But what about what they’ve gained?

The Pandemic has been awful--worse than awful, but it has bestowed some gifts that wouldn’t have necessarily happened without it (or might not have happened so quickly!):

  • Social and Emotional Learning: One of the high notes of pandemic outcomes has been the laser focus on social and emotional well-being for students and even their teachers. While SEL was already gaining some traction in classrooms, the pandemic spurred action around building relationships with students, investing in those relationships, checking in on how everyone is doing (many times on a daily basis!), and providing school and community supports in very specific ways.  

  • Equity and Cultural Responsivity: The moment schools closed and learning from home began, we were thrust into a zone where the learning location and situation was being broadcast to everyone. Some had devices, some had phones (some had no devices!), some had dedicated spaces, some shared space with siblings. Some brought ideas to the learning table because they were in their home environments that were different than what they would offer in a social setting at school. Some parents became learning partners. All of what happened contributed to the collective understanding of what students were offering of themselves, their cultures, their family mores, and how the learning must respect where students come from so that the learning is relevant for all.

  • Major Upgrade to Differentiated Practices: Teachers often tell me about their differentiated practices in schools, though many times, what they describe is either more work or less work, or opportunities for deleting an assignment or portion of an assessment. The scaffolds really aren’t there. In remote learning scenarios, teachers had to quickly figure out how to layer instruction that builds knowledge and skills in particular and effective ways. This meant learning to leverage online meeting technologies to schedule time with small groups and individuals, rediscover the magic of the mini-lesson, and learn the ebb and flow of the individual tides of independent and guided instruction and different finish lines for performance.

  • Priorities in Instruction: Of the many questions I was asked when working with teachers, one of the most prevalent ones was: What matters most in instruction? My answer was almost always, “I don’t know. It depends on the lenses through which you are looking at what is a priority.” I had great conversations with teachers about what critical learning meant. What are the students learning that will be the basis for their future learning? What are the students learning that will serve them in multiple content areas? What are students learning that are lifelong skills? What is the difference between what I teach and what students learn? What do I need to add to my program? What will not work in an online environment? What do I have time to accomplish? These have always been good questions to ask about our curriculum and instruction and they will continue to be drivers of quality curriculum going forward!

  • Toolboxes for Learning: One of the many things we learned early on was that there was no one size fits all resource. While many companies purported to have exactly what you need, all fell short in one way or another. This was actually a good thing. It forced us to think about the suite of tools that matter to learning or are the most beneficial for students. This toolbox was contributed to by teachers and students and became dependent upon what needed to be done and which tool is the best for engaging and assessing student understanding. This was a much different scenario than trying out what was shiny and new out in the edtool ether and seeing if it worked. We had to make quick decisions about efficacy and then give students some choice of tools that matter. This scenario is not going away...

  • Self-Direction and Self-Navigation Skills: Whether remote, blended, or in person, students were thrust into opportunities for being more responsible for their own actions, contributions, time-management, and decision making. Students have a level of autonomy that they haven’t had before because they are operating in multiple types of learning spaces. Teachers are managing these spaces and are relying on students to do their part--to be contributing eduCitizens in this new learning landscape. I’ll admit, there were days when I was sure that everything was on the verge of falling apart, and then the students would pull through and show everyone what their readiness levels really were. And now that we know that they are capable, even at a young age, how can we leverage this level of independence and decision-making skills in future learning endeavors? (On a related note, I’ve noticed that people, in general, who are working together to get through this pandemic, are way better at self-direction than they were previously and this is great that it’s being modeled for our children. I’m talking directly to those people that put their carts away at the grocery store or don’t hoard toilet paper--thank you.)

  • Project and Problem Based Learning: The pandemic and remote/blended instruction became a great opportunity to move away from the encapsulated day to day lesson plans entrenched in classrooms and focus on more project/problem-based learning opportunities that involved research, collaborations, mini-lessons, and new assessments. Some of this was done in relation to the load of the teacher and how they were managing multiple students in different learning scenarios and some of this was done in order to maximize thinking and engagement for all students. I’m hoping the practice sticks around. 

  • EduEcosystem Constructs: Learning in a pandemic shined a brilliant light on the way we’ve always done it. And perhaps the way we should consider doing things from now on. We learned that location doesn’t matter nearly so much as the quality of the learning and the relationships you have with those you’re learning with. When we think about all the creative ways we dealt with synchronous and asynchronous time, we worried less about seat time and more about quality instruction. The conversations that we would normally have had about grades transformed into conversations about impact and how well students learned what we intended for them to learn and the feedback we offer for improving their work. We learned that there is perhaps a new recipe to consider when thinking about learning that sticks: it starts with people and relationships, then what’s worth engaging together during synchronous times, then creating or co-creating new ways for students to demonstrate what they are learning, all while giving them more opportunities to self-navigate and more autonomy in their work. 

Ongoing, what do we do? What do we stop doing? Continue doing? Start doing?

In my humble opinion, we can’t go back to normal, whatever that might mean. All that we have learned about learning and teaching must be part of the lenses through which we look at future curriculum design opportunities. Whether the learning happens in school live, in a blended format, or even in continued remote opportunities, we want to persist with all that we’ve leveled up to in the last 9 months. This includes thinking about synchronous, asynchronous (perhaps flipped?), and even semi-synchronous events where we move in and out of online/offline and in-person/remote scenarios with the dexterity and grace of a swan.

Is there a conversation to be had about what students might have lost or missed? Certainly. But that shouldn’t be a focal point. Our focal point should be on what students (and teachers) have gained during this time and how we can build on those gains to do extraordinary things in the future. This is a significant moment in time for many reasons. Personally, I want to focus on the positives and moving onward and upward. I can be considerate of what support students may need as we come out of this pandemic but with the wings they’ve grown during this time, I want to see them fly.

Photo: Michael Fisher



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