I don’t think I’ve ever posted twice in one week – but what a week this has been. Before eight o’clock this morning I had several calls from teachers looking for guidance as they move student learning online in response to Covid 19.
It’s not hard to sense their accelerating anxiety, a special blend of concern and worry for their families, students, schools, selves, and of course society. Teachers are some of the highest achieving, most perfectionistic (in the best possible sense of the word!) people in the world. We love learning, care about young people, and feeling in control and prepared for everything that is expected of us is part of who we are. Some teachers seek and embrace change, but many more of us are slow and deliberate about what we modify, when, and under what circumstances. Our value to ourselves and to society lies at least in some part in what we know; we are knowledge-vessels and knowledge-traders who have always been interested in knowing still more. Shifting our practice to meet the new and changing needs of our students? We do it all the time, and we can do it, in differential capacities, now.
Some thoughts on how to approach this moment with relative calm:
- Teaching online is not the same as teaching in real life. It just isn’t. Perhaps that is why so many of us have not engaged with the deep and meaningful work of designing for online learning – we haven’t had to, and we haven’t really wanted to. We like – no, we love – working closely with students and adults and learning together in physical proximity. We cherish our learning communities so much, just as they are, that any change to them, even a great change like an added ten minutes to an instructional block for more hands-on learning in the lab, or a new schedule with a later start-time for student wellness, takes us a minute to adapt to. To teach effectively online, we have to approach teaching differently. We can’t replicate our classrooms in online spaces – even if we could, why would we want to? Once this virus has run its course, we will all want to and need to go back to school. When we get back, our classroom practices will undoubtedly continue to change as a result of our new learning. To teach effectively online, we have to let go of some things and adapt some things. For example, we have to let go of that gratifying feeling that we know we have the full attention of our students. But we also get to let go of that concerning feeling that we do not have the full attention of our students.
- Learning online is not the same as learning in a traditional classroom. It just isn’t. I have taken several online classes and they were great! I learned a lot. I had meaningful conversations with my teachers and produced good work. I advanced my understanding at my own pace some of the time and at the teacher’s pace other times. I did not get to know my peers well, but I did come to know their thinking through blog posts and video conferencing. I did not feel a lot of emotion when the classes concluded – from the start, I knew the schedule and requirements for completion and I looked forward to moving on from them. In a traditional classroom, there is a distinct culture, a feeling of community that is complex precisely because not everyone experiences it the same way. Online, if done well, presents learners with an equitable learning experience wherein everyone has equal access to the same resources and feedback. That is one reason why online learning is particularly important and why tenets of it will and should shift traditional teaching and assessment practices.
- While it feels like everything is changing, and a lot is, some things are not. Learning depends on relationships. Children want and need the adults in their lives to tell them things, to guide them, to listen to them, to learn with and from them. Educators need children to tell them things, to guide them, to listen to them, to learn with and from them. This beautiful, life-giving dynamic is not changing. The medium is changing – radically right now for many, less radically for others – but the educational foundation in place around the world is firm. The internet is a tool that we have made; like all tools we have made, we just need to hone and perfect its use through experimentation and optimism.
The issue right now is time. Time is always an issue, even on the best days. There is never enough time for learning. The clock ticks, the bell rings inevitably right in the middle of our most brilliant thought, our least completed sentence, our most urgent exchange. We reluctantly pack up our books, pick up our bags, and shuffle out to the next thing, our thoughts lingering on all of the things we might have done differently or better. We know there will be a next time soon, and that’s the case now, too. We – all or any of us including our students – may find that we can’t rise to the occasion due to illness, stress, or a host of other real and significant issues we may face. Just as making mistakes as we try new things is to be expected, so should be the fact that some of us may struggle or fail to meet these new expectations, at least in the beginning. As we should all the time, and should especially now, assume best intentions, privilege health and well-being, be collaborative, ask for help, and do what is possible, not impossible.