Special Report
Classroom Technology

Why ‘Deep Learning’ Is Hard to Do in Remote or Hybrid Schooling

By Alyson Klein — November 04, 2020 7 min read
Teacher Sherisa Nailor helps Parker Drawbaugh, left, and Jacob Knouse in their Small-Animal Science class at Big Spring High School in Newville, Pa.
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It’s a dilemma schools have struggled with for years: Should teachers spend the precious time they have helping students dig deeply into a specific issue, problem, or question? Or should they teach more broadly about a wide variety of topics?

The argument for the former approach—called “deep learning”—is that it improves student engagement and prepares kids to be better problem solvers in a world with increasingly complex challenges around health, economics, social justice, and climate change. A broader approach, the counter argument goes, introduces students to a greater mix of topics, giving them a better sense of all the issues and problems society is facing.

Taking that “deep learning” approach is now more difficult than ever, as students are stuck at home learning remotely either full time or part time, or in socially distanced classrooms where collaboration, project-based learning, and lab experiments are hard, if not impossible, to do.

That doesn’t mean teachers aren’t trying.

Neema Avashia, who teaches 7th grade social studies in the Boston public schools, is convinced that, with some meaningful adjustments and more-than-usual advanced planning, she can bring the same “deeper learning” approach she used in her brick-and-mortar classroom to a remote or hybrid learning environment.

That was not how she felt when schools abruptly shut down last spring.

Back then, it was about “panic and crisis schooling,” said Avashia. “We forgot that a lot of things that are good practice can be done in a virtual space. If we believe kids learn best when they are doing things deeply instead of broadly, it’s about building those kinds of [activities] in an online space.”

The challenges, though, are obvious. For one thing, two of the tenets of deep learning are that it is project-based and frequently done in groups. That’s harder to do online, even if district rules allow teachers to create videoconferencing breakout rooms or permit students to meet separately, said Jal Mehta, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and an author of In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.

“It’s a very, very difficult situation for teachers,” Mehta said.

Ground Instruction in a ‘Core Idea’

One way to make teachers’ and students’ approaches to deeper learning easier is to have certain “through-lines in your class. … [Try] to ground yourself in a core idea or a core text,” said Avashia. That way, students have a touchstone they can keep returning to.

For instance, the theme for Avashia’s first unit this school year is “resistance.” Her students did a “gallery walk,” analyzing images of resistance throughout American history. (Examples included a photo of the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-in during the civil rights movement, and the iconic picture of a Vietnam War protester placing a flower in the gun of a National Guard soldier.)

In a classroom, students would literally walk from picture to picture, answering questions like: What do you see? What questions does it raise for you?

Online, they do the same exercise (minus the walking), subbing out PowerPoint slides for photos on the wall. Avashia thought this activity helped spur the same type of rich conversation that she would have had in the classroom.

But developing such assignments for remote or hybrid learning environments, and then culling the resources for them, is hard. “The planning is kicking my ass,” Avashia said. “To do it really well, it takes a really long time.”

Educators like Avashia shouldn’t have to “reinvent the wheel” when designing deep learning lessons for online environments, Mehta said. Districts need to provide some time for teachers to swap ideas and discuss what is and is not working.

For instance, last spring, the Jefferson County, Colo., school district held virtual school on Tuesday through Friday and used Monday as a day for teachers to collaborate. The district put together online communities that allowed teachers from different schools who taught the same grades or subjects to join forces, Mehta said.

Giving students greater autonomy to pursue their interests is another smart strategy for encouraging deeper learning, according to a May 2020 report by Mehta and Justin Reich, the director of the Teaching Lab at MIT.

That’s something Susan Wetrich, who teaches kindergarten at Hoover Elementary in New Berlin, Wis., is trying to adapt to an all-remote environment. She’s building on an approach she used last school year: Have each child say what they’ve always wondered about, and then have them tackle each of those questions as a class.

For instance, one student wondered, “How do plants grow?” Wetrich made sure each student was given a flowerpot and marigold seeds. The children took pictures and celebrated as their flowers bloomed. She’s trying that approach again this year, starting with one student’s question: “How do you make the color pink?”

Building Bonds With Students

It’s hard to personalize learning and dig deeply into issues, problems, or questions if teachers don’t have strong bonds with their students. That’s especially tough to accomplish online, but it’s never been more important than now, wrote Mehta and Reich in their report.

To facilitate richer connections, the Springfield Renaissance School—a public school in Springfield, Mass., that emphasizes so-called “expeditionary learning,” which calls for students to learn through interdisciplinary projects—has kept its classes small for its all-remote approach. Classes used to be about 20 to 25 students, said Arria Coburn, the principal. Now, high school classes average 15 students. And over the summer before school began, teachers met with parents and students in socially distanced visits or online.

Now teachers are trying to build on that work in online environments. For instance one teacher spent part of the first class greeting each of her students individually and asking them questions.

That’s great practice, said Megan Magrath-Smith, an instructional specialist for the Springfield district. “Kids need to feel personally known,” she explained.

Given the crunch online learning can create, schools should “Marie Kondo” their priorities, getting rid of things that aren’t as essential and putting an intense emphasis on the most important standards and parts of the curriculum, Mehta and Reich recommend.

That’s something Big Spring High School in Newville, Pa., which has two days of in-person instruction coupled with virtual learning, is taking to heart.

“If our teachers can prioritize their curriculum and almost cut it in half, that’s going to allow them the time they need to go deeper with half the content, rather than skimming it [at a] surface-level and feeding everything to [students] to get through 100 percent of it,” said Nicole Donato, an instructional coach at the school.

That hasn’t been easy, Donato acknowledged.

Austin Bryner, left, and Zach Junk fly drones in their class at Big Spring High School.

Teachers, she said, tend to feel that all content is key, so it has been a “struggle” to get them to think about what students will really need in their next course. It is particularly tough for teachers to agree to cuts in curriculum that might be assessed on state accountability tests, Donato said.

In-Person Is Hands-On Time

Schools like Big Spring that are operating under a hybrid model should see in-person instruction time as “golden,” and be deliberate about how it is used, Mehta and Reich say.

Big Spring is taking that seriously. For instance, one technology teacher is having his students work on computer skills remotely, so that on in-person days, they can fly the drones they are programming for a class called SkyOp Drones.

“I think that’s the biggest switch we need to make is that being here [in the building] should be hands on,” said Principal Bill August.

The school is also working to change its approach to testing when possible. “We don’t want to spend valuable face-to-face time having kids take tests, so there’s a natural opportunity to shift to more performance-based, project-based tasks,” August said.

Of course, Avashia said, there are some things that simply don’t translate well to online or socially distanced environments. For instance, when teaching kids about solitary confinement, she usually creates a 9-by-6 feet cell, so students can enter it and feel how small the space is. “Those experiential pieces that are a big part of learning, I don’t think I can do online yet,” she said.

That makes student engagement tougher. Avashia feels the pressure to create lessons that are “so compelling and so engaging that [her students] don’t want to do something else,” she said. “That’s what deeper learning does.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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