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We Might Have Gotten Remote Learning Wrong. We Can Still Fix This School Year

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Districts can use the remaining weeks for intense work with at-risk students or for training teachers

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In my roles as a high school educator and as an Education Week teacher-advice blogger, I talk with a lot of educators, students, and parents in my local community of Sacramento, Calif., and throughout the United States.

Based on those conversations and on my own experience over the past few weeks, I've begun to wonder if we might be going about this whole "distance learning" thing all wrong.

My reasoning builds from the situation in my district, and so I acknowledge that in some school systems, remote learning may be going swimmingly. But my impression is that many other districts are in situations similar to Sacramento’s.

Here, 70 percent of the school year had already been completed by the time we closed. Of the remaining 30 percent, one week was going to be spring break, and two weeks were going to be devoted to state testing, when not much learning happens because of all the disruption that testing causes. The last two weeks of school are not known as times of high academic engagement, and our seniors miss one of those weeks anyway. So, with my district as an example, we’re talking about most students in the United States missing about 15 percent of learning time from one school year, which is not a huge portion of a 12- or 13-year school career.

On top of this time analysis, a recent study suggests that students learn in the first half of a school year at about twice the rate they do in the second half. I think many teachers’ experience would support that conclusion.

The upshot? The vast majority of students in our schools would have come out of the shutdowns just fine, even if we did not do distance learning the way it's being typically done. In most places, that has meant teachers trying to continue to teach everybody.

"What occurs in the final weeks of our school year will have a huge influence on how students feel."

If you accept the position that the end of the school year hasn’t usually accounted for much learning, you could easily wonder if teachers, students, and their families would have been better served if we had used this time differently. Instead of trying to mimic, as best we could, regular school, we could have instead:

1. Offered optional enrichment activities for those students and their families who wanted it rather than adding stress to their lives and the lives of teachers, too. In many cases, students were ridiculously overscheduled with classes and assignments. Would so many parents, students, and teachers now be saying they are “over” distance learning a few weeks into it? How might most be feeling if projects driven by students’ interests and talents had been the norm (sort of a universal “Genius Hour”)?

2. Focused on supporting the most vulnerable populations of students–English-language learners, those with special needs, and students who are at risk of failing or dropping out. Those are the students most affected by “opportunity gaps,” and the ones, it seems to me and others, who are most hurt by the school closures. For example, instead of just having one weekly 15-minute individual conference call with each of the ELL Newcomers participating in my daily half-hour live class, I could also have had the time for a one-hour individual lesson with every student each week. (That’s not possible now because of the 82 students I have to teach in my other classes.)

3. Planning for the kind of hybrid teaching we're likely going to have to do for the next two years until there is a vaccine, along with training on issues relevant to both physical and virtual classrooms—culturally responsive teaching, ways to create the conditions for student intrinsic motivation, and more. Most of us have been thrust into this remote- teaching environment with very little training, and, if we’re honest, it shows. In addition, addressing issues around equity and racism is not a strong point of many of us in the physical classroom, and that’s unlikely to change in remote teaching, either, without additional support.

“Shoulda, coulda, woulda” is often not a particularly helpful approach to challenges facing anybody. In this case, however, it may not be too late to make some changes.

During the final weeks of school, are there districts nimble enough to pivot toward enrichment for most and a greater focus on our most vulnerable populations?

We could consider Nobel Prize winner and psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s analysis of what we remember of a particular life episode. According to Kahneman, the memory is comprised of the one or two "peak" moments we have had combined with how our story ends (this is known as the "Peak/End Rule"). That’s what the “remembering self” takes away, and it’s those memories we use to frame future decisions.

From this perspective, what occurs in the final weeks of our school year will have a huge influence on how students feel about—and make future decisions related to—learning and schooling, and we should do everything possible to ensure that they carry a positive feeling forward.

Alternately, more districts could follow the lead of those that are already planning to end their school year early. What if more districts closed early and then used the time remaining for truly useful professional development? What could the next two years look like if educators spent several weeks now learning and planning instead of ending the year, as many will, drained and discouraged?

Let’s not be driven by the sunk-costs fallacy. If there is a better way for our students, their families, and us teachers, then let’s choose it now.

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