Now Is the Time to Redefine Learning — Not Recreate Traditional School Online

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It’s a common refrain among the change-resistant: “We’ve always done it this way.” But in a difficult year, where charting the unknown has become a daily occurrence, it’s a tough argument for a school to make. We’ve never done things this way—meaning it may be the perfect opportunity to do them differently.

In our work with schools and districts from across diverse geographies and demographics, the Institute for Teaching and Leading has seen first-hand the incredible hard work of leadership teams and educators to adjust to this new and ever-changing landscape. Our organization works with schools and districts across the country to create more student-centered learning experiences, which gives us a unique view to the changes that are, and are not, happening at scale.

While the possibilities for flexible, innovative learning models are myriad, stories from across the country make it clear that as a nation, we are largely missing this opportunity. The vast majority of emergent virtual and hybrid learning models appear to be “stuck at substitution”—that is, they seek to recreate or translate the brick-and-mortar school experience into the cloud without stopping to ask which aspects of those models may not truly serve students in the time of COVID-19 or beyond.

What’s Changed?

Some of the ways in which the pandemic has shifted the education landscape are less obvious than closed schools, socially distanced classrooms or masked recess periods. Working families are now juggling conflicting priorities. If they are working from home, parents may still not be available to help their children with coursework during the school day; if they are working outside the home, students are often attending class from a grandparent or other caregiver’s house. In some cases, high school students may be tasked with overseeing the care and schooling of their younger siblings as well as their own, and in homes where adults have lost jobs or had hours cut due to COVID, older children are often working during the traditional school day to support the family.

Offering only a virtual version of the traditional classroom and bell schedule is no longer sufficient to serve students or families across these diverse situations and needs. We need to rethink how, where and when we are delivering instruction and making learning accessible.

Moving Past Substitution

When we say “stuck at substitution,” some readers may recognize the SAMR model of education technology integration. The SAMR framework describes four different levels of technology use, from Substitution to Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition (SAMR). At its most basic level, education technology can be used to simply substitute: to replace traditional methods of teaching and learning with ones that are digitally mediated, but are still based on the same basic structure and pedagogy. For example, a digital worksheet is still a worksheet in the same way a traditional six-period bell schedule done via Zoom or Google Meets is still a basic substitution of the physical classroom setting for the virtual one.

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At the next level, edtech can be used for augmentation, to bring some other affordance or benefit to the teaching and learning experience—for example, when that worksheet becomes a shared Google Doc that allows for collaboration and increased critical thinking. The essential task remains the same, but the technology adds a new aspect to the work. Most schools and districts that we see are augmenting the virtual learning model by using technology to offer an enhanced experience. They might, for example, use Jamboard, Padlet or Kahoot to allow students to demonstrate mathematical thinking, to visually share ideas or to practice vocabulary concepts in a cloud-based setting, while retaining the basic bell schedule and relying primarily on live, video call instruction.

At the modification level, students and teachers use technology in a way that changes the traditional student task. In other words, it allows the learner to create an authentic product or to demonstrate mastery in a way that isn’t confined to paper and pencil. Similarly, at the modification level, schools and districts reevaluate how they use time and resources. That might mean creating solutions that fit the needs of struggling students and families rather than relying on the ability of those same families to continue engaging in a model that was not built with a pandemic in mind. Most of the examples that appear in the section below fall into this category.

When technology is truly reimagining the task at hand, then we say that it is leading to redefinition—a totally new and different way of interacting with instructional material, building understanding or demonstrating mastery. In this case, it often comes down to fundamental changes to the very structure of virtual and hybrid learning models. Redefinition means thinking beyond existing paradigms and schedules that are built for an on-campus experience. It is the opportunity to imagine entirely new ways of teaching and learning—for example, attendance policies that emphasize engagement versus seat time, blended learning models that leverage technology for anywhere, anytime learning, and instructional design that allows increased student choice and participation.

The How, Where and When of Student Engagement

Some schools and districts are already exploring what can happen when they take the technological foundation they have already built and leverage it to better serve their learning communities, by modifying and/or redefining how, where and when they are delivering instruction and engaging with students and families. Here are just a few examples we’ve seen.

  • Realizing early on that “regular” school days no longer worked for all learners and their families, Northern Cass School District #97 in North Dakota began conducting evening class sessions to allow for greater flexibility for working students and their caregivers. As an added bonus, they discovered it also helped teachers who were struggling to support their own children in hybrid or virtual learning while teaching on a full-time schedule.
  • In northern New Mexico, Taos Academy Charter School, where one of us, Elizabeth LeBlanc, serves as the director of teaching and learning, uses a flexible schedule to conduct one-on-one and small group work in the afternoons and to offer on-demand support through Homework Hotlines in the morning. Every student’s individual weekly schedule is designed for that learner’s needs, strengths and challenges.
  • Westminster Public Schools in suburban Colorado is offering students greater voice and choice by incorporating more open-ended explorations and student-driven projects into their curriculum. They are working with students through their competency-based system, which prioritizes content mastery and self-paced work, to redefine learning tasks for increased engagement.
  • Live-streaming has offered an additional layer of support and engagement in Pennsylvania’s Northern Lehigh School District during hybrid learning; on their off-campus days, students can attend the live-streamed class synchronously or can view the recording later for key content if they need support in their coursework.
  • In rural Milton Area School District in Pennsylvania, students work asynchronously (or self-paced) one day of the week to allow teachers to conduct family outreach, re-engage absent learners and hold remediation and academic support sessions as needed.
  • At YES (Yuba Environmental Science) Charter Academy in California, going virtual has not stopped their hand-on learning as their teachers structure STEM exploration activities that students can do with everyday objects; during the instructional blocks, educational assistants meet with small, flexible learning groups to address targeted needs in reading and math.

Right now, many schools, districts, educators, and students are surviving, but not thriving in this variable world of education during COVID-19. The examples above, however, show that this does not have to be the case, and that innovative thinking may be more important than ever before in helping us meet the needs of students both during and after the pandemic.



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