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4 steps for powerful distance-learning experiences

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey
July 16, 2020

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As we plan the return to physical school, educators are discussing various options. Some believe students will attend one day per week, others on an A/B schedule. Some are planning for alternating weeks while others are hoping to return full-time, while creating contingency plans if buildings must be closed again. Everyone seems to be offering students and their families with the option of full-time online learning.

Regardless of what school looks like in the fall, it seems clear that distance learning will play a role in the lives of learners for at least the short term. Thus, it is our collective responsibility to make the experience as powerful as possible while recognizing the inherent difficulties of teaching from a distance. Based on our experiences as professors of educational leadership, and those of over 70 teachers who shared their virtual classrooms with us, we have some recommendations.

Resist the Urge to Remediate

We have lost count of the number of school districts that have contacted us asking for advice because they believe that students have “fallen behind” and they need to “close the gaps” caused by school closures. Kids are where they are. Spending four weeks -- or 14 weeks for that matter -- on past content is not going to ensure that students learn at high levels.

In fact, studies of other sudden school closures (the disasters caused by the Christchurch earthquakes and Hurricane Katrina) suggest that learning loss is minimal when teachers focus on what students need to learn. Hone in on what’s important for the current year and provide small group sessions, perhaps via video conference, to address students’ needs.

Develop Growth-producing Relationships with Students 

In his review, Cornelius-White (2007) described several elements of effective teacher-student relationships including:

  • Teacher empathy: understanding students’ experiences, interests, values, and goals
  • Unconditional positive regard: warmth in interactions and feedback
  • Genuineness: the teacher’s ability to be authentic and honest with students
  • Non-directivity: student-initiated and student-regulated activities that are supported by the teacher
  • Encouragement of critical thinking: focusing on students’ thinking as opposed to traditional memory emphasis

Each of these can be established and maintained during distance learning. For example, teachers can greet students as they arrive at video conferences, provide empathetic feedback, be reliable and so on.

This is an important part of the learning process. It would be worth some time in back-to-school professional learning to focus on the value of healthy relationships. To paraphrase the late Rita Pierson, young people don’t learn from older people that they don’t like.

The Online Learning Environment Should be Predictable 

Students should not spend time trying to figure out what they are supposed to learn and do. Instead, the sites that they access should provide clear learning expectations and instructions.  We suggest that teachers plan weekly experiences that allow students some flexibility in choosing when they complete some tasks.

We have organized our learning management systems to focus on specific activities. These tasks always align with learning intentions and success criteria. Each day, teachers can provide students with suggestions and requirements (or may-dos and must-dos). For example:

  • Attend: What live sessions should students participate in? These may be designed for the whole class or for small groups of students. If done for the whole class, the teacher should model and demonstrate learning as well as guide students’ thinking. When students attend small group sessions, the teacher can target skills and concepts that students still need to master.
  • Read: What readings do they need to do? And what should they do with these readings? Frequent, low-stakes assessments increase engagement and allow teachers to monitor students’ understanding. 
  • Watch: Which videos should they watch? These might include teacher lectures or those curated from other sources. As they watch, what are students expected to do? We like systems that question students during the video and provide immediate feedback. Again, low-stakes assessments increase engagement.
  • Discuss: What should they talk about with their peers? Student-to-student interaction accelerates learning. Thus, we need to design opportunities for students to interact with their peers in meaningful ways. Several tools can help support student collaboration. Make sure you include these in the learning design. 
  • Practice: What independent tasks should students do and how should they submit assignments? Students need opportunities to both practice and apply what they have learned. Distance education should not only be independent tasks but students do need opportunities to complete work on their own and to receive feedback about their performance.

Now imagine that every online course in a given school used the same labels for things, such as those above. This reduces the amount of time and energy that students devote to understand what they are expected to do and more time and energy can be focused on learning the content. 

Focus on Social-emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning must become more widely recognized as critical if we are going to thrive during remote instruction. Teachers need to integrate this type of learning into their lessons and not leave it to something done by someone else at some other time. For example, synchronous learning can start with an emotional check-in. Sanford Harmony provides free tools -- including the Sanford Harmony Game Room app -- that educators can use for meet-ups and buddy-ups during class time.

In addition, teachers should select texts that provide students with access to the standards and opportunities for social and emotional development. These texts might be useful as students develop their identity or they might focus on social skills. Or they might allow students to recognize emotions in others (characters or real people) and how those people regulate their emotions. If given several options for texts that address the standards to share with students, we suggest choosing the one that also provides opportunities for a discussion about social and emotional learning.

It’s also important to recognize the staff’s social and emotional needs. Take care of yourself. Develop morning and evening routines that signal your start and end of the workday. Take breaks and find ways to socialize with your colleagues. Have at least one extended conversation with someone outside your home each day. And if you begin to feel overwhelmed, reach out to others.

Most of us did not sign up for remote learning. We want to be with our students, guiding their learning experiences. But we are still their teachers and we didn’t forget how to teach. We learned a lot from “quaranteaching” but now it’s time to plan purposeful distance learning experiences for students.

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High. They are the co-authors, with John Hattie, of The Distance Learning Playbook. 

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