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From normal to better: Using what we’ve learned to improve education

Since the beginning of the school shutdowns, there have been debates about the effectiveness of online learning. Many education experts have offered ideas on how to improve what was, in essence, an emergency service for which the majority of teachers were not prepared.

Ironically, the suggestions that have been given to strengthen the value of online classrooms are the same that many educators would agree could improve learning in our brick and mortar schools: cultivate relationships, tend to social and emotional health, offer students choice, ensure equitable provision of resources, and prioritize relevance over “what we’ve always done”.

As we embark on a new school year, whether it will be online, in person, or a hybrid of both, we can focus on these areas for lasting improvement.

Cultivate relationships

A common thread among education articles from the past few months has been the emphasis on supporting families during the learning process. As the pandemic forced students to learn from home, it became clear that caregivers needed education as well, in areas that ranged from technical support to suggestions for helping children to stay engaged in order to complete work.

Read more: Best practices for supporting parents with remote learning

Although increasing the responsibilities of the caregiver and teacher is not ideal, there has been consensus that the expanded communication between home and school has helped guardians to gain more insight into the education of their children. Partnerships between caregivers and teachers reinforce consistency and a feeling of safety for the students.

What doesn’t work: confusing messages on different platforms and for multiple students in the household.

Improvement needed: streamlined messaging, all resources for each student in one place that parents can easily access, tutorials for parents.

Offer students voice and choice

Creating bonds between teachers and students requires more than just efficient communication. Empowering students and ensuring they can personally connect to their learning can be two of the deepest ways to engage students. We can empower them by giving them more choices.

For example, one of the most frequently repeated benefits of online learning, according to teenagers, has been the flexibility it offers when it comes to time. Being able to wake up late, watch lectures when convenient, and turn in assignments by a due date instead of when the bell rings to signal the end of class, are freedoms that have been greatly appreciated by young adults.

Having the self-motivation to complete tasks well in a timely manner means executive function skills have been developed over time. This happens when we give students more opportunities to make their own decisions and solve their own problems, gradually releasing them to become more independent.

Blended learning, a hybrid of synchronous (typically face-to-face) and asynchronous (typically online at one’s own pace) methods, is a great example of how we can help students to take charge of their own learning. For instance, educators may use choice menus to give students options in assignments and assessments or design different learning paths to account for student preferences and abilities.

Read more: Adopting the asynchronous mindset for better online learning

Giving students some level of control over what they learn about, how they learn it, or how they demonstrate their learning helps students to feel respected. In addition to this, we can allow our students to voice their feelings and how they are personally connected (or not) to the curriculum. Frequently soliciting feedback and concerns through tools like Google Forms can help teachers to make curriculum decisions and students to feel like their input is valued.

What doesn’t work: suddenly expecting students to work independently on assignments that were not meaningful to them.

Improvement needed: design curriculum that scaffolds up from dependence to independence, empowering students throughout.

Broadly support social and emotional health

2020 has been a stressful year for almost everyone, but it is not a new concept that schools are on the frontlines when it comes to the social and emotional health of the students. The needs have been outweighing the allocated staffing of specialists in these areas for quite awhile, as evidence of the rise in school shootings and teenage suicides demonstrates.

Schools that have counselors often utilize those personnel for managing standardized testing or filling in other “holes” during the school day, making them less accessible to students in crisis (and some would argue that the testing, itself, leads to more crises).

Academic problems, attendance issues, and behavioral challenges all have strong links to poor social and emotional health. With the addition of the stress caused by recent events on households directly impacted by illness, death, and/or job loss, there will be more need than ever for qualified staff members to support the school community.

Read more: Can edtech enable Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

What doesn’t work: ignoring the issue or allocating minimal resources for it.

Improvement needed: train all staff in SEL including restorative practices, add more staff at each campus to address the needs in this area.

Ensure equitable provision of resources

One of the reasons the homework debate arose several years ago was because it was clear there were some students who do not have the family support or resources at home to complete it. Going online for the pandemic made this even more apparent, especially when it came to the availability of devices robust enough to use for online learning and caregivers who could assist at home.

In the meantime, schools in the United States show extreme disparity when it comes to building safety and maintenance. Schools that are falling apart and are unable to provide essential resources send the message that education is unimportant to our students. It’s even worse for the students who attend those schools to see that other schools are equipped with more than enough.

Read more: 6 Practical strategies for teaching across the digital divide

What doesn’t work: current funding for schools, often based on property taxes or other unbalanced methods.

Improvement needed: prioritize fair education funding with higher standards for safety and building maintenance. Provide free internet, which has become a necessity in education, to all.

Prioritize relevance and efficacy over “What we’ve always done”

Back in 2019, when schools found it difficult to even declare a “Snow Day,” we would never have imagined our children spending months at home and learning online. The fact that this could be done, whether it was effective or not, does prove that we can make dramatic changes in education if we believe that it is for the good of our society.

This moment of uncertainty has also given us a window of opportunity where innovation may be more widely accepted than ever before. We can propose changes to the school calendar year, traditional schedules, and assessments. We can “Marie Kondo” our curriculum, and make sure what remains is necessary, valuable, and culturally responsive. We can move further away from the factory assembly line model of education toward a system that creates independent problem solvers who are curious lifelong learners.

Read more: Edtech that “Sparks Joy”

What doesn’t work: allegiance to an educational system that is based on everyone conforming to the same standards.

Improvement needed: innovative changes that are faithful to our current needs and flexible enough to support future ones.

Stop clinging to the past

As much as we want our world to return to normal, we cannot forget that last year’s normal wasn’t perfect. We are in a unique position where we can vividly recall the great things about school - especially the relationships and new worlds opened up by education - and to try to change the parts that were unhelpful and sometimes even harmful.

We don’t ever want to be placed in this position again, so instead of rebooting, let’s take this moment to upgrade. Education needs a new operating system, and this is the time to replace it.

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