Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.
As COVID-19 forced students into remote learning in the spring and has already caused school site closures for the start of this new school year, it’s clear that students will continue to have less contact time with their teachers this fall. How do we make up for this lost time? In reality, we can’t ever regain time that was lost. We need to approach this school year responsibly and creatively, acknowledging and accepting what has happened and moving forward with a resolve to keep students and staff safe while creating the best possible learning opportunities. For this coming school year, here are four key strategies that should inform our approaches to schooling in a time of profound loss.
Focus on What Students Have, Not What They Don’t
It’s tempting to focus too much on what has been lost in terms of learning time so far in 2020. This deficit-oriented focus can cause us to take inappropriate steps simply because things are happening on a different schedule. When a third-grade student is having difficulty with second-grade math concepts, we can’t approach the differentiation this student needs using a deficit mindset because there’s nothing inherently wrong with this student. We know each student learns at a different pace and that age-based grade levels are an artificial construct. So if we automatically assume something is wrong, then our strategies for helping the student often lead us to “fixing” the student rather than empowering them.
In the same way, schools and teachers shouldn’t try to “fix” what has happened to students so far in 2020. Instead, we should look for opportunities to empower students by focusing on what hasn’t been lost. As a former classroom teacher, one thing I know for certain is that while there have been lost time and lost learning experiences, students have not lost their brilliance and teachers have not lost their dedication. Even though buildings may be closed, “school” can still very much be open. Because they want to keep supporting students through remote learning, teachers are essential to creatively figuring out plans for what to do until school buildings can safely reopen full-time. The key will be to concentrate on what we can control.
Focus on Insights, Not Assessments
With state and district tests canceled this past spring, many educators are wondering where students are in their learning so they can meet their needs as the new school year resumes. Even if students are only in a hybrid school model for two or three days per week, most educators won’t want to spend that precious in-person time proctoring tests to figure out where students are. Teachers do need to have insights about each student. Therefore, given the challenges of traditional in-person testing and the difficulty of remote test proctoring in students’ homes, it’s important to remember that diagnostic assessments and standardized tests are simply one means to an end.
When administrators invest in purchasing or creating district assessments, it’s because they want data, not because they want to spend time testing. Educators need data about students’ learning needs and whether they are making progress towards grade level standards. Diagnostic assessments are just one way to collect that information, and like all data collection methods, standardized tests have limitations. Teachers don’t need to give traditional multiple-choice benchmark tests in order to gain insights about student learning; these insights can be gleaned and collected from conversations, interviews, and education technology tools that students are using remotely. For example, there are digital tools that can now predict how a student would perform on spring state tests after just a few learning sessions — no standardized testing required. These approaches remove the unnecessary stress that tests cause students while providing teachers with invaluable information about students’ grade level trajectory.
Focus on Teaching Big Ideas, Not Covering Skills
When there is limited time for teaching and learning, it’s tempting to quickly cover all of the material and focus on decontextualized skills or narrow facts that seem simple to explain and quiz. Even under normal circumstances, this approach is tempting. But while it may look effective through the lens of short-term memory and conditioned regurgitation, it isn’t effective for learning, transfer or sense-making. The learning science and cognitive research on this issue has been well-established for decades, captured well by Lorrie Shepard in 1989: “The notion that learning comes about by the accretion of little bits is outmoded learning theory … Thus, real learning cannot be spoon-fed, one skill at a time.”
Just as watching a soccer player dribble through a series of cones can’t really tell us how well they can actually play the game of soccer with teammates and against active opponents, we shouldn’t focus on student performance with isolated skills if we want them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers in unfamiliar situations. As you think back to your own experiences in math class as a student, you likely experienced the “sit and get” lesson and practice model. If your experience was like mine, for homework you did #1-30 evens from the textbook, but the word problems in 32, 34, and 36 may as well have been written in Klingon. Even if state tests aren’t canceled again next year, focusing on big ideas and engaging students with authentic, thought-provoking problems is the most effective use of limited time with students. One way to achieve this during remote learning is to start the math lesson using problems 32, 34 and 36 so that students learn what real performance looks like and how practicing #1-30 evens can help them solve more difficult problems.
Focus on Physical and Mental Well-being First, Not Curriculum
School and district leaders are in a challenging position as they make the difficult decision to continue remote learning this fall because students benefit when they are physically at school. But every educator knows that these learning benefits are only realized when students and staff are healthy and safe. Therefore, we must start by ensuring kids are ready to learn and in a supportive remote or hybrid learning environment. A focus on mental health and social-emotional learning both now and when schools return is essential to keeping students safe and connected.
Our entire world is experiencing collective trauma, and students in under-resourced homes are experiencing even more acute challenges that schools must be prepared to support. While students are always the primary focus, we must also recognize that teachers and other staff will need more mental health support as they navigate these difficult times. As those environments are established and needs are met, it will be easier for students to fully engage in lessons and learning the curricula.
As we continue navigating this moment in history, we’re together exploring new possibilities for how we provide personalized support for all students and teachers, monitor learning, and empower students to feel ready to face any challenge ahead. Again, while there will continue to be time loss compared to a normal year, there has been no brilliance loss with our students.
As Chief Learning Officer at DreamBox Learning, Dr. Tim Hudson oversees the development of innovative learning experiences that engage students in mathematical thinking and provide teachers with useful information to support differentiation and personalization in their classrooms. Prior to joining DreamBox, Dr. Hudson spent more than 10 years working in public education, first as a High School Mathematics Teacher and then as a K–12 Mathematics Coordinator and Strategic Planning Facilitator for the Parkway School District in suburban St. Louis, MO.
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