It looks like a lot of us are going to be distance teaching for a while. I’ve been thinking and reading and reflecting on what this means and how we’d be wisest to approach it.
Before I begin, let me be transparent: I’ve been paralyzed at the keyboard on this topic — far more so, I think, than on any other topic I've treated. It’s so far outside my wheelhouse, and the lack of clarity around so many of the details melts my mind. There’s this cacophonous noise around this topic right now: everyone has an opinion or a resource; each teacher's situation is uniquely challenging. I hosted a “lockdown edition” office hours last Friday for Student Motivation Course and Time Management Course participants, and the questions about how to motivate our students right now, how to motivate ourselves, how to manage our time . . . they are all so hard.
In short, like most of us, I was not ready for this — not as a teacher, not as a writer, not as a PD provider.
But I am clear on a few things, and I owe you at least those as we muddle through all this together as best we can.
Let’s start with the (very beautiful) good news.
The Good News
Education at a distance has as its purpose the same thing as education in person: the promotion of the long-term flourishing of students. In other words, the work of distance learning matters, profoundly, just as the work of in-person learning does. We promote our students’ long-term flourishing both for their good and for the good of society. (See pp. 6-7 here for a discussion of the personal and societal parts of long-term flourishing.) So COVID closures or not, that’s the game: improving a student’s long-term flourishing odds by improving her literacy or her science knowledge or her physical education — whatever we’ve been assigned to teach.
This may all seem elementary, but it’s amazing how many schools I’m seeing that are losing this point in their communications or in their approaches to distance learning. The point of school isn’t the seamless continuation of the delivery of the curriculum — the point is the long-term flourishing of human beings. To be clear, curricula are super important in seeing that done, but only because as students master the different disciplines laid out in good curricula, they also develop the kinds of knowledge and skills and strengths of character that best predict a flourishing life.
But curriculum isn’t the point! Long-term flourishing is. And that means that we need not frantically, maniacally rush to pretend that the primary goal is to get our curricula distance-ified. We can slow down, take a breath, think, and move slowly into the new challenges that confront us, being transparent with our students and families as we do so.
All right — that’s the good news.
The Bad News
Now to the bad news. Buckle up. No sense being idealistic if we’re not going to be realistic, too.
First, education at a distance is not the same thing as education in person. The skills that made us effective classroom teachers won’t transfer neatly into making us effective distance teachers. Some will; others won’t. The lessons and learning exercises that worked well in the classroom won’t all transfer neatly into curricula that work at a distance. Some will; others won’t. What got us here won’t get us there.
Second, almost everything that we knew about motivating students just changed. In what is truly an American tradition, millions of labor hours are being spent reinventing the curricular wheel for students at local levels. But unless this distance-ified work is done and done with care by students, it won’t amount to much learning.
This is fundamental. In order for a person to learn — whether at a distance or in-person — they’ve got to do work with care. This kind of effortful, careful work is the product of motivation — the Latin root of that word is movere, to move. If a learner has no reason or impetus to move, then the learner will not act or think or take notes or read or write, and the learner will, therefore, not learn.
So here’s the inescapable thing: human motivation is hugely sensitive to context. The research is clear that you and I have an enormous impact on the motivational contexts that we create in our classrooms. Differences in student motivation in the classroom cannot responsibly or intelligently be chalked up solely to home life. For even the most unmotivated of students, empirical studies and common sense agree that the classroom teacher has an influence. Motivation isn’t fixed, but rather it is an expression of the degree to which a learner believes five key things — and, to bring us back to our topic sentence, these five key things are highly sensitive to contextual factors like place, assignment, instructor, history in like courses, and so on.
Now let’s bring it all together: from a motivational standpoint, the largest difference between the in-person learning many of us were facilitating a few weeks ago and the distance learning many of us are trying to facilitate now is that there has been a seismic change in context.
- The physical space has changed for our learners. It’s a noisy bedroom, it’s a screen, it’s a packet, it’s a kitchen table, it’s a tablet in a car in the parking lot of the library with good wifi before the tablet battery dies. It’s a space where a child isn’t used to self-regulating like they have to self-regulate in school. It’s on a smartphone that many of our schools forbade children from accessing a month ago — and rightly so! — and a month from now may be requiring our students to access.
- The ability of the teacher to inhabit that physical space has changed for us. We can’t use proximity any more. We can’t communicate with our posture and expression and tone, modifying these things in real time based on the postures, expressions, and tones of our students.
- The psychological, emotional, and spiritual space has changed for all of us. This final shift is profound, and it likely contains our biggest opportunity as educators. The uncertainty we now live with; the concern for our health or the health of our loved ones and neighbors; the lack of security we feel; the heightened sense of isolation; the overstimulation from screens. These things are fundamentally different for all of us than they were a month ago.
I consider myself someone with things to say about student motivation specifically and education in general. But these contextual changes have left me wordless at my keyboard, regularly, for weeks.
Finally, doing distance education wrong right now may have serious consequences for the long-term flourishing of students, parents/guardians, and teachers. The stakes for doing this wrong are not a few months of lost learning — they are trajectory-shifting burnout for everyone in the system.
Let’s start with teachers. Expecting teachers to shift to online learning without a hitch is insane. My sister is a speech language pathologist whose husband runs a small, newly at-risk business from their home. They have three children, ages nine months, three years, and five years. Her job now is to provide tele-therapy while managing an infant. Infant-on-the-hip speech language tele-therapy isn’t something her Master’s degree training covered.
And how about my sisters’ students’ parents and guardians? Their job is to make sure that their child doesn’t have any distractions or disruptions during tele-therapy sessions. But what about the parents of kids on her caseload living with other siblings in small homes? What about the students who were homeless when this all started? Those with poor Internet access and no hope for a hotspot until June when manufacturers can catch up to demand? And making these new tele-therapy sessions work well is just one of a dozen new demands placed on her students’ parents’ plates — demands that come from distance learning expectations, job changes and losses, and figuring out when the best time is to get eggs at the grocery store.
And finally, how about my sisters’ students? They’re all great kids, but they’re plenty distractible in normal circumstances — how about now when the world outside their tele-therapy screen is a lot bigger than the world inside of it?
So what happens to all of these people if we keep up the pressure to NOT FALL BEHIND (the mania here requires all-caps) and continue on as normal? I think the risks are clear: Burn-out. Disengagement. Resentment.
Those aren’t ingredients in the long-term flourishing recipe book.
Thankfully, this doesn’t need to be the story for any of us.
The Start of a Solution
For most of us, we won’t end up having much of a choice about what we distance teach or how we do it — our districts or states will tell us what tools we can and can’t use, what standards we should and shouldn’t cover, what benchmarks we do and don’t need to hit.
But to the degree that you and I do have choice, here are my top recommendations:
1. Shift to enrichment-style learning activities, not curriculum coverage or “hitting the standards.” There are two scenarios awaiting us whenever we get back to school-as-normal:
- We work hard to cover the remaining 20-30% of curricula via distance that we didn’t get a chance to teach in person this year. Because not all of our students have internet access, this will mean creating both digital and print-only versions. Because of the differences that will inevitably exist between our digital and print-only options, and because of the vastly inequitable circumstances within which our students will be learning with them, we won’t be able to require that these things get done — they’ll basically be recommended, and we’ll work to get as many students and their families following the recommendations as we can. But no matter what we do, there will be drastic differences in the amount of the distance curriculum that was learned by our students. So whenever we’re back together in person, we’ll have classes filled with some students who were able to learn the curriculum at a distance and some who weren’t. In other words, curriculum coverage will be haphazardly effective and will likely result in worse-than-ever opportunity gaps whenever we next meet in person.
- We abandon the remaining 20-30% of curricula and focus distance learning on high-engagement, enrichment-focused activities instead. Activities like this will be appealing to a greater percentage of our students and their families — especially if they are simple and clear — and as a result more of them will do the work with care. When we (God willing) get back to school in the fall, we’ll have curricula gaps to figure out and deal with (just like in the first scenario), but these gaps will be more common across the student body (unlike the first scenario) and, therefore, easier to plan and adjust for.
There are all kinds of other benefits to the second, enrichment-focused scenario, including:
- A greater percentage of students will do the work of distance learning because it will be more likely to activate the five key beliefs.
- A percentage of students will discover new areas of interest or deepen existing ones.
- A percentage of students will speak with their parents/guardians more about their learning than they ever have before.
- A percentage of students will arrive at school in the fall with fond memories about learning during the COVID closures — having become bigger fans of learning than they were at the start of the closures.
I sit and look at the advice I’ve just given and stand a bit amazed. I’m the first to advocate for the gap-shrinking power of a guaranteed, viable, and good curriculum. I think student choice is a useful tool in improving student motivation but that it has to be used more judiciously than is commonly expressed in popular teacher books. But when almost everyone is an untrained distance learner or homeschool parent or distance teacher, I don’t like our odds for doing a good job with a guaranteed and viable curriculum. So, I recommend that we acknowledge that and focus on the point of school: long-term flourishing and the development of a lifelong love affair with learning. And that means relying much more on choice-rich, engagement-oriented enrichment activities.
So to the degree that I can, I'm going to target enrichment right now.
2. Equip parents/guardians. Our schools should have already been operating as community headquarters for parenting professional development. Parenting, in my opinion, is an even tougher job than teaching, and yet there’s no mandated professional development. Unfortunately, in most school's this kind of PD just doesn't exist. Well, now that the delivery of curriculum and instruction is markedly modified, it’s time that we start providing better and clearer and more robust learning options for parents.
Many organizations are already paving the way, creating documents like this daily schedule from Kahn Academy, which includes instructive notes on things like breaks and changing out of your PJs. Others use humor to help us keep perspective, such as this comic from NPR. But I especially like the idea of arming parents with deeper learning on how to strengthen the relational fundamentals in their homes — in particular, I’m excited about this “relational wisdom” training program from Ken Sande that our colleague John Reynolds shared with me recently. (Note that there are both faith- and secular/values-based versions of the Ken Sande course.)
Perhaps one of the best kinds of guidance our schools can give parents right now is perspective: letters from teachers on what school is for and district leaders on our commitment to solve the different phases of this problem as they come. Sit down at a whiteboard, draw out the scenarios, and start getting the smartest people on the team into a room to figure out workable solutions. Parents and guardians are anxious about a lot right now — especially the idea that their child will fall behind. We owe them assurances that, even now, we’re working on that.
3. Keep it simple. The whole point of These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most is that overcomplicating teaching and learning creates a lose-lose scenario — we slip to the wrong side of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, simultaneously diminishing the quality of student learning outcomes and the quality of our lives. The book’s core solution is that rather than pretend in our finitude that we can do all things well, we ought instead to satisfice the nonsense and maximize our effectiveness at just a few key things.
As a distance teacher, my focus right now is on:
- Leveraging the five key beliefs beneath student motivation by teaching my students to engage in simple, high-interest, enrichment-oriented learning experiences.
- Read something, write something, say something: a week’s learning in my courses used to look like 5+ knowledge-rich reading/writing/speaking/listening learning experiences. Now it’s gotten a lot simpler and a lot lighter so that my students and I can remaster these kinds of learning sequences far away from a classroom, but lessons still most often will look like “read something, write something, say something.”
- Relearning moments of genuine connection — clipboard and all — when my only tools are email, Google Classroom, and a phone.
That last one, in my opinion, is the number one objective that schools need to be pursuing right now — how do we connect with every child on a regular (once a week or every other week) basis?
4. Keep it slow.
Remember: the goal is long-term flourishing, not “keeping up” in some kind of insane win-lose rat race. As homeschooling researcher Michael McShane wrote recently for EdWeek,
Families shouldn’t feel pressured to try and keep up, or even surpass, the rate of academic progress of their traditional school. It’s much more important to create a place where children can get some respite from the scary world outside of the door. Trying too hard to keep kids engaged academically could serve to push children away during a time when families can come closer together. A couple of hours a day of academic work should be plenty.“Lessons From a Homeschooling Researcher: What You Should Know Now,” by Michael McShane for EdWeek
McShane goes on to argue that students are going to be learning tons in the next couple of months as they watch their parents deal with stress, and socially distance for the sake of neighbors, and adjust to uncertainty. Families are going to need regular reminders that the point of schooling isn’t a race, it’s long-term flourishing. Regular letters from school leadership speaking to this, and to a school’s determination to get better at this every day and keep solving the problems that spin out of this as they come up, will go a long way to calming homes down.
In another EdWeek piece, Khan Academy founder Sal Khan says,
My first piece of advice is: Don't beat up on yourself, whether you're a parent, teacher, or student. It's OK to give yourself time. If you're not up and running, or if it looks like other people have their act together today and you don't, don't feel bad about it. Take care of yourself and take care of your family.Sal Khan in “Straight Up on COVID-19: Sal Khan on Teaching 40 Million Kids at Home” by Rick Hess for EdWeek
The point? Pretending that everything is normal doesn’t make a ton of sense. Slow and steady.
So What’s Working for You?
These principles are a start — nothing more. It's just more of what you've come to expect from my blog: rough-draft thinking.
So what do you think? What’s working for you?