Why Is Remote Learning a Challenge?

Twenty-five days ago, where I live, remote learning began as a two-week prospect. Planning for ten days of instruction essentially involved packets of work to keep kids treading academic water until schools reopened. We’re beyond that now; and the evolution of remote learning has been inspiring and frustrating for everyone. As someone aptly wrote, most public school teachers are building and flying the plane at the same time. Parents now have an intimate view of learning and behavior. The mom of a teacher told me the other day: My daughter feels like she can actually teach now because parents are managing student behavior. An interesting insight, no?

Some educators refer to remote learning as homeschooling. The two are very different. Even those homeschoolers who use packaged curriculum would not resonate with what’s happening at the moment. (And know that homeschooling and homeschooling laws vary by state. See: https://hslda.org) Currently, remote learning is merely delivering educational content to a different location via the internet. That’s improving as teachers start thinking outside the box, and as they learn the ins and outs of all the amazing technology tools at their fingertips. Improvement will continue.

Where remote learning and homeschooling do align is at a most troublesome nexus: equity. Schools and classrooms provide equity within walls, a learning community, and a student-to-teacher ratio. There is a routine to a school day which is equitable in and of itself. Start and end times. Lunch. Playground. Specials. Providing that equity in remote learning becomes extremely difficult even with one-to-one devices.

Homeschooling also defies equity. Depending on the family, there might be a classroom of one. And, depending on family resources, homeschooling instruction can be an unending adventure in any location. My daughter and I took a trip to Paris. As I wrote in another piece (https://beginwithaquestion.com/2020/04/16/answering-a-question) she absolutely adores birds. She planned the Paris trip starting with the question: Where can we find parrots in Paris? We found them in zoos, a hat shop, two taxidermy stores, the Louvre, book stores, store windows. We found parrots at a doll museum. And Sunday morning we went to the famed Marche de Oiseaux near Notre Dame. It was an amazing adventure; but I know that not every child would have such an opportunity and that’s where homeschooling becomes an educational luxury for many children.

picture of parrot saying je parle, I talk
From The Musée de la Poupée (doll museum), Paris, France. Je parle translates to I talk.

Most of all, I am turning over how long ago, teachers were able to group students by ability. I get why the leveled reading and math groups were abolished; however, I also see the consequences of holding some students in place while others catch-up. People in the field are already talking about learning regression, growing educational gaps, and how to adequately and equitably fix those issues. That’s quite a conversation that may just have to lead back to broader differentiation. So, instead of differentiation of instruction by student, will we have to build classrooms by learning needs? Let’s call it educational triage. What would that look like? And I haven’t even touched on special education.

Getting through the school year and maintaining some semblance of order and connection for students is really what learning has to be about. In many private conversations, I have fretted with others about what we don’t know about life at home behind that computer screen. Some parents just can’t be invested in student learning because they are essential workers; or, they are struggling to put food on the table and pay bills. We don’t know whose parents might be ill. For those invested in teaching and learning this is an anguishing time beyond what’s playing out on the main stage of the world.

As we ponder and learn more about remote learning, there will be models out there to guide curriculum development; and undoubtedly there will be apps and programs to help create learning units. My teacher education days go back to the seventies when we talked about learning modules connected with independent learning. I thought about those modules while taking an online course through Mindful Schools. The six-week, Mindfulness Fundamentals was well organized, well-paced and built in such a way that progressing through the modules was self-motivated, with incentive from the creators. One had a week to finish a lesson; opening the next lesson depended on finishing the one before it. There was the basic learning for each student to accomplish; but then there were options for deeper learning with videos and extra reading. I learned a lot about mindfulness, but I was also intrigued by the building of the course.

Albert Einstein said: In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity. (Yes, I verified it!)

Great educational opportunities certainly lie ahead.

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