The most common sentiment I’ve heard from fellow parents involved in distance learning is that this social experiment has been a disaster. Sure there is the occasional child who thrived in this environment of self-sufficiency but overall that child is rare – a gift from heaven to the overwhelmed parent, a unicorn in a field of common horses, a full-grown swan in a pond of ducks.
I am fortunate enough to have one of these rare children. But only one. The other three … the other three are beautiful ponies who are extremely common. Distance learning was a struggle from the first day until the last. It was a constant battle of the wills; some days learning prevailed but other days apathy and frustration ruled the field of battle. Like a general with an unclear concept of the mission to be accomplished, I, and thousands of parents like me, valiantly struggled to conquer the hilltop only to realize from the top of said hill that it was nothing more than a slope before an entire mountain range. The monumental task of guiding multiple children through the distance learning experiment was equivalent to scaling Mount Everest without having spent a single moment in training while having a crowd of people following along criticizing every mis-step and looking to push you off the glacier in order to make their own progress down the mountain.
The assignments given were accompanied by nothing more than a video explaining the concept in the most broad terms to the most general audience. There was no room, in terms of time and energy, for teachers to differentiate instruction based on individual student needs. There was no feedback to the teachers whether or not students were grasping the material – immediate feedback in the classroom takes on a wide variety of forms from facial expressions to energy to raised hands – until the assessment piece was completed and turned in with wrong answers. Most of the time, student frustration happened well before any worksheets were even attempted and the teachers never even had the opportunity to address the issue. It fell on the parents to handle the short-term struggles our students faced and push them through to the completion of the assignment.
I’m not sure about other parents, but to me it felt like making excuses when I had to email a teacher about my student’s inability to complete an assignment. The presiding sentiment in my house was that it was better to throw a tantrum than to get wrong answers. This was tough for me to swallow, because I as a former educator I find that wrong answers are part of the learning process. Despite my best efforts to tell my children that making mistakes is part of learning, fear of negative feedback from their teachers was enough to push them over the edge. I cannot tell you how many times we tumbled off the cliff of “I can’t do it” and “this is too hard” and “that’s it! I’m just done!” It was painful to email a teacher and say, “I’m sorry but the toll this assignment is taking on my family is too much and we will not be completing it.”
On the one hand, it felt incredibly right to pick and choose which assignments we’d do and the timeline in which we would do them. On the other hand, it felt incredibly rebellious to tell teachers that we would not be doing what they’d asked. The teeter-totter of emotion surrounding school assignments was exhausting. Now multiply all that by the number of children in the household who are not rare, self-sufficient unicorns.
So, that’s the complaining part of this post. What is the solution?
Well, I’m glad you asked! Here are my suggestions for what would make distance learning a whole lot easier (emotionally and logistically).
- Explain the objective
- Explain how this skill builds on the previous skill
- Explain how this skill sets up the next skill
- Give a test at the end (a formative assessment)
- Allow alternative demonstrations of skill mastery
These ideas are not rocket science or new to the world of education. In fact, I learned about them in the credential program. Please allow me to expand on how I think each of these ideas could be applied to distance learning
Explain the objective
Give parents and students the benefit of knowing what they are trying to accomplish rather than making the assignment about completion. In the brief time I spent teaching high school English, I always wrote on the board the plan for the day and the reason we were doing it. It’s a lot easier to get buy-in (from students and parents) when there is a clear explanation of the reason behind the assignment.
Explain how this skill builds on the previous skill
By knowing what students already know, it becomes much easier to prod them forward through challenging portions of the new concept. We all know that it is not as scary to approach a challenge when we have already done it before. If you have already hiked half way up a mountain, you feel much more capable of hiking the mountain again and getting a little farther than halfway. If students know that they already know part of the concept, they will feel much more capable about taking on the new part.
Explain how this skill sets up the next skill
Knowing where you are going makes it much easier to make adjustments to journey when presented with challenges. Sticking with our mountain climbing analogy, imagine you face a fork in the trail and are unclear which path to take. If you have a compass and a map, you will be equipped to choose the path which will take you to the top of the mountain. Knowing where you have been is important but so is knowing where you are going.
Understanding that students are working on how to use a compass or how to read a map in order to be prepared for that fork in the trail gives a sense of relevance to mastery of the skill. Simply knowing that north is a direction is not enough when trying to figure out which way to go while climbing a mountain.
Give a test
Yikes! The dreaded T-word! Tests have a pretty bad wrap since we have all, at some point, sat for a test for which we were not prepared. Staring down at a blank paper and being expected to write an essay in 20 minutes is enough to fill anyone with dread. In distance learning, however, we have the opportunity to remove this test anxiety.
In the classroom, teachers are looking for data to drive their instruction. What percentage of the class understands the concept? Can I move forward, or do I need to reteach? As parent-teachers, the test becomes much more personal and relevant. Our kids can show us what they know; with the right spin, it becomes the ultimate “hey mom watch this!” And we need to actually watch so we know if our kids are ready to move on to the next skill. Parents need to be given the freedom to move back if their kid needs more time or to push forward if their kid grasps the concept quickly.
Allow alternative methods of demonstrating mastery
Not all tests need to be a blank piece of paper with an essay written in 20 minutes. If parents clearly understand the objective of the skill, then it is perfectly acceptable to allow students a different way to show they have learned what we are trying to teach them.
My second grader struggled with the paper test for counting money. The pictures of the coins were difficult to decipher and they would alternate between showing the front or back of the coins. Taking out a jar of coins, however, improved her ability to demonstrate her understanding of coin values. She would look at the pictures and find the proper coins in the jar. Adding this tactile element to the test gave her a better way to show she knew which coins were which.
Going to Target with $8 in coins and going through self-checkout allowed her even more opportunity to practice and/or demonstrate her understanding of money. As she dropped the coins into the slot the machine added the value to the total. Sometimes the coin wouldn’t register and she would need to push the eject button to get the coin back. If she didn’t want to waste her money, she needed to pay close attention to which coin she put in, the value of the coin, and the amount added to the total.
Too much work!
I understand that what I am proposing here seems like it will be so much more work for teachers, but really, all this information is embedded in the curriculum. In creating lesson plans or reading through the Teacher Materials, teachers are given all the steps I outlined above. My ideas are not reinventing the wheel. What I am suggesting is that teachers share this information with parents in a clear, concise way in order to empower them to actually teach their students.
Our experience with Distance Learning was about completing assignments, not about accomplishing objectives. I hope that (God forbid!) we end up in another distance learning situation, that schools and teachers will better equip parents to actually teach.