curriculum, distance learning, instruction

Planning Ahead to Keep Up With the Rapid Evolution of School

Like it or not, our schools are rapidly changing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When schools first closed in March, educators had little time to prepare for the precipitate transition to distance learning. Perhaps most challenging was the unknown: not knowing what effective distance learning instruction looks like, not knowing exactly how to do it, and not knowing how long it would last.

But over the last few months, we’ve gained some invaluable experience, and we’ve discovered a little about what works and perhaps even more about what doesn’t. We’ve had some time to read, reflect, and discuss about best practices. And we now have a better idea about the challenges that we face.

This summer we have an opportunity to recuperate from a school year that has been mentally and emotionally draining. And once we’re able to ensure our own well-being, we can begin the challenging, yet important process of preparing for the upcoming school year.

Because make no mistake about it: Our schools are rapidly evolving, and educators need to do their utmost to adapt and keep up.

Preparing to Plan

There are still many unknowns, but one thing for certain is we must be prepared for both distance and face-to-face learning. Although we were caught by surprise early this year (to the fault of no one), we can’t afford to further sacrifice our students’ learning because of ill preparation.

So it’s likely best to prepare for a hybrid form of teaching and learning that combines both distance and face-to-face learning. Not only does this seem to be the most likely format in the new school year at the moment, but it also allows educators to hedge their bets in their preparation. If we prepare for both formats and things turn out to be worse than anticipated, teachers can adapt to full distance learning without too much trouble. And of course if things turn out to be better than anticipated, we can easily transition to complete face-to-face instruction.

But one more note on preparing for the preparation. Because this is such challenging work that is new for most, planning as a team, as opposed to alone, makes the product of the preparation––the curriculum and instruction––much more manageable and equitable. Team efforts allow teachers to share the workload and reap the rewards of the combined expertise of the team. Further, it’s in the best interest of students that curriculum and essential instructional strategies are common across teachers of like classes. This helps to promote educational equity in a time that students need it most, as school closures have temporarily shifted the brunt of the burden of education from schools to individual families.

Curriculum

When planning curriculum maps for the upcoming year, we should forget any sense of obligation to teach all of the standards or even to implement the same map as in previous years. Just like the end of the current school year, the 2020-2021 year will be different from past years, so attempting to teach the same standards as in the past is simply unrealistic.

Perhaps the biggest difference from past years is the likelihood of less face-to-face learning time. Simply put, the less face-to-face learning time available, the less student learning that can take place.

Prioritizing Standards

So we must prioritize the standards that are most important for students’ education. In doing so, we should acknowledge that as teachers, we have a tendency to consider all standards as essential, and we perhaps feel guilty about prioritizing one standard over another as if by leaving some out, we’ll inflict irreparable damage to our students’ education. But in reality, without prioritization, students will learn little to the depth that we need them to.

A good place to start in the prioritizing work is to consider Solution Tree’s three criteria for determining essential standards, as presented in Sharon V. Kramer’s (2015) text How to Leverage PLCs for School Improvement.

Kramer suggests that teacher teams consider endurance, leverage, and readiness when deciding on priority standards. Here is a synopsis of these concepts:

  • Endurance: Prioritize those standards that include knowledge and skills that remain important beyond a single test. Consider their authenticity and staying power in students’ lives beyond school.
  • Leverage: Consider a standard’s value not only in the current class, but also in other subjects that students are and will be taking.
  • Readiness: Include standards that are needed for student success in the next course level or for success on standardized tests.

Time Considerations

And when prioritizing standards, teachers should consider the time it will likely take to guide the vast majority of their students to proficiency, because that should be the goal.

But we’ve seen that distance learning slows the learning process. If done well, perhaps we can say that on average, it occurs at half the rate of traditional face-to-face learning. Further, we might estimate that the 2020-2021 school year will have approximately half of the face-to-face instruction of a normal school year. With these rough estimates, it would mean that we should prioritize at most about 75% of the standards that we might teach in a normal school year.

This means removing one of every four standards from our curriculum map. So if your typical unit once had four priority standards, cut it down to just three.

Supporting Standards

So what about all the standards that aren’t prioritized? They shouldn’t be left out. Rather, these supporting standards should still be taught, but for a different purpose. They should be taught because they help to support the priority standards, and, of course, because they’re still important in their own right. But unlike priority standards, the expectation for supporting standards isn’t that all students will reach proficiency, and because of this, they aren’t summatively assessed. Instead, supporting standards may be addressed in mini lessons or within lessons featuring priority standards, and summative assessment is kept to priority standards.

Missed Standards

Another consideration is the standards that were never addressed at the end of the 2019-2020 school year due to school closures. Schools need to ensure strong communication to inform teachers of the next grade level or subsequent course what was missed. Teacher teams can then determine the best way to address these standards throughout the year. But whether these missed standards are determined to be priority or supporting standards, they will likely require more time than is customary to teach.

Instruction

By now, we’ve all discovered that distance instruction looks much different than face-to-face instruction. Accordingly, these two formats should be planned with different purposes in mind.

Face-to-face Instruction

When planning face-to-face instruction, we should have the mindset that the classroom time available for this format will be limited and precious. Not only is it crucial for forging new relationships and facilitating new learning, it’s also essential for closing the achievement gap that was exacerbated due to COVID-19 school closures (read more about this phenomenon here). For this reason, we need to be especially purposeful with its use in our preparation.

So when planning ahead, teachers need to ask themselves: What must we address in face-to-face instruction because it’s inequitable, overly challenging, or even impossible in distance instruction?

Here are some considerations:

  • establishing trust and strong relationships
  • helping students to understand the purpose and importance of the subject and standards
  • communicating important classroom policies
  • creating a culture of feedback
  • instilling a growth mindset
  • facilitating peer feedback and peer assessment
  • facilitating self assessment
  • teaching the use of important technologies
  • conferencing
  • providing differentiated instruction
  • providing interventions
  • facilitating summative assessments
  • facilitating retakes of summative assessments

Although this isn’t an exhaustive list, all of these actions require frequent and focused interactions between the teacher and students. So this concept can guide planning of additional face-to-face instructional elements. (The possible exception here is with summative assessment, which is included because of validity and equity concerns if students are allowed to test at home.)

Distance Instruction

When planning distance instruction, teachers should have the mindset that although it’s not the ideal format, much can be done to further students’ learning––primarily through their gaining of small chunks of new knowledge and practicing skills initiated within the classroom.

So teachers can start by asking: What can students accomplish in distance learning that doesn’t need to be done in the limited time available for face-to-face learning?

Here are some considerations:

  • reading (guided reading or independent reading of a book of students’ choice)
  • brainstorming
  • journaling
  • practicing previously learned skills
  • revising work
  • reflecting
  • providing peer feedback
  • watching short video lectures (ideally 3 to 5 minutes each)
  • taking notes
  • studying teacher and student examples (documents and/or videos)

But distance learning comes in two different approaches: synchronous and asynchronous. While they both have pros and cons, synchronous learning can be especially difficult because it requires additional home support to ensure that students are ready to learn at a particular time. This commonly increases inequitable learning experiences, so synchronous learning should be minimized or avoided whenever questions about home resources arise.

This means that teachers should largely plan for distance learning instruction to be delivered asynchronously, allowing students to access materials when they are able. However, asynchronous instruction and learning has its own issues. Besides the fact that educators need to remain mindful of equity concerns related to students’ availability of food, shelter, safety, technology, and home learning support, we should also consider the common challenges related to motivating students to be self-directed learners. When they aren’t required to engage in a learning activity at a particular time, students may struggle to make good decisions regarding their own learning, as they are kids after all, and kids don’t always make the best decisions. Further, even when motivated, students may struggle to understand directions or practice skills when they get stuck on a problem or concept.

To help to address student motivation concerns, consider taking the advice of Daniel Pink in his book Drive by being mindful of autonomy, mastery, and purpose: provide students with choice in their learning tasks; give them plenty of feedback in each learning progression; and include meaningful explanations about the importance of the class, the standards, and each learning task. For more insight on this topic of intrinsic motivation, see my previous blog post about motivating students without grades.

To aid students in the challenge of completing learning activities on their own, teachers should keep directions intuitive and tasks short. Teacher videos can help to increase clarity and add a personal touch. When considering quantity, less really is more. Too much work can quickly become overwhelming for students and lead to disengagement. Further, learning tasks can take vastly different amounts of time for different students, and we also can’t forget that students have many classes in their schedule. The 20-minute rule seems to be a good benchmark, in which daily distance learning activities are designed to take students approximately 20 minutes to complete. And if teachers worry that some students may miss opportunities to deepen their learning because of limited practice, consider differentiating instruction by offering optional additional practice to those that may benefit from it.


So start planning early for the likelihood of a hybrid form of school that is more complicated than the traditional format, and give yourself time to make modifications as new information becomes available. Because when our students finally return after the five or so months since initial school closings, the effectiveness of their education will be largely dependent upon teachers’ ability to prepare and adapt for our rapidly evolving schools.

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