Learning Continuity, Education's Biggest Challenge and Opportunity
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the need to redesign school to ensure that meaningful learning can continue even if our brick and mortar school buildings close. Most schools and districts had only days to prepare to close school buildings and move learning to students’ homes. Remote learning has largely been designed as an emergency measure; a way to support some amount of learning in a situation that was unthinkable at the start of the school year. As we look to the future, educators are thinking about learning continuity. How do we design our schools to ensure that meaningful learning can happen anywhere?
This is an urgent issue as public health officials predict that future infection spikes could disrupt the upcoming school year. Learning continuity must be a guiding principle, alongside health and safety, for how we design our schools for the upcoming year.
There is also an opportunity for learning continuity to change how we approach schooling. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we approached learning as something that happened almost exclusively in a school. Homework often just reinforced the “real learning” that had already happened in the classroom. If there was a natural disaster, a snow storm or hurricane, and school was canceled - learning simply paused. There was no expectation that learning could or would happen if students weren’t in school.
And now we know that learning can occur outside of school. How might this new understanding change our approach to schooling? The answer is flexibility. We should provide more flexibility in how we staff schools, design schedules, and allow students to demonstrate mastery.
Each of these areas present a new idea to imagine. As you read, consider two things:
How would this idea work in a remote learning environment?
How do we keep equity front-of-mind when we make these decisions?
How could this idea transform school and allow for more flexibility in learning after the pandemic?
Flexibility in People
We have accepted for decades that teachers wear multiple hats. They are instructors, therapists, content experts, nurses, child development specialists; the list goes on and on. I struggle to think of another profession that requires such a wide range of skills and expertise. Lawyers and doctors are not generalists, they are Cardiologists, Intellectual Property Attorneys, Criminal Prosecutors, and Pediatricians. What if teacher roles were guided by more than a content area or grade? Imagine a team of teachers who all teach the same subject. Currently, every teacher has the same set of responsibilities. They all plan lessons, lead their classrooms, grade work, work with students, etc. What if this team divided-up those responsibilities?
- The most performative teacher led the direct instruction for each class
- The best lesson designer planned the learning experience and curated its resources
- The more novice teachers practiced teaching with individual students and small group
Flexibility in Scheduling
Traditional school schedules and calendars give students a single opportunity to learn; two if secondary schools repeat classes each semester. Students enroll in classes that often provide the same amount of support and instructional time for every student. And if that is not enough time or support, that student fails the course and must repeat it the following year. This system is designed to be inequitable; it provides the same thing to every student. Higher-income families can pay for extra support through private tutors, but middle- and lower-income families are left with few if any options. What if schedules provide multiple opportunities for students to access the instruction and support they need? Imagine if:
- The same lecture, and office hours to support that lecture, were delivered multiple times a day
- Students could attend lecture and/or office hours more than once a day, allowing them to choose how much support they received
- Teachers could focus on doing the same thing multiple times, improving it after each session
Flexibility in Grading
The idea that people learn best in different ways is nothing new. Howard Gardner proposed his theory of multiple intelligences back in 1983. Yet 37 years later, we primarily expect students to demonstrate their learning in one way. And too often that way is through multiple choice tests. Consider that alongside the way learning standards have changed. There is much more depth and complexity in standards. Lisa Ramish, an instructional expert and recipient of the 2011 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, says, “Students can benefit from learning grade level content from many different entry points, especially in terms of how they demonstrate their understanding of a concept. There’s a basic understanding of a concept and then being able to write about that concept. But then do students understand it spatially, do they understand it visually, what are all the models students can use to show an idea, can they connect this with other topics?” What if students had the chance to demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways? Imagine if:
- Mastery could be demonstrated through quizzes, slide deck presentations, video demonstrations, verbal explanations, drawings or visuals, or written responses
- Students were empowered to choose how they demonstrate mastery
About Noah Dougherty
Noah Dougherty is a Senior Design Principal at Education Elements. He previously worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, instructional coach, and school leader. He began his teaching career in Prince George’s County, Maryland with Teach For America and continued with KIPP DC. He has taught middle school social studies, 8th grade ELA, English 12, AP Literature, high school journalism, and DC History. While at KIPP DC he wrote the middle school social studies curriculum, designed a blended professional development course on writing instruction, and supported personalized learning. As a school leader he coached eleven teachers on the ELA and social studies teams, leading to a 13-point gain in students earning a 4+ on the PARCC, more than doubling the portion of students passing from the previous year. Noah has also worked for DC Public Schools and LearnZillion on curriculum development initiatives. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. Noah grew up in Syracuse, NY and now lives in Washington, DC.