Remote learning turns kids into zombies because we’re doing it all wrong

“Hey mom! There’s someone leaving a garbage bag on our front porch,” shouts my sixth grader from his makeshift home office in the living room. Scooping the lopsided bag off the porch I notice both fourth and sixth grade kiddos are now hovering around me as if I’m Indiana Jones unearthing the Holy Grail. That small things are so gripping during this time never ceases to surprise me.

Both kids watch in anticipation as I open the bag and slowly realize what I’m unpacking. Five composition notebooks, three-quarters used. A bag of highlighters, markers and pencils with plenty of life left. And the kicker: the magnetic locker organizer. My son’s first year in middle school meant his first time having a locker. He was so proud of this small milestone on the path towards independence with the opportunity to organize his own learning in some small way. And so, the waterworks begin.

This process used to draw frustration as I grumbled through unused school supplies. But now it’s a vestige of a missed life experience. A child unable to joke with friends in the hallway, a missed opportunity for independence in clearing out his first locker (and maybe transferring that skill to his laundry pile), a student who never got to say goodbye to his teachers. This is a physical manifestation of what we’ve grappled with parenting during COVID-19: in-person versus distance learning.

School looks different this year

While physically distancing and anti-contagion measures may have saved 60 million people from being infected nationwide, it has simultaneously demonstrated deep inequities in our educational system and left a lacuna in the social and emotional connections essential for healthy child development. So while educators and students across the globe learned to do school differently this spring, the void left by the missing human to human connection has kept me up at night in nervous anticipation for this fall. As a life-long educational researcher, I fear we’ve squandered our opportunity to finally transform education for the better.

I’ve watched as my children sit zombified in front of a computer screen each day, watched as technology is not leveraged to the best of its ability, but rather used to replicate the same tired approaches we see in classrooms despite that we can do better.

Lindsay Portnoy in Somers, New York, in January 2018.
Lindsay Portnoy in Somers, New York, in January 2018.

There are many things we should be doing right now that are certain to improve the state of education for our nation’s nearly 57 million pre-K through 12th grade students during this time of crisis. What’s more, these moves can also transform the future of education for all of our children and their families.

Regardless of how we begin this fall, it is more likely than not that we will once again find ourselves in a distance learning environment. How can we help struggling parents who are both supporting their children while maintaining their jobs? How can educators connect with their students to grow relationships essential for student success alongside feedback that will fuel learners forward?

I propose three simple keys to equip parents and teachers in meeting the needs of all of our students this fall:

► Clarity: More clearly outlining expectations of students, teachers, and parents will set the stage for success regardless of the mode of re-entry this fall. What does clarity mean exactly? It begins by identifying the learning that is absolutely essential for students to thrive and then actually teaching that content. 

Then it requires clarity around instruction, information and supports: How teachers will share instruction, supplemental information, and resources around each essential item, so students can readily access what they need when they need it and exhausted parents can more easily keep track of what has been done, what needs doing, and what lies ahead.

► Feedback: Similar to clarity, the hazardous byproduct of our current public education is our fuzzy stance on feedback. Standardized assessments whose results emerge once a student is no longer in your course are a myopic view on human potential and fall short of creating true equity for our kids. We must focus on timely feedback about what our kids are learning today so our kids know where they are now and have clarity about how they can grow tomorrow.

Teacher: I was a reluctant Trump voter. Coronavirus is the end of my Republican identity.

Moreover, feedback and communication strengthens student-teacher relationships and it improves the parent-teacher relationship by making sure everyone is on the same page about each student’s areas of strength and areas for growth. 

► Flexibility: Learning from your living room certainly seems different from learning in a classroom. But is it really? Sitting in front of a screen or sitting in front of a droning teacher are perhaps more similar than we think. To improve all of our students’ continued learning we must be flexible with our expectations, but also with our more nuanced understanding for what it means to learn.

Flexibility is not simply extending deadlines. It means acknowledging our students need to demonstrate skills that were not required 30 years ago. 

Digital tools can enhance learning

Digital tools exist for our students to learn skills like coding. But that’s only just the beginning. Most of these resources already exist and they are free. Many of these tools even get our kids out of the house and into the world with purpose. So, the real question is: Why aren’t we embracing what we know works to do better?

Instead of shifting from lectures in-person to lectures online, let’s not miss an opportunity to recreate education to serve all of our students. Instead of replacing pencils with a keyboard, why not replace the lecture with a short video on Ancient Greece followed by real learning: for instance, recreating the Parthenon in an open world concept game (called sandbox games) like Minecraft where mathematical concepts like ratios and area are used to create, not regurgitate?

Students and teachers at Tennessee State University embrace virtual learning amid COVID-19.
Students and teachers at Tennessee State University embrace virtual learning amid COVID-19.

Students can engage in applied civics learning while playing iCivics games that positively impact the world around them. Or they could become historians by helping to transcribe Anti-Slavery Manuscripts through the Boston Public Library to make our history transparent and give voice to the voiceless.

Like Legos on steroids, digital spaces allow our kids to collaborate with one another in a virtual playground while also connecting socially, fostering those essential social and emotional skills.

COVID-19 and school: Betsy DeVos just crossed another line. She’s an ongoing danger to teachers and students.

Nothing can take the place of high-quality in-person engagement where the cadence of conversations and nonverbal signs deepens our connections and enhances learning. And there certainly needs to be more choice involved in making the decision to return to classrooms this fall, in addition to greater clarity, feedback, and flexibility regardless of the choices we make. But if we’re intentional about using technology as a tool to extend our reach and amplify our connections during distance education, our kids may have taught us how to level up learning not just during the uncertain times of COVID-19 but for an entire generation of learners.

Lindsay Portnoy is a cognitive scientist, associate teaching professor at Northeastern University, and a member of her local school board. She is a former public school teacher and a co-founder of the learning-games company Killer Snails. Follow her on Twitter: @lportnoy

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 and school: Online classes should use new tools, not lectures

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