In March, like many in the teaching profession, I suddenly found myself in the unexpected position of having to move all my college courses online for the rest of the academic year. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I needed to adjust my expectations and my curriculum “checklist” for the year, or risk overwhelming my students. Rather than more knowledge or standard assignments, I sensed that my students needed extra meaningful engagement and encouragement in order to survive, let alone, “learn” while isolated and online. Furthermore, they were close to graduation and I was about to launch them out into the professional world after that term. What truly was my first responsibility as a mentor and teacher?
This paradox hit even closer to home in my personal life. I watched in disbelief as my own high school children were expected to complete all their school assignments online with zero online interaction from teachers, and in isolation from their peers. In “best” case scenarios, they had the option to watch interminable videos of lectures that droned on past endurance point.
As an aside, do you know 10-15 minutes is the biological set point of a student’s attention span? In fact, a 2015 study by Microsoft determined that the average attention span is actually 8 seconds! Basically: No lecturing for more than 10-15 minutes max on Zoom before you switch activities or learning ceases. I say, bring out the exercise stretch bands and yoga mats!
Back to our home scenario… Work piled up, depression and anxiety set in, especially for those non-routine learners. What a mess. Where’s the learning? Why are we doing this?
Now please don’t get me wrong – I am actually a fan of maximizing learning via an online learning platform. The reason for this is that our family had the unusual opportunity to experience this type of learning with my eldest child. She took an online AP English Language course with the indomitable and inspiring Maya Inspektor of Pennsylvania Homeschoolers. This teacher wasn’t even residing in the country and the community of classmates were from all over the U.S. and the world. Having been “traditionally schooled” myself, I carefully watched this different way of learning with curiosity.
I observed in amazement as students were required to read and comment on their classmates’ online assignments (large and small) on a weekly basis; my daughter become a highly skilled writer from constant exposure to other strong writers and input from her peers and teacher. I have witnessed this exercise in peer review derail so often in the traditional classroom, but it can really work in this online format.
I watched this teacher build a strong community of student interactions in her online class throughout the year. This wasn’t just teaching to an exam. Everything had a clear end purpose; no meaningless, busy work. The final research assignment for the course was coordinated with a national writing contest, instead of students having to add one more thing to their list. When I asked my daughter about the suitability of this class for her younger sibling, a different type of learner, she commented that even the least experienced writers in the class became good writers by the end of it. By the way, my second child did thrive and grew exponentially as well.
If we have to do school online, are we adapting to do it in the best online learning way? As teachers, can we do less to achieve more? As parents, what if this format is not for your child’s learning temperament? How important is the “deadline” to cram in school when emotional health is at risk? Does it work to put new wine in old wineskins? Can’t we take a break? Don’t you love the questions I ask myself??
Back to the interminable video lecture assignments… Having dabbled as a homeschool parent, I knew that there are other options to engage learning, but I felt powerless to intervene. For crying out loud – this is, after all, the age of YouTube videos on every topic concerning any subject you want to self-teach! Frankly, if you want to learn, you may not even need to go to school – OK, don’t yell at me about this, after all I am an educator too – but let’s wake up and smell the coffee.
Here’s an example: Do you happen to remember what “Stoichiometry” is in Chemistry? Well, no worries – I didn’t remember either, that is until I found one of my children in despair about their assignment on this topic. Well, of course “mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” but I did finally persuade them to search with me for a YouTube video that brought light to the topic less painfully. In fact, it was interesting enough that I wished for a split second that I was a chemist…
Ironically, we also came across the YouTube video that was shared in class -the pacing was so lickety-split that you had to be a science genius to understand it. Feeling “not good enough” certainly would not endear me to a subject – would it for you? I can’t even imagine what it must be like for parents of younger children who are being swamped with home assignments regardless of their student’s learning style or home circumstances in this pandemic induced situation. Add to that trying to do your “other” work.
To be fair, at least at the precollege level, faithful and creative teachers had their hands tied in the spring with little access to online teaching support, or disparities in family situations were cited as limitations for schools allowing interactive online learning via Zoom. I have friends who are dedicated teachers who weep tears each week over their powerlessness to do what is best for the student. The burden on teachers is heavy and I question that it is reasonable.
Regardless, the buck stops with me: I have had to ask myself – am I willing to force feed “learning” no matter the needs of the situation? I think that many parents have watched our ideals of curiosity and joy in learning fade away this season.
Unusual times necessitate a commonsense approach. But, as one of my mentors once said to me, “Common sense is NOT common!” Ouch.
Is this what education means? Are we nurturing a generation of thinkers? Seriously??
Viewing my students’ weary faces on the Zoom screen week after week, I was challenged to take a hard look at my priorities as a teacher, as well as a parent of two college students myself.
As we know, FOMO is commonly known as the “fear of missing out.” As teachers, are we also guilty of FOSMO – the “fear of students missing out” on the checklist of knowledge that our society expects?
What do our children and students really need right now? What is most necessary in this unusual season? I certainly do not have all the answers, but I need to ask these questions of myself so that I am not just blindly “checking the boxes” in life. So hear goes…
Can true learning happen without meaningful engagement? I say No.
Can meaningful engagement co-exist along with all the “to-do’s” on our lists? Does one have priority over the other? Well, I believe our to-do’s have to be revised to prioritize meaningful engagement – whatever it takes. My favorite mantra is LESS is MORE. It’s kind of like the movies that need to be edited down by 20 minutes because directors are too in love with their ideas.
Are we in danger of killing all joy of learning by adhering to an unrealistic norm? I say Yes.
If I could wave a wand, I would ask for a break…
A break from society’s regiment of “school” as we currently understand it.
A break to do less, to take the road less traveled
to be curious,
and while doing that,
to truly learn.
It takes courage to pursue wholeness.
Let’s dump that checklist and focus on what is truly in the best interest of our children and students in the present. We have the rest of our lives to learn, but only if we are unafraid to try new things.