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Learning in the time of a Pandemic:

March 29th, 2020

It is surreal to reflect on how much our lives have changed in the past few weeks – from visiting with friends and family to waving at each other across screens – from collaborating with students and colleagues in face to face formats to refiguring how learning might be encouraged at home using social media tools and the help of parents as in-house coaches. We cannot expect normalcy in addressing learning expectations and we cannot put all learning expectations aside. We must deal with what is and reflect on what is as we go.

We have both limitations and opportunities in our present circumstance. The limitations surface quickly but the opportunities also require some consideration as teachers, administrators and systems research best next steps for their school communities. Let’s frame this with what we know about good learning environments and remind ourselves of a few basic learning “truths” or principles. (Much of the following has been adapted from the work of Paul Brandt (1998))

  1. Learning already takes place both in and out of school buildings.

  2. Individuals (both students and staff) learn best when the subject matter is personally meaningful and fills a learning need.

  3. Learning is enhanced with challenge is a part of the mix and inhibited when the challenge is too much. There is a sweet spot to learning which we recognize in Vygotsky’s gradual release of information model (1978).

  4. Learning is enhanced when there is social interaction in the mix.

  5. Learners need feedback and have individual strengths and needs.

  6. Effective learning involves learning strategies to learn.

  7. Learners learn from the total environment which includes both intended and unintended aspects.

  8. Learning involves our emotions (Immordino-Yang, 2016 & Sousa, 2011). “We feel, therefore we learn” (Immordino-Yang, M. H. 2016, p. 27).

Keeping these principles in mind, how can we design some experiences over the next few months that “make learning whole” as David Perkins coined in 2009. In other words, how can we design learning opportunities that are authentic to our present context and which have enough depth to meet the needs of a variety of learners, spending days inside for the most part? What are the questions of equity that we need to infuse into the planning process like access to technology and environmental readiness to learn on-line?

Perkins would challenge us to “make the game (of learning) worth playing” (p. 53). Rather than assigned pages or tasks in a discipline, what kind of inquiry, project or performance might we help students and parents design through our coaching that involves some problem solving, some explanation, some argument, a strategy, skill or craft that encourages learning to gain greater understanding about something which holds the interest of students? How might the inquiry require some thinking through stimulating some curiousity and motivation? How might teachers model what good questions require for deeper learning so students can create their own good questions as a part of the process?

This leads us to many questions, such as:

  • What might this work look like at a primary, junior, intermediate or senior level?

  • How might this work integrate some expectations across disciplines which help to “make the learning whole”. As Perkins suggests, “When people talk about how they came to understand and how they know they understand something, always in the foreground is doing, doing, doing – practicing, problem solving, getting feedback, sticking with it, and teaching others” (2009, p. 54).

Thus, I believe a list of things to do at home may not serve students as well as projects and inquiry that require work that generates understanding and involves practice, refinement, review and sharing their work with authentic audiences. With social media tools such as Google classroom, Zoom and others, we can set up class/group time to have students share their work, probe understanding through questions and determine what they would like to continue to refine.

Group work at the junior level might include…..

  1. Students tackling some open-ended math questions on their own and/or with their parents or siblings first and while being required to bring two questions for discussion to a Zoom meeting with others students and the teacher as facilitator.

  2. The same open-ended approach used with a question of inquiry with a science theme.

  3. Literacy experiences through writing up explanations could be shared with another class, through reading their work reciprocally and taking further questions in a discussion. Taking turns being the lead discussant will build confidence as well as skills.

  4. Students in grade four creating some on-line open-ended questions on a topic for grade one or two and offering how grade two students might approach their research.

  5. Students in grade 7 creating the questions for grade 4 and so on.

Group work at the intermediate might include….

  1. Personal research in areas of interest with a social justice theme.

  2. Critical literacy exploration in terms of whose voices are missing given the “social justice” reality that we are living through right now.

  3. Researching poetry, stories and texts that speak to hope and how we as humans handle times of great stress.

  4. Writing a “letter” (email, note, tweet) to other students in another province or country talking about what they as individuals are learning through being isolated from others. Ending with notes of encouragement will benefit both the recipient and the writer.

We have an opportunity to create “connected learning experiences” rather than applying curriculum through more “disconnected curriculum tasks” during this time of COVID-19.

We must also challenge ourselves as educators. How can we weave social, emotional as well as academic opportunities into our plans for students and their parents who will need our support as coaches and facilitators during this unique time. The role of the facilitator is vital to more integrated learning. In our planning design, we can model for parents and students that “making learning whole” involves helping students research to find answers to inquiry questions with time to wonder and question, investigate and explore, make sense of what they are learning and then to reflect and share what they have learned (Colyer & Watt, 2016). Our challenge is also to weave feedback to students through our on-line and personal conversations as well as further questions to help to stimulate critical thinking. We don’t just want students to “do school”. We need to further learning experiences to help students build resilience and consider the equity issues involved in this task. Parents will be the ones who will most probably benefit from the “how to do” lists such as that of accessing on-line teacher assistance at appointed times.

Finally, while we may be able to access our students on-line, it is not realistic to have 9-3 or plans of any great length. Nor should we expect this of parents in our school communities. The timeframe that makes sense is one that is developmental and personal. The new learning day requires a plan that involves time for fun with parents or caregivers, time for independent work, time for exercise and games, times for snacks, time for conversation and stories and its counterpart quiet reading, time with school colleagues and when possible, the teacher in interactive experiences. We can’t expect that every household will be ready for a “rich learning day” and we need to think about how we can help parents with this unexpected task.

Most of all, students need our reassurance that we are here to listen, to be with them and to support them regarding their questions and in their learning. Perhaps one good thing that COVID-19’s isolation will lead to is a rethinking of what we believe needs to be involved in a “learning day”. I will be thinking of my colleagues a great deal in the next few weeks and I offer this contribution to stimulate our collective thinking during this unprecedented time in our history. I look forward to hearing the thoughts of my colleagues as well.

Sincerely, Beate

Brandt, R. (1998). Powerful learning. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Colyer, J. & Watt, J. (2016). THINQ- Inquiry-based learning in the junior classroom. Toronto, Ont: Wave Learning Solutions.

Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2016). Emotions, learning and the brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience. New York, N. Y: Norton & Co.

Perkins, D. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sousa, D.A (2011). How the brain learns. 4th Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

This document is also available in printable PDF format on the References and Resources page of this site.

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