Two weeks ago I was due to visit a handful of innovative schools in New York City and the Bay area as part of my research. I am an ed-tech consultant and student of experience design at the University of the Arts, London. Needless to say, the trips didn’t take place.
Instead, I asked to video conference with my interviewees, which gave me the chance to understand how schools’ closure is shaping learning for the long term. Here are some of the biggest challenges schools are facing and how they’re making it work despite the uncertainty.
The rhythm and rituals of learning depend on people, not tech.
New York’s Academy of Thought and Industry (ATI) is part of a network of Montessori-inspired middle schools, inheriting fifteen former students of AltSchool and its proprietary learning management system. ATI teachers are used to sending and receiving assignments digitally and because of that, the transition to online learning has been smooth so far, principal David Hyman tells me, as he awaits a call from a mentee on day two of closing.
ATI’s promise to students is to help them develop a sense of agency, independent work, and grit: “Stuff that you know only when you see it,” Hyman says. How do you do that in the absence of in-person interaction? One-on-one coaching will continue over the phone, he explains, as we are still waiting for his mentee to call. “There are still a lot of things to figure out,” he shares.
Later I have a video call with John Bosselman, director of instruction at the public charter school Latitude High School, in Oakland, Calif. Bosselman has been speaking to other educators to learn from them and help him make plans for his own school. On our call, he looks concerned, but in control, sitting at his home work station, a bike leaning against the wall.
“It has been interesting,” he tells me. “It was like, ‘We are closing tomorrow. Let’s get ready.’” Latitude High is already set up on Headrush, a specialized learning management system built for project-based learning. But his focus these days is on keeping daily rhythm and rituals that allow for students to be in discussion and collaboration with each other, including regular communication protocols.
“Education is about four things,” Bosselman explains. “Culture, structure, time and technology. We have culture and structure in place. We now need to leverage technology and use time in a different way.” Staff is splitting class time between live, synchronous online instruction and asynchronous, or time-delayed, work time in smaller groups.
Over at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, a New York public school named after the African-American civil rights leader that stresses intellectual development and social involvement, Jeff Palladino sits in his principal’s office for the last time in what promises to be a long while. Thirty minutes into the interview, he is asked to make an announcement, asking all teachers to plan for students to collect their digital devices from the school before it closes. Another five minutes into the interview, a puzzled teacher walks in enquiring whether they should use Google Hangouts or Meet going forward.
Palladino tackles all disruptions calmly. They are already on Google Classroom, he tells me. Teachers have been sent best practice notes, they are all planning to check in with students three times a week and student advisory, the “lifeblood of the school,” will continue by video conference. Yet as my second call with Palladino gets delayed, I understand how the complexity of transporting a social, collaborative learning practice to an online environment goes well beyond managing practicalities. This is a school whose kids successfully lobbied the New York City council to change the name of their local street to Fannie Lou Hamer on the 100th anniversary of her birth. That’s the level of impact the school intends to continue to facilitate for its Bronx community.
Looking after children and staff wellbeing is the priority.
At Millennium School, a private middle school in San Francisco grounded in cognitive and neuroscience research, students engage in daily mindfulness practices. Co-director of operations Newton Martin and the teachers have been focussed on ensuring no child gets left out during the Coronavirus emergency and that they have coping techniques. In their last morning assembly, children explored “COVID-19 rumors,” hygiene measures and their own fears. The day after I and Martin speak is the first meeting of a special online council, focussed on finding an offline/online balance and how to deal with the noise of the news stream. At the end of each week, Millennium sends out surveys to families for their suggestions. Kids now have scheduled isometric movement and, to accommodate for family meals, no synchronous instruction in the afternoon.
“This is an existential crisis,” Bosselman shares with me. We discuss the Harvard Business Review’s recent article on grief. “We have to take care of the staff if we want to take care of our students,” he says. His focus right now is on helping Latitude High School’s teachers have grace for themselves. Similarly, he acknowledges kids have different home experiences: some have to look after their siblings and learning gaps may deepen.
Online learning benefits more students used to independent work, but it limits learning for all.
For these schools, closures are taking place at the end of the teaching cycle, when children normally work independently on personal projects and prepare their final expositions. These weeks will be nowhere as disruptive for these students as the weeks following spring break. My interviewees are concerned about the impact online mandatory instruction will have on the depth of relationships between students and teachers and how this will affect students’ level of engagement and learning. Kids at the schools are used to stepping into the shoes of designers, engineers, and architects in studios or maker spaces; taking part in community visits, internships or international trips; engaging in Socratic and mathematical discussions, sports and one-on-one coaching.
Fannie Lou Hamer is adapting its mode of learning according to students’ engagement and Millennium School is carrying out virtual expeditions, or field trip-like experiences. But how will students receive this instruction over the long term? How will presenting to teachers and peers online impact students’ confidence and delivery? What does character building look like online? These are just some of the questions schools are still grappling with.
Palladino calls it “a great petri dish of schooling.” At Fannie Lou Hamer “habits of mind are the fuel of everything we do,” he adds, following research from William Sedlacek at the University of Maryland that suggests non-cognitive variables correlate with academic success. Bosselman built his Latitude High graduation profiles on Camille Farrington’s research at the University of Chicago on adolescent development and non-cognitive competencies like social-emotional learning. Evidence is still missing however as to how to facilitate deep, intellectual discussions and socio-emotional development over a screen.
Online learning is showing less lesson disruption than in the classroom. The crisis has renewed a focus on family context and personal wellbeing. As some states cancel standardized tests, more schools may adopt coaching versus an assessment-based teaching approach.
Many challenges still exist around digitizing a social experience like teaching and guaranteeing deep and equitable learning for all. However, through trial and error, these schools may set new standards for enriched and relevant out-of-school, lifelong learning.
“The important thing is that whatever it is we are doing, it is a teachable moment,” says Hyman. Along with the challenge comes the opportunity to design innovative learning experiences and management systems that will last far longer than our current crisis.