Thursday / April 25

Teaching and Learning in the New Normal 

Over the past few weeks our world has plunged into what we’ve been calling, ‘The New Normal’. With social isolation and social distancing becoming the identified method for flattening the curve of COVID- 19, school districts across the globe have been tasked with finding ways that continue to engage our students in learning experiences and tasks outside the physical school building. Due to the expanding pandemic, the role of a classroom teacher and the roles of school administration have been forced into positions which many of us could not have predicted. If you were to ask either of us a year ago where we thought we would be right now, we don’t believe our answer would have been: “Working in our homes, logged into virtual meetings with colleagues we used to work side-by-side with in our schools and classrooms!” Our new normal, for at least a while, has definitely called for us to adapt our teaching, mentoring, and supporting of our learners to meet the academic, emotional, and social needs within the reality of their new normal.   

What we have found most amazing and inspiring during this time of isolation is the amount of collaboration that is happening between countries, states, provinces, school districts, schools, and teachers. Despite the fact that we are working out of our own homes, the access to resources and information has increased at an exponential rate. With so many resources and information being shared, we now have the added task of sifting through and determining the quality of each downloadable item. Oh, and the irony of this particular post is not lost on us – we recognize that you will have to sift through this information as well, seeking to determine if this helps the call to adapt our teaching, mentoring, and supporting of our learners to meet the academic, emotional, and social needs within the reality of their new normal. Regardless of the status of your school district (e.g., closed for the rest of the year, closed for an indefinite period), one common scenario is that many of us are now busy planning for the remote delivery of teaching and learning. Naturally, we must consider how we are to deliver instruction according to the expectations set-up by our national, state, provincial, or district curriculum while navigating the abundance of resources that are available to them. And, this delivery must still have an impact on student learning across academic, emotional, and social domains.   

Let’s take a second and both label and acknowledge that feeling of overwhelmednessDon’t suppress it, ignore it, or pretend the feeling is not there. What we hope to do in this post is share our thinking about how to avoid being obstructed by overwhelmednessFor us, this has required a daily reminder of the basics: (1) getting clarity about our learning; (2) maintaining best practices. 

Apply the Principles of Clarity 

When considering our teaching and our students learning, clarity is key. The goal of any classroom, whether digital or brick and mortar, should be that teachers and students are able to communicate what they are learning, why this particular content, skill, or understanding is important, and what success looks like. As we sit down and map out our next online learning experience or task, we should start with explicitly identifying and sharing the answer to these three questions:  

  1. What am I learning?
  2. Why am I learning it?
  3. How will I know I have learned it?

(Almarode, Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2018; Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016; Hattie, Fisher, Frey, Gojak, Moore, & Mellman, 2017) 

A well-thought out and planned response to these three questions will help both us and our learners zero in on what is essential and relevant. With the transition to a virtual learning platform, we have to pay attention to our students’ cognitive input load – too much, too fast, it won’t last. As they engage in the learning, with the added element of the virtual platform, we must ensure that they do not deplete their attentional and input resources on experiences and tasks that are not essential and relevant. For example, knowing the what, why, and how will help us discern what needs to be included in the experience or task and what can be left out. Does a certain task, assignment, or exercise move them closer to that what, why, and how? If not, leave it out.   

Speaking of cognitive load, this brings us to a different element of clarity that will play a role in this new normal. As students are learning from home, we offer a fourth question: Who is learning with me? Through this question, we should devote time to thinking about the environment in which students are conducting remote learning. This includes both the physical, social, and emotional environment. Will they have continuous access to the internet? Will they have a place to focus on their learning? Who else is in their environment with them? Will they be responsible for the care of siblings, who are also out of school? Are they, themselves anxious, uncertain, or ill? The answers to each of these questions introduce additional variables into the learning equation – variables that absolutely cannot be ignored for the sake of multiplying fractions, learning about cellular reproduction, understanding the author’s purpose, and analyzing historical documents. The who behind the do is immeasurably important during these times.  Ensuring that we have clarity about who is on the other side of the screen will ultimately determine the impact we will be able to do with and for our learners.  

As we pointed out earlier, only after we answer the what, why, how, and who can we make decisions about our experiences and tasks. This should lead us to practices that work best.  Although classroom discussion, a practice that can potentially double the rate of learning, is usually done in our brick and mortar classrooms, we have to develop ways of translating this practice into our virtual platforms.   

Maintain Best Practices  

As we browse social media and discuss with colleagues about our work as teachers, some of the most frequent comments are: “I don’t know how Im going to teach online,” or “I don’t know how I am going to be able to teach this curriculum without a classroom.” These seem to be a common concern amongst our colleagues, and I am sure amongst you and yours as well. We certainly don’t have all or most of the answers. So, as we close out this post, we want to take some time to share our thinking, in hopes that this will provoke your thinking as well.   

Whether we are deciding to use synchronous or asynchronous methods of running their classroom remotely, we must keep best practices on the forefront of our instruction. If we are not meticulous in our consideration of what works best prior to engaging in online planning we could end up with scenarios where we simply copy and paste our entire course content into a folder or share a slide deck that students where students simply watch and listen to a lecture.  Neither of these approaches encourage students to actively engage in the what, why, and how of the learning. And, neither of these approaches reflect the who of the learning. Taking time to discover the nuances of our students when it comes to digital delivery will allow us as teachers to more precisely cater learning to our students’ needs. Consider the following list of approaches or strategies: 

  • Outlining and Summarizing 
  • Classroom Discussion 
  • Revising and Reflecting 
  • Spaced Practice 
  • Deliberate Practice 
  • Self-Questioning 
  • Integrating New Learning with Prior Learning 

Each of these approaches and strategies can and should be done whether in a brick and mortar classroom or through an online learning platform. The trick is recognizing those resources that support best practices and then adapting the resource to reflect your own local context – your own what, why, how, and who.   

So as we continue to navigate this new normal, and for many of us, uncharted territory, the reality is clear that we will continue to have a major impact on our learners. Again, research has confirmed over and over again that the teacher is the biggest player in the learning outcomes of our students. Not just cognitive outcomes, but emotional and social outcomes as well. By continuing to keep our students as the focal point of learning, they will still be able to continue growing as learners in our (remote) classrooms. The level of collaboration and resource sharing that is happening around us is inspiring. By keeping the focus on what, why, how, and, now most importantly, who, we can leverage this collective power to have a positive impact in these uncertain times. 

Written by

Vince Bustamante currently serves as the Social Studies Curricular Consultant for Edmonton Catholic Schools. In this role he is responsible for resource development, providing teacher support, overseeing curriculum implementation as well as delivering professional learning sessions. He is trained as a Secondary Social Studies teacher with vast experience in middle and high schools, and has a passion for creating a social studies classroom that seeks to empower students to maximize their learning. Let’s get students excited about social studies! Dr. John Almarode has worked with schools, classrooms, and teachers all over the world. John began his career in Augusta County, Virginia, teaching mathematics and science to a wide-range of students. Since then, he has presented locally, nationally, and internationally on the application of the science of learning to the classroom, school, and home environments. He has worked with hundreds of school districts and thousands of teachers across the world. The work of John and his colleagues has been presented to the United States Congress, The United States Department of Education, as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House. John has authored multiple articles, reports, book chapters, and books. However, what really sustains John, and his greatest accomplishment is his family. John lives in Waynsboro, Virginia with his wife Danielle, a fellow educator, their two children, Tessa and Jackson, and Labrador retrievers, Angel and Forest.

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