Leaning into 2021 While Stuck in Remote Teaching

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It has been nearly a year since we closed our schools and began teaching and learning across screens. Our nation and schools have been through turmoil, to put it mildly. Now, numerous districts look to transition to a hybrid model, with some students attending school in smaller numbers and others remaining remote. Once again, our students, communities, and school systems are asked to rapidly shift to something that they have never done before as new uncertainties loom.

While we continue to acknowledge our discomfort amidst ongoing chaos, perhaps we also have a responsibility to consciously learn from this past year. These are not mutually exclusive.

Rethinking Technology in Our Schools

The opportunities of the future will demand not only technological skills, but creativity, tenacity, empathy, and the ability to solve complex problems. These are often referred to as soft skills or noncognitive skills, and are deeply intertwined with digital learning when done authentically and purposefully. Rather than considering technology integration as simply learning the language of computers, we can broaden this concept to connote a robust collection of noncognitive problem-solving skills that work alongside technology, but also transcend technology. Technology is, after all, simply a tool.

Too often, however, the use of technology has been for students who finish early or for independent learning extensions. This format is and continues to be problematic. Yet, remote learning has flipped our past models or tendencies on their heads, and both successes and new challenges have arisen as a result.

This begs the question: Will we disregard this year and return to business as usual, or will we treat this school year as a year of intentional (yet uncomfortable) learning?

Gerald Campano, an education professor and researcher, argues that teachers can carve out space for critical, equity-driven work in classrooms, even if the curriculum suggests otherwise. Critical work is not a unit, but instead must be a stance from which teachers approach all instruction.

This same idea, I suggest, can be used to conceptualize equitable technology use when we are back in brick-and-mortar style classrooms, whether in a hybrid style or fully in-person. Technology needs not be an add-on to traditional instruction, but rather exist alongside in-person teaching when we offer students multiple ways to engage with and explore ideas, to navigate the complex world of information, and to demonstrate their learning.

Snapshots from the Classroom

I am a storyteller and believe in the power of narrative. As such, I provide a few examples of elementary-aged students and their teachers who are already working to create equitable spaces for students as they develop critical problem-solving skills by re-conceptualizing technology integration in small but powerful ways.

In this first snapshot, Kindergarten students come to understand computer science concepts through exploration and purposeful play. Students receive core instruction (academic vocabulary, for example), but are then able to self-select computer science activities in line with their interests. Most of these choices involve technology, although students also have “unplugged” options to conceptually learn about coding through paper-and-pencil spatial reasoning. In doing so, they learn how to “de-bug” and revise their thinking to meet a shared goal. Best of all, students are engaged and curious when given these multiple ways to explore a concept — a precursor to any kind of meaningful learning experience.

Meanwhile, in third grade, students learn to navigate the complex world of information through a library eBook database. As a guest teacher for a small group, I coached one student while a second observed her classmate navigate the platform through screen sharing. The second student was then able to explore and filter texts, check out a digital book, define a vocabulary word, and was ready to be taught more advanced features of the platform in order to investigate informational text. Accessing information in this way does require technology, but it simultaneously requires the noncognitive skills to seek information with intention and in alignment with one’s goals, and persist at a sophisticated task.

Finally, older elementary students have opportunities to use technology to creatively communicate their learning in a format of their choosing. Students begin by exploring the indigenous people of our state (Washington), and have several different options to share what they learn through their inquiries. Many students opt to create an artistic infographic or a compelling video essay through a series of photographs, narration, and captions. This not only puts their expertise into play, but it also requires the ability to learn and troubleshoot a content creation platform while doing so — mirroring complicated, real-world tasks. These competencies are precursors to careers that may not exist yet, and offering these choices provides students with opportunities to sharpen different skill sets and cultivate resilience.

Lessons as we Lean into 2021

These examples are simply snapshots, but in unpacking these snapshots, I see benefits that have come out of remote learning as these teachers have taken the lead. First, remote learning has forced us out of our subject-area silos, where literacy is taught in the morning, math in the afternoon, and science and social studies are sprinkled in when feasible (or some combination of this). The International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards are cross-cutting skills and aptitudes. Remote learning has nudged us to examine these standards more closely and to put emphasis on authentic learning experiences that draw on multiple forms of knowledge, rather than keeping subjects distinct.

For example, inquiry standards are often reserved for social studies, understanding the natural world is taught in science, and yet finding evidence within informational texts is explored during a literacy block. These practices are all encompassed in the ISTE Standard of Knowledge Constructor, however. We must make these connections, collaborate closely as professionals, consider what “content knowledge” truly means, and ultimately prioritize the skills that students will need to succeed in our shifting world. Where formal professional development to examine this work is not feasible, we might carve out informal, teachable spaces to model and nurture noncognitive skills. I also encourage educators, particularly at the system level, to consider the ways in which isolated subjects may or may not serve these goals.

A secondary benefit of remote learning is that students have gained firsthand experience in learning to be what ISTE calls a digital citizen, in an online community that is rapidly evolving. This is undoubtedly more important than ever — the ability to decipher facts, draw meaningful conclusions, evaluate sources of information for bias, and convey research in a way that respects the contributions of others. Remote learning has subsequently opened up the door for teachers to talk concretely about copyright, as students learn to use digital creation platforms to share their knowledge and artifacts.

While remote learning has been laden with challenges and our schools have been stretched to their limit, we shouldn’t disregard the learning that has occurred this year. The more effectively we can teach students how to navigate information and pursue complex tasks, the more we will be supporting a generation of citizens that reason coherently and debate empathetically. We must not forget the ways in which this past school year has prepared them for this.

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Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

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Learner, teacher, author, scholar and passionate advocate of education.