December 16, 2021
As schools respond to their communities’ expectations for a return to normalcy, questions arise: What have you learned from the pandemic’s unwelcomed lessons? Should your school return to business as usual—and do you want to? What will your “new normal” look like?
Invaluable COVID Lessons
When educators had to adapt their teaching styles to work via online and virtual platforms, one thing became abundantly clear: School “as usual” hasn’t always served all students as well as it could or should. Some students who didn’t thrive in traditional classrooms actually fared better when taught with unconventional methods. Online learning, while a tough period of adjustment for some students (and their teachers), served nontraditional learners quite well.
A successful new normal is the school that learns what worked during a crisis and adapts accordingly—practicing inclusive academic models while understanding that classrooms are replete with unique learners.
Seeing Students as Unique Individuals
During the pandemic, schools realized the need to evaluate their current academic practices to become more inclusive and responsive. The new normal recognizes schools should adopt and implement the best elements of online learning: hybrid or blended learning, the use of educational technologies, flipped classrooms, and other practices that make the school campus more inclusive for diverse groups of learners.
Hybrid learning took on many forms—from synchronously teaching some students in the classroom while others participated online, to students on campus some school days and then learning from home other days. As a result, schools learned how to use technologies they already had access to such as their learning management systems. This allowed students to engage in conversations using discussion boards while teachers were unable to communicate asynchronously.
But the question remains. How do you best support those students who found success learning online?
Here are three suggestions for reimagining the post-pandemic classroom.
- Add an online element to the curriculum, particularly for those at the highest grade levels. Schools that boast technology-rich environments—using devices in the classroom, potentially conducting assessments online, allowing students to work on digital platforms, and even going paperless—will ultimately succeed in helping those who fare best in nontraditional classroom settings. The notion of, “I’ll stand up here and talk and my students will learn,” is outdated and ineffective.
- Think of classrooms as web-enabled. When you view technology as a tool, it can assist you in teaching students in ways that best enhance learning. Whether you host a traditional classroom with kids learning face-to-face and employ the internet during class when appropriate or students collaborate at home while online with classmates or watch instructional videos, a web-enabled curriculum recognizes the value of two places to learn: the classroom and online.
- Reconsider how much content is necessary and relevant to achieving mastery. COVID-19 caused many schools to scale down the amount of material covered while slowing the pace of the class, and students fared just fine. Students and teachers often express that school is too frenetic. The pandemic allowed kids and adults to set boundaries and prioritize their time—healthy habits for all.
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Rethink Student Assessment
Not only do teachers need to be cognizant of their teaching methods but also how they give assessments. Brain-based learning (aka Neuroteach) tells us that pop quizzes for grades are terrible for students, but no-stakes quizzes are fine.
(The newly released book Uncommon Sense Teaching offers practical in-class strategies, and The Extended Mind explains how the latest brain science should impact student work environments.)
The brain science explored in The Extended Mind defines and explains O-memory (organic memory), which is good for big ideas and deep understandings that develop over time. E-memory relies on web searches such as Google. Therefore, students need not be tasked with memorizing facts easily accessed online.
By embracing this notion and recognizing the value of developing a child’s organic memory, classrooms are modeled with the understanding that students need deep, enduring understanding of big Ideas, concepts, skills and practices, and habits of mind in the disciplines rather than systematized memory of facts, figures, equations, and formulas.
Also vital to today’s classrooms is the understanding that humans work best to solve problems in teams, and few people in today’s society work solo. Termed by brain researchers as “looping,” approaching problems, challenges, and questions with a shared understanding makes for better learners and collaborators.
Assessing students on things that people do in the real world by letting them work in groups is best. A good approach involves testing students on ideas everyone should know, but then create more complex performance tasks and summative assessments where students work together to solve problems and share their understanding, questions, and knowledge—since that’s actually how our brains have evolved to work best.
A test given once does not fairly assess all students. When you give students a quiz, a test, a performance task, a project, you have multiple ways of finding out what they know by providing them with various opportunities to show you what they know.
Recognizing the Need for DEI Work
Socially charged events in early 2020 collided with the onset of the pandemic and brought into focus the need for schools to acknowledge diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—a big topic for independent schools. Traditionally, schools have avoided dealing with politically or racially charged issues, and there is some wisdom in being judicious about what is discussed with students.
Schools need to reevaluate the canon of literature presented for decades that represents a narrow segment of the population. Instead, schools should think more profoundly about how history is studied to be more culturally responsive.
Teachers who present a curriculum based on historical truths demonstrate that they recognize the needs of the students in the room. Students represent their own personal cultures in their homes and their larger culture related to their identity—race, gender, religion, national origin, etc.—which are tied to events in society. Be willing to listen to and have conversations with them while becoming more culturally competent. In practice, it's about asking students questions and letting them ask good questions in return.
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