by Dr. Doug Green
It is generally assumed that students are learning a lot less than they would if schools had not been shut down until the end of the school year. While that may be the case for most students, for some the opposite appears to be true.
A recent article by Elizabeth Harris in The New York Times explains just who the winners seem to be as she shares stories of several students who appear to be doing significantly better.
One eighth-grader found it hard to pay attention in school due to the many distractions. Once his school was reduced to the size of a screen he found it easier to pay attention and his grades dramatically improved. (Yes, some teachers are still giving grades.) He also feels at times like he is one on one with the teacher more often.
In addition to students who struggle to pay attention in school, many high-achieving self-starters are doing better. “Enough students are benefitting from the crash course in remote learning that parents and educators are wondering if, when buildings open, there are aspects that can be continued.” Many students enjoy not being in a room full of students and the lack of disruptive students. Many teachers have also allowed students to work at their own pace and take breaks when they wish. This can include mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks for exercise.
The social pressures of a physical classroom are also gone, which has allowed introverted students to participate more. These are students who wouldn’t volunteer in class even when they knew the answers. Thanks to the anonymity afforded by online learning their voices are being heard. Rather than putting up a hand, a student at home can just email the teacher. They also don’t have to deal with direct eye contact that can be intimidating.
Although some students have failed to join in their school’s online learning, others who often missed school are showing up and finding success. From the teachers’ point of view, they are seeing a whole new child. These students include those who found school anxiety-inducing.
For motivated students who are essentially self-directed learners, not having to go at a one-size-fits-all pace is a blessing. When they are turned loose they can go a lot farther. This sounds like a good thing but keep in mind that by letting the fast learners go ahead on their own, the achievement gaps between rich and poor kids are bound to increase. New Testament fans will recognize this as the “Matthew Effect.”
Another group of winners are those students who are the target of bullies. These are often kids who are somehow “different,” which causes them to stand out. Online bullying can still happen, but the in-person version has disappeared for many vulnerable students.
It’s also important to note that the teacher has the power to mute or disconnect students who act inappropriately. These students are not likely to be doing well at home, but they probably weren’t doing well in school either.
The big question is how do schools set up some kind of hybrid model for students who do better online. Must all learning be built for extraverted, socialized kids? The way some teachers are using videos and other media seems to be benefiting visual learners. Some are also letting students use multiple ways to demonstrate what they have learned such as making videos or podcasts.
Many parents are reporting that they like the idea of being able to know exactly what is expected and to follow their kids several times a day as they work on assignments. Principals report that some teachers have also blossomed in the remote setting. These tend to be the younger ones who are tech-savvy and who might otherwise be less effective when all instruction is face-to-face with twenty or more students at a time.
So there are winners when it comes to emergency remote learning. They are no doubt in the minority, but they are there and we need to help them keep winning when they return to school. We also need to find a way to let the fast learners finish courses early and go on to what is next, which could include online college from their high school or their home.
Harris, Elizabeth A. Minus the Distractions At School, Some Find Online Learning a Plus, The New York Times, p. A12, May 21, 2020, available online at https://nyti.ms/36oW2c5.