Navigating Teaching While Physically Separated from Students

For many of us, this COVID-19 pandemic has thrust us into distance learning quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Schools and students who found themselves equipped with technology had a solid basis upon which to start, while schools, and even more so students, who had little or no technology at home have been confronted with problems meeting their school’s work requirements. The solutions to these obstacles to learning require creative and informed problem solving. But even after they have been addressed, one problem still remains: how successful are students at working on their assignments without their teachers physically there to guide them? Streamed lectures and live social media sessions such as Skype or Zoom are certainly part of the answer, but students still need to be able to work more independently than they are used to.

This brings us to the realization that students must have a firm grasp on the what, how, and why of what they are doing. They must be able to confidently answer what am I trying to learn or learn to do, why am I trying to learn this, (that is, of what use will what I am learning or learning to do be to me), and how will I do this assignment so that I gain the desired outcome? Of course, with our youngest students these questions need to be worded in language they can understand, but they must be answerable by all students, regardless of age. In a classroom, it is best practice to post learning objectives, and to state them to a class so that the answers to these questions are known at the outset of instruction. In distance learning, where not all work is done in a classroom under the monitoring of a teacher, and where such information is not as easily as accessible as reading off of a white board at the front of a classroom, the answers to these questions must be made known in other ways. They might be included in written instructions for an assignment, added as text displayed over an online video stream, or the students themselves might be asked to provide their answers to these questions as the first step in the learning sequence.

Teachers might convey learning objectives and directions as suggested above, and then before going on with the lesson, have students state the learning objective and the directions for completing the learning activity in their own words. Putting something in one’s own words is always a good way to check for understanding, and doing so in distance learning is all the more important, because misunderstandings will likely go undetected further into the learning sequence than if the teacher were physically present with the student, which in turn allows confusion to grow and become harder to eliminate later on.

Learning can be compared to working on a jigsaw puzzle. Each puzzle piece is an action the student takes in the learning sequence. The goal is clearly known from the outset, to complete the picture shown on the cover of the box, and the student uses pieces of the whole picture, combined with the shape of the puzzle piece, to seek and find where each piece fits until the entire picture is constructed. Having the picture on the cover, and the distinguishable shape of each puzzle piece is enough to provide answers to how, by matching picture fragments to the whole picture and piece shape to vacant spaces, why, to complete the picture. But in the process of solving the puzzle, the puzzle solver is also learning and applying spatial reasoning in finding the right shape to fit the vacant space, and finding where in the whole picture the currently held fragment fits. This ability to reason spatially has many applications outside the classroom, such as judging when to catch or bat a ball traveling in space, arranging furniture in a room, or packing luggage in a car for a family vacation. Knowing how skills gained or improved by doing the puzzle increases motivation and success rate for a child given a puzzle to solve.

Now let’s change this puzzle to reflect what it is like for the student to be given a learning activity without a firm grasp of why, or how. Suppose the this puzzle was to be a picture of a clear blue sky and nothing more. Further suppose that every puzzle piece was an identical shape. The task given to the student is to complete the puzzle. With every piece the same, the child could fit any piece with any other piece, and continue to do so until all the pieces were used. The child would quickly have completed the assignment, likely baffled about why they did it. Furthermore, if they did not realize that every piece was an identical shape, they would never even be able to start, since every piece also has an image of solid blue sky on it. So the task is either impossible to begin for lack of knowing how, or meaningless in its simplicity and irrelevance.

Now let’s suppose that in spite of every piece being identical, there was only one right way to put it together–that in fact, every piece had one and only one place to go. This could be known by looking on the back of each piece, which was numbered 1-100. The student was expected to place the puzzle pieces, number side down, in numerical order. This would be a great counting activity if the students knew the numbers were there. But if they weren’t told the numbers were on the back, and they went ahead and easily put the pieces together in random order, fulfilling the stated objective of completing the puzzle, only to learn they had done it all wrong, then the students would rightfully decide they had just wasted their time and effort assembling the puzzle.

If the objective were to develop critical thinking skills, the students could have been told in advance that their was only one possible place to put each puzzle piece, and it was part of the activity for them to discover how to tell where each piece went, then that would be fine. But for them to simply be told to put the puzzle together, and then be told what they did was all wrong while the information they needed to do it right had been withheld from them, is not how to go about teaching.

Giving students the how doesn’t mean we give them all the answers and solve all their problems for them; that is not good teaching either. It does mean we give them all the information they need to solve the problems they will need to solve to successfully complete the learning activity. sometimes that will be giving them some answers outright, when discovering them on their own is beyond what can be reasonably expected of them. Other times it will involve giving them clues, while in other instances we will simply given them the problem and have them find the solution. It all depends on their ability, and the nature of the learning objective, which has been clearly stated and understood. When instruction is designed in this way, students will be more motivated and more successful, and all the more so in an environment such as distance learning, where students must have greater proficiency at being independent learners.


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