Many teachers, having struggled to deliver effective remote learning to students when their schools were abruptly closed last spring due to cover-19, are now faced with schools re-opening with remote learning still in place, either alone or in combination with face to face instruction. Some school districts have provided professional development aimed at equipping teachers for better remote learning experiences, some will provide limited training just prior to school starting again, and others may just provide materials and resources and leave teachers on their own to figure it out. If you are a teacher faced with teaching remotely, there are several practices that, if followed, will contribute to quality remote instruction.
Best Practices from the F2F Classroom
The first point to consider is that although the learning environment is different, many of the practices that make for quality instruction in a face to face classroom are the same for remote instruction. I will begin by looking at those. First, students enrolled in remote learning classes should have a daily instructional schedule. Students with online access need to attend their class live at a regular time each day, just as they would if they were in school. It is fine to allow students to go back and re-view a class at their convenience, but the first attendance at a class should be live. Students sign into the live stream, and participate in the class similarly to how they would if they were in a physical school classroom. This gives students structure, and the opportunity to interact with classmates, as questions, answer questions, and receive feedback on their work from the teacher.
This last point, receive feedback from their teacher is the second point to consider. Students need timely feedback on the work they have done. They need to know how they are doing, how they did, and how well they understand what they about to do, at all times. Teacher feedback needs to be close in time to when the work to which the teacher is responding was done, so that the feedback and the doing of the work can be linked in the student’s memory and understanding. Students who produce work during the live stream can receive feedback in real time as they share their work. Students who submit work must receive the work back with its assessment within a day or two.
The third point is that students must be held to high standards for earning passing grades. While a short adjustment period might be warranted as students and teachers get used to the remote learning environment, students must quickly be held accountable for the quality of their work. Present circumstances cannot be used as an excuse for poor quality. High standards coupled with timely feedback which directs the students to better performance is a powerful combination of practices that leads to high achievement.
Developing Independent Learners
The fourth point, and this is critical, is that students must embrace an independent learner mindset. This can be a challenge, because many students have become disengaged or disenfranchised from learning due to discouragement, or perceived irrelevancy. If a learner begins remote learning from this sort of attitude, not much success can be expected. Independent learners are characterized by at least seven traits.
The first of these is curiosity. Once introduced to a topic, independent learners want to learn more. They explore the topic from many perspectives and angles, and learn from multiple formats. They read, watch videos, build models, play “what if” games, and whatever their imagination leads them to use to learn more. Remote learning is just one more approach to learning for them, and they gladly embrace it as a new opportunity for exploring and learning. Teachers can encourage curiosity by offering students many entry points into a topic, and multiple choices in how each pursues that unit of learning. and by designing lessons that begin with a “hook,” a relevant piece of their perspective, and excite them enough about adding a new element to it to want to delve in. Student centered instructional designs where the teacher facilitates and students generate ideas, questions, and new learning can breathe new life into learning, and foster curiosity, giving it the opportunity to grow.
Independent learners are self-motivated. They set their own goals for achievement, and are motivated by their desire to meet those goals. This does not mean students do anything they like whenever they like. It does mean students, given a learning goal, design their own projects with objectives and method of assessment in order to learn and demonstrate learning that fulfills the teacher’s goal for them. With younger students this can look like educational play, and with older students it can more resemble research or use of scientific method. The more self-designed and self-motivating the learning process is, the more engaged and independent the learners will become.
Going along with this, independent learners know how to evaluate themselves. Because they have clear direction born of their own design for learning, they also have a clear idea of what outcomes they are working toward, what they are trying to accomplish, and along the way (formative) and at the end (summative) they will know to what extent they have succeeded. It is much easier to measure yourself against your own objective than against a teacher’s objective, which may or may not be fully understood. Students have often already become proficient in self- and peer-evaluation using teacher or student generated rubrics. Teachers should expand on this learning as they get their students more involved with designing their learning.
Independent learners are responsible and accountable. They are dedicated to getting the job done, and are so invested in the process and the outcome, that they do not allow distractions to interfere with their success. As a music teacher, I have seen students who demonstrated these characteristics by, having learned basic principles of music composition, have gone home and composed a musical work that far exceeded the requirements of the assignment I have him, and came back, music and recording in hand, excited to show me his work. No one had to threaten him with deadlines or bad grades in order for him to complete the assignment. He was responsible in going home and composing music, and accountable in applying his learning to create something that was high quality, all without being asked to do so.
Independent learners are good critical thinkers. they don’t just memorize facts or go with the first idea that comes along. They look for multiple solutions and ideas. They enjoy exerting their creative powers to a problem to generate several solutions and then to select the one they judge to be the best or most desirable. These students don’t just settle for “what,” they want to know “why.” Critical thinking is one of the casualties of high stakes state mandated standardized testing. These tests demand inordinate amounts of instructional time to prepare for, and the very nature of the tests prohibit creative and critical thinking in favor of developing skill at doing well on objective, multiple choice test items. Letting students not only solve problems, but solve the problem of how to solve the problem goes a long way in developing critical thinkers.
Independent learners can read, visualize, or kinesthetically instruct themselves. No matter the topic or subject studied, an independent learner will find ways to understand material through application. This is really the payoff from the other attributes. The motivation, investment in learning, ability to evaluate and think critically equip students with the tools they need to teach themselves, and to remain motivated to dig deeper into an area of study.
Independent learners are persistent. They work to understand a concept as much as possible on their own before asking for help. This is because the reward is in the discovery, the growth, and the accomplishment. The have the self-discipline to not settle for the easy answer to a problem, but embrace the undertaking of finding the best answer, even if it is more difficult to find.
Many will say that this all well and good for already high achieving students, but lower achievers cannot function this way. To those I say, teach these attributes to all students, work on them consistently, and even the ones who struggle mightily at first will improve. We are in the business of facilitating growth, not of elevating every single student to genius status. In any learning environment, but particularly in a remote learning one, the things that make for a successful independent learner will drive growth in any student. Structure, feedback, high standards, and fostering independent learners are all key in succeeding. The last is the most encompassing and challenging, but it is perhaps the most significant.