Think back to your own experiences as an elementary, middle, or high school student. What made going to school meaningful?
For both of us, that answer is simple: It was the human connections we made. Yes, we liked learning new things—but, more often than not, our enjoyment came from the support we received from caring teachers and the satisfaction of discovering new ideas with friends.
This isn’t surprising: Humans are social creatures, and learning is at its core a social experience. Yet in this era of remote instruction, these authentic moments of connection feel fewer and farther between. It’s hard for teachers and students to feel connected through a screen, and even harder when there’s pressure to get through content in a short amount of live instructional time each day. Teaching and learning become solitary chores rather than shared human experiences.
If we want to make learning meaningful for students—and teachers—during the pandemic, we need to reimagine much of the way it’s delivered. Live instructional time is too precious to be spent lecturing or giving directions. Instead, teachers must find ways to deliver their content asynchronously, so that they can focus class time on the interpersonal elements of learning: discussion, reflection, and community-building.
Students are at home alone, craving connection. If teachers can emphasize interaction and conversation during live online sessions, they’ll become the best parts of students’ days.
Deliver Content Asynchronously
The pressure that many teachers feel to lecture during live sessions often stems from a problematic one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, which presumes that most learning must happen in the presence of the teacher. This model assumes that students learn best when they are lectured to, and when the teacher can strictly monitor and control their attention.
Not only does this approach ignore what we know about students’ different learning needs, but also it’s mostly impossible during remote instruction. Students can tune out a Zoom lecture more easily than an in-person one, and students without reliable internet or with other responsibilities at home might not be able to tune in at all.
Instead, teachers must find ways to deliver content and assess understanding asynchronously. Teachers should record instructional videos that can be watched (and rewatched) whenever students are able. Rather than pressing ahead at a pace that students may not be able to sustain (or which may be too slow), teachers should design structures that let students learn at their own pace, so that each student learns as much as he or she can without feeling lost or unchallenged.
Finally, rather than focusing on class attendance or completion, teachers should emphasize mastery, checking in with individual students to ensure that each has acquired the skills necessary to progress.
In such a system, students are empowered to learn content on their own, and class time can be devoted to more important things. (If you want to see how to build a classroom like the one we have described, please explore the Modern Classrooms Project’s free course.)
Spend Live Class Time Interacting
Time with students is always precious, but it’s even scarcer in distance learning. In the time you and your students do have together, focus on what can’t be done asynchronously: discussion, collaboration, problem-solving, and community-building.
Ideally, your students will come to your live sessions having already prepared, and you can use class time to conduct the types of activities that make learning meaningful and fun.
For instance, in an English class, teach students the elements of poetry through videos, then spend live class time discussing the meaning of a particular poem. In a history class, teach students the Bill of Rights through videos, then spend live class time debating free speech on social media. In a math class, teach students how to graph simple exponential functions through videos, then spend class time analyzing the spread of Covid-19.
The possibilities are endless, but they share a common theme: When teachers use asynchronous tools to deliver foundational content, they can spend live time doing things that students are likely to remember and care about.
This, in turn, motivates students: They want to learn so they can be prepared for the interesting stuff in class. It’s a virtuous cycle that makes learning more meaningful for students and teachers alike.
Finally, and perhaps most important, find time during live class time to have fun and to show students that you care. A few minutes spent checking in on students, or discussing something nominally off-topic, may seem hard to spare when time is scarce. It’s much more important to motivate students—which building relationships inevitably does—than to spend five extra minutes explaining something that could just as easily be on video.
As you think about how to teach this coming year, think about this: How can you bring joy back into your (virtual) classroom? How can you streamline the grind—the daily lectures, the giving of directions, the constant grading—in such a way that your classes can cover as much as ever while you focus on what brings both you and your students joy?
It isn’t easy. But despite the challenges, we know that teachers can still make school count. Focus your class time on human connection, and it will.