Seven Steps for Districts Navigating to Remote Learning - ASCD
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July 1, 2020

Seven Steps for Districts Navigating to Remote Learning

In shifting to distance learning, here's how school districts can keep students' needs and circumstances front and center.

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As schools across the nation have closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, districts have adopted a wide variety of approaches. For those looking to continue to provide ongoing instruction to students—the proper path forward amid this turbulence—the move to remote learning has presented many challenges and prompted a plethora of innovative efforts by teachers and administrators.

With districts scrambling to figure out the right path forward to serve families not set up for full-time virtual school or home-schooling environments (and likely dealing with additional stresses at this time), certain actions can help district leaders discover the right set of solutions for their particular circumstances.

Although there's no one-size-fits-all pathway to supporting learners and teachers in the weeks and months ahead, the following seven tips, which are drawn from a mix of lessons from educators' experiences in the field and work designing innovative school environments, can help district or school leaders chart their own course.

It's important to remember, however, that although those who have done full-time virtual schooling for a while can certainly help, just following a set of "best practices" won't necessarily serve your district well. Those practices, designed for schools fully equipped for online learning, were probably not intended for an emergency situation. Follow these tips in ways that make sense given your own reality and resources. The most important thing is to keep your learners' needs front and center as you move forward.

1. Expect Some Failure and Admit Mistakes

To state the obvious, this is a terribly threatening time. But one silver lining might be that it also represents an opportunity for educators to learn—and to model learning for students. Learning involves failure. You and your teams will make mistakes. Be honest about them; show students that it's OK to fail and it's OK to ask questions because that's how we learn. When students see teachers and administrators struggle, it creates an opportunity for meaningful conversations about how we're all in this together; we're cocreating this experience and constantly learning.

Remember that people are ready to be empathetic in these times. They will understand that we're all figuring it out right now, and it's OK that you don't have "the answers."

2. Tap the Strengths of Home-Based Learning

Acknowledge that whatever you create won't be school as normal. You won't be able to replicate the classroom environment, nor should you try. The learning set-up will look and feel different—and there will be advantages to students learning at home with their caregivers nearby. As the head of curriculum at my daughters' school wrote to parents recently:

The home laboratory is something entirely unique and special and rather lovely in its own right—and impossible to replicate anywhere else. Different kinds of real things are done at home. Value and appreciate the opportunity to be home and do some real things.

Schools should heed these words and figure out ways to tap into the different home environments of each student, considering what that means both from a needs mindset (What additional supports must you provide now?) and an asset perspective (What can you leverage from students' home lives to spark learning?). That means considering things like what resources are available in the home in terms of people and objects, what work must be done on a daily basis, and what processes exist in the home, as well as what each family's priorities and values are. For example, if families have pets that require caring, meals that need cooking, or crops that necessitate tending, there are opportunities to tie those into deeper learning opportunities and connect them to school subjects like biology, chemistry, history, English language arts, and more.

3. Build a Strong Shared Culture Anew

Focus on building—in each home, across "classrooms" of students and teachers, and throughout schools—an intentional culture that is conducive to your goals as a district. Organizational culture, as defined by the great Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Edgar Schein, is "a way of working together toward common goals that have been followed so frequently and so successfully that people don't even think about trying to do things another way. If a culture has formed, people will autonomously do what they need to do to be successful." In other words, if a group successfully works together to solve a problem, it will tend to use that same process the next time it confronts a similar problem.

Culture is a powerful aid in making sure what needs to get done will get done. It will help build the agency and ownership students need during this time of learning without teachers to physically oversee them. A strong culture can build structures that will serve your district well into the future, if and when things return to "normal."

To do so, you will need to identify problems or tasks that recur again and again and task a group with solving one of these with a process that can then be repeated over and over. For example, many districts will be building new processes around how students and teachers should interact virtually. In synchronous online environments, teachers might leverage their expectations from the traditional classroom for how to conduct class conversations with respect and attentiveness, but build in new routines and processes for living up to those expectations when everyone is online together. Districts will also need to consciously decide on expectations around things like how students should respond to teacher prompts when learning is done asynchronously. Is there an expectation that a student will respond within a certain time period? Are certain hours off limits? What language is appropriate and with what mediums? Being deliberate will help create order conducive to a district's goals.

4. Create Schedules and Routines

To go one layer deeper, help students and families create schedules and routines that work for them and create a rhythm and balance to the day. Having a consistent routine gives children a sense of security and stability that comes from having some certainty and control. That's particularly important in uncertain times. And it also ideally creates clear times in their day when they can get support from parents, caregivers, teachers, or other adults.

Also, make sure that all students have a chance to read—or listen—to books each day during a period of sustained quiet. These books will ideally connect to other parts of what students are learning, but at bare minimum, make sure students have chances to read every day, to build their knowledge base.

5. Meet Students' Emotional and Health Needs First

Before thinking about learning, make sure students' social, emotional, and physical health is stable. There can be no learning without that strong foundation. And many children need critical supports right now—food security; basic health, safety and even caregiver needs; social connection; and emotional stability.

To provide some of these supports when doing remote learning, figure out how to build in opportunities for teachers to connect synchronously with their students and their parents or guardians on a consistent basis. Make sure teachers have the ability to connect via phone, text, or through online platforms, depending on the students' resources and needs and what your district has in place from a hardware and connectivity perspective. It's also important to create opportunities for students to connect with other students.

A variety of technology tools can help facilitate such connections. Zoom has drawn headlines lately, but other programs can also fill these needs or facilitate related educational experiences, such as Shindig, ClassDojo, or SchoolCNXT, to name a few.

It's imperative to create ways for students to reflect and set goals so they can start to build their agency. Applications like Sown to Grow can help build reflection and goal-setting into students' daily routines. Likewise, physical activity is vital for health. Tools like Plt4M allow you to set up physical activity goals for students and personalized physical education plans. Subscribing to a mindfulness application for both students and all district employees could help bolster everyone's mental health.

6. Celebrate "Wins" with the Kids

Make sure all students have small wins each day—and that there are opportunities to celebrate those wins. Celebrating small wins builds momentum—and it helps students fulfill one of the core jobs in their lives, which is to feel successful and make progress.

7. Define Your Most Essential Learning Objectives

Lastly, as you think about student learning itself, step back and think about first principles. What are your big objectives for student learning? At a fundamental level, what do you most want students to know and have mastered by the end of the year? This isn't about the stuff schools were planning on teaching. It's about defining the most essential outcomes and making tradeoffs about what you won't be able to do or teach.

From there, help teachers focus on how they will know if students have attained mastery of those core objectives. How should they assess mastery? This is not only important to facilitating the learning experience now, it will also be vital when students return in the fall. Teachers will need to figure out how to serve students who will likely have greater than usual differences in the amount of material each has learned or retained, and to personalize learning accordingly (and avoid the conversation around holding back large numbers of students).

Knowing core objectives will help teachers begin to design the daily and weekly learning experiences that will deliver on those objectives, with room for customization given different student and family realities and needs.

After that, you can think more deeply about how you will deliver that instruction and decide what tools you will use—curriculum, software, hardware, broadband connectivity, and the like. As you select tools, before assuming teachers will have to build lessons themselves, find out what already-created lessons are out there now. New Schools Venture Fund and other places have established lists of stellar free resources created with significant teacher and instructional designer input. Think about how to make the tools mesh so there is coherence across the curriculum.

Above All—Engage!

Above all else, make sure teachers create active learning experiences that invite learners to engage constantly. Avoid at all cost lectures and long lessons with passive learning experiences. Figure out how to engage learners in interesting questions that will draw them in and harness their motivations so they can drive their own learning—whether or not they're physically in the school.

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