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May 1, 2021

What Can We Learn from COVID-Era Instruction?

Beware of doom and gloom reports. Looking at evidence of what went right could help schools break free of long-stifling practices.
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Professional Learning
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Credit: Credit: Jess Rodriguez / Alamy Stock Photo
Perhaps the greatest tragedy to come from COVID-related distance learning would be not learning from this experience to improve our teaching when we physically return to classrooms. A robust discussion of the evidence of success during this pandemic school year could be a major boost to how we teach and learn.
Here are a few early examples:

1. Educators Led the Charge

One success is that educators led the revolution. It is hard to find a single policy from districts or policymakers (other than whether to open schools) that assisted in how to effectively teach during the pandemic. But educators found ways to engage their students, to deal with a myriad of new logistical and instructional issues, and to manage enormous workloads. Leaders were more likely to listen to their teachers, build collaborative teams to resolve issues, and be open to learning conversations (Jensen, 2020).
Reimers and Schleicher (2020) surveyed 1,370 educators across 59 countries in the early days of the pandemic. They started their report by noting these countries' "remarkable resilience, flexibility, and commitment to education in having established strategies for education continuity, in extremely challenging conditions, during the COVID-19 pandemic" (p. 3). What is fascinating is that 70 percent of the educators surveyed claimed that the strategies put into place for COVID teaching were well-planned and well-executed, and most claimed that the plans were not designed from the top-down but by those closer to students, particularly teachers and school leaders.

2. Independent Learners—and Empowered Teachers—Succeeded

In virtual and hybrid classrooms, those who were most likely to succeed were students with higher self-regulation skills, whereas those most dependent on the teacher—or those who had teachers who over-orchestrated their classes—struggled the most. Teachers who talked a lot in class, asked questions that required less-than-three-word responses, and focused myopically on the facts and content had trouble engaging learners remotely. However, teachers who had taught their students skills in self-regulation, engaged in gradual release of teacher responsibility, and focused on both content and deep learning had better outcomes.
So, there is a need to focus on how teachers successfully modified and structured their lessons to be more student-centered during the pandemic—and we must bring these ideas back to the regular classroom. We cannot revert to teacher-dominated talking and questioning.

3. Successes Outweigh the Losses

Beware of "doom and gloom" reports. For example, a major Netherlands study (Engzell, Frey, & Verhagen, 2020) was headlined with comments like "It's worse than you think" and "Students lost 20 percent of a school year." Yet the average effect size of reading and math in their study, compared to pre-COVID years, was only -0.08—an effect that can be turned around with great diagnosis and rebound teaching. From other studies, there is some early evidence that while math and reading scores, on average, have remained similar to previous years, there has been a more marked decline in writing (Webber, 2020).
Despite drops in areas like writing, educators have made headway in several areas: They built better connections with parents in helping them learn to focus on the language of learning and not simply having their child get it right (Jensen, 2020); students learned to be efficient (completing their schoolwork in less time) as well as effective; and teachers have become so much more adept at using technologies (Hood, 2020). Teachers also listened more attentively to how students were thinking. Teachers engaged in triage principles to discover what students already knew and could do, where they were stuck, and how to help them determine where to go next; they were obliged to be clearer about what success looked like; and they carefully evaluated how to best help each student in their progress.
This is not to make light of the concerning equity and access problems that arose over the last year (Kraft, Simon, & Lyon, 2020); such problems need to be understood and addressed in any rebound program. The message here is that we have to build on our pandemic successes; to structure lessons and teach the skills necessary for students to become less dependent on teacher-dominated classrooms.

From Fact-Engines to Physicians

To support educators in adapting to this new paradigm for instruction, my colleagues and I have used the Visible Learning research base to write books about how to teach when students are not physically in front of us (e.g., Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2020), and there have been many reports with recommendations on how best to reboot our school systems after students return in-person. Darling-Hammond and her coauthors (2020), for example, recommend continuing to include online teaching as part of the new normal. They encourage sharing effective efforts among districts; developing standards for digital learning that articulate how technology should be used to empower learners; enacting distance learning with attention to equity; shifting from measuring seat time to learning engagement; prioritizing assessments that illuminate student growth and learning; supporting acceleration of learning, not remediation; and identifying safe, culturally responsive practices. Meanwhile, Kraft and Falken (2020) outline the importance of scaling one-to-one tutoring during and after COVID-era teaching.
In this new syntax of learning, teachers must move from being talking fact-engines who direct learning to the likes of emergency room physicians and nurses who triage by, for example, listening to how students are thinking, seeing struggle as desirable, prioritizing next learning steps, focusing on "the centrality" of each student (1:1 support complemented by the benefits of group interaction), enabling students to work and learn with other peers, and teaching them the skills of self-regulation.

On the Rebound

We know from past disruptions—such as earthquakes, floods, strikes, and wars—that we often learn little as we rush back to the comfort of our previous schooling hierarchies, where the past winners want to go back to being winners again, where we blame and name kids who cannot learn, where we fight about autonomy and money, where we prefer and enjoy tweaking curricula, see test results as the major outcome of schooling, and restrain rather than unleash the powerful profession of educators based on expertise and evaluative thinking (Rickards, Hattie, & Reid, 2021).
Now is the time, as schools round the corner of COVID-era teaching, for educators to keep learning logs of what went well, create collaborative dialogues in the class, use triage principles to listen carefully to students' learning, and build an evidence base of successful practices. COVID-era teaching may lead to a revolution in schooling, provided we take the opportunity to rebound—to bounce back even better.

Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A., Edgerton, A., Badrinarayan, A., Cardichon, J., Cookson Jr., P. W., et al. (2020). Restarting and reinventing school: Learning in the time of COVID and beyond. Learning Policy Institute: Palo Alto, CA.

Engzell, P., Frey, A., & Verhagen, M. D. (2020). Learning inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic. SocArXiv, Center for Open Science.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2020). The distance learning playbook: Teaching for engagement and impact in any setting. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hood, N. (2020). Learning from lockdown: What the experiences of teachers, students and parents can tell us about what happened and where to next for New Zealand's school system. New Zealand: The Education Hub.

Jensen, B. (2020). The experience of remote and flexible learning in Victoria. Department of Education, Victoria.

Kraft, M. A., & Falken, G. T. (2020). A blueprint for scaling tutoring across public schools. EdWorkingPaper No. 20-355. Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

Kraft, M. A., Simon, N., & Lyon, M. (2020). Sustaining a sense of success: The importance of teacher working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. EdWorkingPaper No. 20–279. Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

Reimers, F., & Schleicher, A. (2020). Schooling disrupted, schooling rethought. How the COVID-19 pandemic is changing education. OECD.

Rickards, F., Hattie, J., & Reid, C. (2021). The turning point for the teaching profession: Growing expertise and evaluative thinking. New York: Routledge.

Webber, A. (2020). Using e-asTTle to model short-term learning. Pepa Mahi, EDK Working Paper, Ministry of Education, New Zealand.

 John Hattie is an emeritus laureate professor at the University of Melbourne and chair of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leaders. He is the author of several books, including Visible Learning (Routledge, 2009).

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