At-home distance schooling and a rethinking of how learning takes place are key outcomes of the global pandemic. What is learning? How does it happen?
From a Piagetian perspective, learning is the assimilation and accommodation of new information into an existing framework. From a neurobiological perspective, learning shows up as changes in the structure and function of neurons in the brain. Both perspectives suppose an integration of novelty into an existing structure. (See this web page for a brief overview on Piaget and neuroscience.)
The field of education specializes in strategies that target learning. Educators assess students’ preexisting knowledge or skills in order to build on those through instruction. Often, information or skills are introduced discretely and isolated when assessed for mastery. For the purposes of engagement and long-term retention, lessons are integrated into “real life” meaningful contexts.
Learning at home
The home environment lends itself to multidisciplinary “real life” learning through household projects and other activities. Simple, adult-supervised observations about boiling water, steaming, and freezing can help assess and develop what students already know about physical changes. Burning items such as paper or wood under safe conditions contrasts physical with chemical changes.
Tutoring others living at home can help students develop their metacognition while compelling them to organize information and processes. These skills can then be transferred to other organizational tasks, such as writing essays or creating presentations.
Scheduling and social interactions
In the transition from classroom learning to at-home distance learning, scheduling and isolation can be some of the most challenging obstacles to overcome. Transitioning from having every minute planned out under supervision of school personnel to waking up to an unstructured day without classroom peers can be overwhelming. Even with parental involvement, students and parents may struggle to adapt.
Scheduling at-home lessons for only a few hours daily can help ease transition pains. Video conferencing platforms such as Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime allow social interaction with peers and teachers. Gaming also provides opportunities for friends to interact socially in real time while playing. Some students find companionship in chat platforms where they may opt for audio or video communications while doing schoolwork. To complete a well-rounded day, it helps to include exercise and fresh air.
Adapting instruction: Younger children
For many preschoolers and Kindergartners, gamification forms the basis of online learning. At a very young age, students learn to click on or drag items that correspond to letters, numbers, colors, and other targeted items for mastery. To practice and assess categorizing, for example, young children may be asked to identify all items that share targeted qualities. These appealing games celebrate and reward their young players for every correct response.
Although educational programs for younger children tend to have them repeat words, songs, and movements as viewers, face-to-face models of instruction do exist. Foreign-language programs connect children with teachers in distant countries. Even yoga instructors have been videoconferencing their sessions with young pupils.
Adapting instruction: Older children
As students’ writing and analytic skills progress—especially at the junior high and high school levels—so do online opportunities for participation and interaction. These ensure equal participation for students who tend to be quieter.
Whereas in traditional classrooms the strongest or favored personalities may secure the highest participation rates and contribute more than other students, in online platforms all students may be required to post their contributions, thus providing a more objective and reliable record for each participant. Discussion platforms allow each student to post original content (writing, audio, or video) and respond to what their peers have posted. Requiring a minimum number of replies to peers’ posts is important, as well as setting standards for content. Students can be expected to provide a minimum number of supporting details or references to assigned course content.
At higher levels, even simple games like Memory can test more advanced concepts as long as each concept can be paired with a specific equivalent or match. Students can pair fractions with pictorial representations, subject pronouns with a correct verb form, or science phenomena with their causes. More complex exercises can be gamified as well, such as ordering from least to greatest (math) or earlier events with more recent ones (history), and tracking of growth and development (science).
Personalizing and leveling instruction
Online learning lends itself to leveling. Through built-in formative assessments, students can be routed to remediation or challenge exercises. By offering alternatives to accomplish a common learning objective, students choose what interests them most. Open-ended production activities offer the most opportunities for exploration of individual interests.
As much as online learning lends itself to working independently, it can also facilitate collaboration. Teachers may share their screen with a group of students and ask for their input to solve a problem. For student-led collaboration, pairs or groups may input problem-solving techniques into a desired format using videoconferencing, screen sharing, and chat. They may also upload individual contributions to a larger project.
Online tutoring programs make use of shared screens for a student-tutor session. Using an app similar to a whiteboard, both parties are able to write, draw, and mark up on a shared screen.
Innovation fueled by experience developing a wide range of curricula is key to adapting content to a variety of platforms.
Our staff knows that beyond setting up content creatively, student participation and evaluation must be guided to ensure a quality learning experience. In discussion platforms, for example, rubrics should be designed to discourage posting of empty opinions. Furthermore, asking students to include in their posts relevant information such as community involvement, jobs, and extracurricular activities helps meet learning standards.
In addition to helping set guidelines or prompts for students, we understand that teachers may have different roles, depending on the degree of interaction expected. If online instruction is to incorporate peer-to-peer or student-to-teacher interactions, the role of the instructor should be defined accordingly. It is a good idea, at the beginning of each course, for teachers to act as moderators for posts and replies, probing for student knowledge with questions or encouraging further exploration.
Best practices for summative assessment could include a pre-assessment screening step, such as automated quizzes or an online teacher-student meeting to evaluate mastery and recommend remediation if necessary. Building flexibility into the overall schedule and assessment dates specifically could accommodate further remediation.
The overall package
Online programs should be designed to meet varying degrees of teacher availability. Programs that rely on high teacher participation may be designed to imitate virtually every aspect of traditional teaching. For less teacher involvement, student-centered formats can automate formative assessment to system-graded closed-ended tasks and limit teacher involvement to summative assessment. To provide a completely student-centered option that does not depend on teacher availability, online programs may automate all aspects of presentation, practice, and assessment for ultimate flexibility.
Kalish, Charles, and Brian Viola. “Having Our Concepts and Changing Them Too.” Human Development, vol. 45, no. 5, 2002, pp. 360–366. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/26763701.pdf. Accessed 7 May 2020.
Wadsworth, Barry J. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development: Foundations of Constructivism. 5th ed., Longman Publishers, 1996. Print.
Fu, Min, and Yi Zuo. “Experience-dependent structural plasticity in the cortex.” Trends in neurosciences, vol. 34, no. 4, 2011, 177-87. PMC, doi:10.1016/j.tins.2011.02.001. Accessed 7 May 2020.
Long-Term Synaptic Potentiation. Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd ed., Sunderland, MA, Sinauer Associates, 2001, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10878/
If you work in the field of science education, please take a look at this related topic from the Victory blog.