Though remote learning has brought many challenges, some students seem to be thriving in the new circumstances. What can we learn from them?
Increasingly, teachers in our audience are reporting that a handful of their students—shy kids, hyperactive kids, highly creative kids—are suddenly doing better with remote learning than they were doing in the physical classroom. “It’s been awesome to see some of my kids finally find their niche in education,” said Holli Ross, a first-year high school teacher in northern California, echoing the sentiments of dozens of teachers we’ve heard from.
That’s not to say it’s the norm. Many students are struggling to adapt to remote learning: Digital access and connectivity remain a pervasive equity issue; stay-at-home orders have magnified existing problems in familial dynamics; and, universally, teachers and students grapple with how to replicate the engagement and discourse from an in-person classroom.
But it’s not a tiny handful, either, and the unplanned break from the physical classroom may be bringing to light hidden reasons some kids struggle while others succeed. In the responses we gathered from our educators, we found recurring themes—like social situations and the inflexible bell schedule—that simply don’t work well for all kids. For a few of the teachers, at least, it’s inspired them to consider making permanent changes when they return to the classroom.
“I think a few of mine are doing really well getting a taste of more independence,” said Lauren Huddleston, a middle school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. “They’re taking ownership a bit more because they’re no longer under the micromanagement of the school day.”
This flexibility to make their own hours is also giving students a chance to exercise, take breaks, or even be bored, all of which research shows is beneficial. High school English teacher Ashlee Tripp speculated these kids were doing well because, “they enjoy the freedom to work at their own pace and decide how they want their day to look,” and students seem to agree.
“The reason I enjoy online learning is because of the opportunity to structure my day efficiently,” wrote a 10th grade student in English teacher Katie Burrows-Stone’s class survey. “I am able to workout, relax, and complete the work in a timely manner, with no distractions.”
“This has given me so much pause about what we are doing in education: Is our current model way too much? Why would anyone need to have seven classes? Why does the school day need to be so long?” said Rosie Reid, a high school English teacher and the 2019 California Teacher of the Year. “I can’t say enough about how this closure has changed my entire approach to teaching because I see how it has been an amazing respite for so many students.”
A personal goal of mine throughout this thesis project is to allow myself to be open to gathering and interpreting research that might highlight an alternative perspective to one that I would initially assume. Upon finding this article, which contradicts the notion that all students have been negatively impacted by the switch to online school, I instinctively felt inclined not to include it. However, knowing that some students are excelling in a non-structured school environment is just as valuable in gaining a complete understanding of this particular problem space.
While its important to find solutions to short-term problems with online education, it can be just as valuable to use the benefits of online school to our advantage in the long run. The pandemic will not last forever and students will eventually return to in-person education. How can we take what we learned about student success during virtual learning to better improve learning in the future?