This final article in the series on the challenges for children’s education during a virulent pandemic is about getting students back on track with their education. Based on my research and interviews with many students on what they are experiencing with remote learning, I offer here an understanding of the daunting challenges to remote learning from the students’ perspective. Also, I include practical tips for professional and accidental teachers to help children regain their motivation to learn.
The focus here is a child’s internal learning process. The challenges are similar around the world, but the remote schooling ability in countries with a limited deployment of technology will have more detrimental and longer-lasting consequences than in developed countries.
A very serious problem has revealed itself: although self-motivated students are doing well with remote learning, the students whose motivation depends on a conventional classroom structure are struggling—if they are trying at all—to stay involved with their education. More than ever, professional and accidental teachers need motivational skills.
Remote Learning We Never Anticipated
Maggie woke up an hour late Wednesday morning. By the time she had donned a sweatshirt, poured a glass of milk, and logged onto Zoom, her class had been going for 15 minutes. The night before, she had taken cough syrup for a seasonal cold, and this was her first day of virtual instruction. Over the course of the three-hour class, she noticed her puffy eyes on the panel of faces and became self-conscious, so she turned off her video. She became distracted with the sound of sirens outside and muted the computer’s loudspeaker, only to realize that by the time she had muted and unmuted, the crucial moment to be in the conversation had passed. She also found herself texting on her computer, stepping away to eat a snack, running to the bathroom, and looking around the teacher’s room.
Maggie’s remote learning experience is far from unusual. Countless such examples are playing out in homes—the virtual classrooms—around the world. For the reasons in this article, students are finding education more difficult with a remote learning model thrust upon them without preparation by students as well as teachers.
A huge challenge with at-home learning is that online classes require much more motivation and attention than the environment of an onsite classroom. For example, a composite of what I heard from at-home students goes like this: “I found it difficult to focus on a pixelated video screen when I could instead browse the internet on my computer, text on my phone, watch TV in the background, have one hand in the pantry, or just rest comfortably on my bed. Webinar technology doesn’t live up to the hype. Noise and feedback—rustling papers, ambulances, hot water kettles, wind, and all kinds of background noises—make it impossible to hear people talk, so everyone has to mute their microphone.”
There are more challenges: “Muting your audio means you cannot quickly jump into a conversation. Teachers often don’t notice the raise hand function, and conversations in the chat box is distracting. Sometimes, the gallery view doesn’t work, so you’re stuck staring at your own face or a couple of classmates. Another block affects who hesitate to speak up or ask questions even in the best classroom circumstances. All these problems can just mean you’re one click away from turning off your camera and being totally off the hook.”
The COVID-19 pandemic will likely continue challenging us beyond the usual things that typically come up with e-learning. Even when vaccinations become widely administered and spread of this virus subsides, the return from online classes to in-person learning may create other disruptions, such as readjusting to high standards of accountability, weaning off habitual phone-checking, and delivering work in hard copy instead of electronically. Hopefully, overcoming these issues can provide students and educators with valuable opportunities to practice adaptability, patience, and resilience. And hopefully, these experiences will prepare us for future challenges that come with the next national epidemic, world pandemic, or other disaster.
Suggestions for the Home Classroom
Some of these suggestions are reminders of established practices, and all are important for getting students back on track during the current and future pandemics caused by highly communicable diseases. The more skillfully and consistently you can apply these guidelines, the more successful will be the students under your care.
Suggestions for Structure and Disciple
The pandemic-triggered remote learning model has broken the structure and discipline of most students, so consider these points:
1. Set aside a time for school. Create a daily schedule. Consider allotting time slots for specific classes—math, language arts, etc. Schedule recesses, too. Use the schedule to support your own productivity: If your kids focus for even a few minutes on a task, work on your own task. During their recess, exercise or do some alternative to the teacher role.
2. Create a workspace that minimizes distraction. Set up a dedicated school area, either permanently or for the day. If possible, allow for some separation from siblings. Take away phones and shut down everything distracting on the computer. Make it a “school” computer by shutting off all non-school-related extras during school hours through built-in parent controls or programs for blocking distractions, such as Freedom.
3. Create a daily to-do list. At the start of each day, check the school assignments posted online. Make a to-do list from it—the kids’ play time waits until that list is done!
4. Supervise schoolwork. Although you are a parent, not necessarily a teacher by trade, most kids need at least one adult around to help them stay on track. Particularly for computer work, an adult should be present and able to see the screen. The self-management skills of kids are undeveloped (they are kids, after all), and computers are distracting for most people.
5. Encourage reading. Reading alone is one of the proven ways to promote academic success, but also read with your kids if still age-appropriate and get them books however you’re able. Make it part of your daily educational schedule, too, if it helps—schedule “free reading time.” Most library systems provide eBooks if you need them. Read together as a family and off-screen, if possible.
6. Emphasize recess daily. Exercise will help your kids stay happier and healthier and improve their behavior and learning. Consider planning more than one exercise break per day. Again, use the Internet well—many ideas for physical activities and relevant programs are available online.
7. Monitor screen time. Set reasonable and clear limits for screen time. Start with a rule that fun screen time is only for after schoolwork (and maybe some chores) are done. Too much screen time for minor children (and adults) becomes very distracting and gets in the way of exercise and good quality sleep.
How Teachers Can Increase Student Enthusiasm in Remote Learning
To increase students’ enthusiasm and motivation is art as well as science:
1. Move from compliance to engagement, for example:
- Instead of “I expect you all to…,” try “Your next challenge is…”
- Instead of “I want you to…,” try “What’s a goal you have…”
2. Move from teacher ownership to student ownership.
- Instead of “Here are three things you need to do…,” try “Here are three things to try as you…”
- Instead of “I’ve created some choices for you…,” try “You have several choices to consider…”
3. Warm up sessions for class:
A warmup takes five minutes and is an opportunity for students to get their brain ready for learning. Greet them from the door just like the way it’s done in a classroom. Ask review questions from the previous lesson. All students, regardless of learning at home or at school, are engaged and getting ready for the day together.
4. Collaborative learning:
This is the part of the lesson that gives students opportunities to interact. Goal-oriented interacting for shared goals is great for inspiring collaboration and community among students. They can practice the material with each other and support a peer who is struggling at home. This collaboration has really helped the students who are learning in person and the students at home to feel connected. Zoom breakout rooms are helpful for random grouping, which leads students to interact with different peers throughout the year. The amount of time for collaboration can vary with the class’s duration. The duration for collaborative learning is flexible and should fit the needs of the situation. For a 40-minute class, only 10 minutes might be sufficient.
5. Independent work:
Students can use Quizizz and Google Forms to provide meaningful experiences to learn the material. With these online quizzes, students get immediate feedback on whether they are answering the question correctly, and the teacher will be able to download students’ data accurately. You can offer feedback on each question to each student or group.
6. Students take turns at reading out loud to their peers.
7. Tell good stories that inspire. Especially now, students need inspiration. I believe the best teachers are those who inspire. The linked videos in the Resources section are short (8 minutes and 23 minutes) but nice elaborations on the theme of storytelling and how to inspire students.
8. Social time! Each human needs his or her particular amount of feeling connected to others.
9. Setting realistic expectations and achievable goals for each student will help him or her to restore confidence.
10. Make students feel respected and connected when adults are being “real” with them. (They are probably more perceptive than what you realize.)
11. Finally, students see value through their relationship with you. No matter their age, nearly all students want you to like, respect, and understand them. They want to know you care. If you have a positive relationship with your students, they are happy to do their best for you. And if you have a negative relationship, the student will typically withdraw or act out and is not likely to learn much. Building a relationship remotely presents unique challenges and requires teachers to adjust how they to connect with students.
Accept the Unexpected
With a new flexibility, let us cooperate, adapt, overcome obstacles, and make learning fun—I believe every cloud has a silver lining! One fundamental that helps us stay grounded is to know this: If we act effectively, nearly all children can get caught up when this crisis passes. They’ll adapt, we’ll adapt, and the school system will adapt. That’s all we can expect of ourselves.
“Talk to people. Connect with them. Make the e-Learning sound like it’s a conversation between people.” – Cammy Bean Real people, not robots.
Here are two YouTube videos that elaborate on this article. The first is an 8-mnute talk by a Canadian educational consultant, who describes the importance of good storytelling to counteract the dry dissemination of facts with e-learning. The second video is a 23-minute talk by a professor at the University of Georgia, who lists what he considers the essential traits that all great teachers have (or should have).
The power of good storytelling to make up for the remoteness of remote learning:
The talents learned and practiced by good teachers:
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