I don’t think I come across as a very old-school educator. I’m obsessed with Twitter, I fully embrace the flipped classroom model, I never had my kids sit in rows. But I’m pretty old-school when it comes to a few things about education, and I believe that a good framework for education lies in relationships, relevance and rigor, and that this shouldn’t change as we look to blended–or even entirely virtual–classrooms.
I hear a lot of people talk about how their main concern about blended learning is the “inability” to form relationships virtually. I’m sorry…what? These kids have been forming relationships on Instagram, in Minecraft, on Reddit, on TikTok, and on every other platform imaginable for years. It’s our job as educators to navigate the waters of forming and sustaining relationships virtually. Do you have to do that on TikTok? No. All you have to do to begin the relationship-building process is genuinely want to learn about your students. Ask questions about them, listen to them, provide them with spaces to have meaningful conversations about the content.
Additionally, when it comes to personalizing learning and developing these relationships, blended classes offer an excellent opportunity for highly-tailored feedback. What if you could have mini-conferences with each of your students on a video call, or small group instruction on a much more regular basis?
Think about it: in a regular classroom, if you want to have a 1:1 or small-group conversation with some students, you also have to think about the classroom management aspect of: what will the 28 other kids be doing? In a blended/virtual class, that problem simply goes away. Students are no longer vying for your support against 30 other kids during 90 minutes. And what better way to build relationships than to have small group or individual conversations?
While we should have always been trying to make our content relevant to students’ lives and futures, now is an excellent time to really revamp our thinking about what is actually relevant for kids. In short, are you doing your part to prepare your kids with the skills and knowledge that they will need in order to navigate this rapidly-changing world? Helping students develop meaningful, relevant skills and knowledge doesn’t have anything to do with how many tech tools you know how to use.
One of the ways we can foster relevance in our classrooms is by giving students more choice and control over their learning and their work products. And just because you don’t know anything about Animal Crossing, TikTok or Snapchat doesn’t mean your students can’t use it in a meaningful way to demonstrate their learning. We can use blended/virtual classrooms to co-create relevant learning experiences with our students.
Ugh, this is the most-old-school term in pedagogy (perhaps even more old-school than the term “pedagogy”). But just because it’s old-school doesn’t make it bad. Having a rigorous class doesn’t mean that your class is just hard or time-consuming; it means that you’re maintaining high expectations for your students.
When schools shut down during the pandemic, many districts and teachers immediately adopted the notion that the main goal for the rest of the year would be to keep students from losing any knowledge or skills that they had gained. What this move said to me was, “we don’t feel confident in our students’ abilities to adapt to different learning environments, and we don’t feel confident in our teachers’ abilities to reframe their instruction for a virtual world.” It was the exact opposite of rigor, and in complete opposition to the message we should have been giving students, which should have been, “We will work hard to support you in learning what you need to learn in order to be successful in this crisis and afterwards.” So, how do we maintain rigor in a blended environment? I think we tend to forget about Vygotsky as we get farther and farther away from our undergrad experiences, but his Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is something we should be thinking about in blended/virtual learning.
When schools shut down due to COVID-19, everyone wanted to be in the yellow zone (tasks that a learner can do without assistance) because of a multitude of reasons, one of which was the fact that parents who were at home with their kids were also still working full-time and didn’t have the time to become full-time teachers.
But we need to get to a place where we put kids in the ZPD (the middle circle) during blended and virtual classrooms, and that will require us to entirely rethink how we provide that assistance (or scaffolding) to students if we aren’t seeing them face-to-face for 90 minutes everyday. How do we provide assistance to students so that we can provide rigorous learning experiences and still help them grow?
In short, we’re circling back to what I mentioned about relationships: it’s all about the feedback. You don’t need a million tech tools to give regular and consistent feedback. Do you have a phone? Email? That’s pretty much it.
There are a lot of fears about blended and virtual learning, and many of them are valid. Concerns about how to get good computers and reliable internet access to every single one of our kids are extremely valid, and we should be pouring our efforts into solving these massive issues of inequity. But when it comes to creating blended and virtual courses, we simply need to get back to the basics of solid pedagogy.