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  • Writer's picturePaul Cumbo

Since The Ides of March: 6 Lessons from 2 Months of Online Teaching

In the Wake of The Ides of March

"Beware the ides of March," I told my students as we got ready to dive into studying Julius Caesar. With cruel irony, on March 15, COVID-19 took down regular school for a good long while. Two months of online teaching later, a few lessons have emerged. Upon reflection, what I find most interesting is that while our current circumstances precipitated these lessons, their relevance is not limited to online teaching. Some aspects of schooling will change permanently because of this--and some of that change will be positive.

I have to begin by acknowledging that I teach in a college prep school with hardworking, above-average students. Moreover, our faculty and students have been, from the get-go, beneficiaries of our school's longstanding embrace of educational technology. If anyone was relatively well-positioned to respond to this, we were. These factors play into what I say here. Different teachers are, of course, having different experiences based on any number of variables.

Lesson 1: Less is more

We've already heard this one so many times, but it has never been more true. This entire situation demands that we focus on quality over quantity with a renewed commitment. We have to change not only what we're doing, but how we're doing it, and what we expect done. Right now, that's the job. Failure or refusal to adapt is simply a failure or refusal to do the job.

Lesson 2: Teacher-student ratio matters more than ever. Because less is more.

I spent the first three years of my career at a school where four sections of sixteen students each was a full teaching load. While I've spent much longer at a place with more typical teaching loads (e.g., 100-125 students across five sections), I have never forgotten the amazing experience afforded by those small classes. Small classes are an expensive proposition. They cost time, money, space, and human resources. But ensuring small classes is a philosophical investment as much as a fiduciary one, and the qualitative pedagogical dividends are unmatched. The bountiful convenient research concluding the opposite is itself flawed, in my opinion. Because by and large, the studies that have smugly determined that class size doesn't really matter are themselves based on flawed quantitative measures of what makes for educational quality.

Now that we're online, meeting virtually in small groups is more than an ideal or a luxury. It may well be an outright necessity for truly effective teaching. Trying to run a class in a meaningful way with more than a dozen people on a screen is, in most cases, going to be a recipe for disengagement and frustration. If we're in this distance learning boat for a while, teachers have got to find ways to divide our time among smaller groups. Part of that will require letting go of some preconceptions about how much time students need to be in our company. And if we find ourselves back in classrooms with only ten or twelve students for half the time because of distancing mandates, I genuinely believe we will come to appreciate this valuable silver lining.

Lesson 3: Classes don't need to meet daily, and they don't need to be long. Because less is more.

Our school has--correctly, I think--taken the approach that every class does not need to meet every day. Many schools are simply trying to replicate their normal schedule. Such attempts to replicate a non-existent mode of operating are probably unsustainable for most schools. Perhaps they'll work for the smallest of schools, where teachers already enjoy a relatively light section load, but for most, I doubt it will be able to hold for long. Burnout is a very real concern here. Have you had the torturous experience of spending three or four hours of a day--let alone seven or eight--on video calls? It's brutal. Why should we expect kids to do even half of that? Meeting for brief periods of time, with meaningful independent work assigned in the interim, is more sustainable. Less is more.

Having the humility to acknowledge that our course is not the be-all and end-all of a student's education is important, and that's a prerequisite for openness to a reduced class schedule. This also demands that we be open to thinking about how students can engage the course in independent contexts, without our direct presence. A few years back, our administration allowed a couple of us to experiment with elective courses where half the class met every other day. It was a win-win, in many ways. This kind of out-of-the-box thinking is going to be required for us to remain agile when it comes to doing school for a while, I think.

Personally, this is one of the lessons that I think will have the most lasting relevance long after this is over, and we will realize a new array of schedule and course opportunities as a result. High school classes, by default, have almost always met every day. And yet it is the norm in higher education to have classes meet twice or three times per week. Maybe there's a happy medium for this age group. Again--if we end up meeting with fewer students for less time, less often, I predict we will come to appreciate the qualitative enhancement to that time together. Less will indeed become more.

Lesson 4: Good preparation is even more important, and much harder. Because less is more, as long as it's well-prepared.

Running a course this way demands more forethought and preparation than our typical regimen did. Truth is, regardless of their planning approach, experienced teachers do a surprising amount of improvising and agile maneuvering from day to day. There's less room for that in this scenario. Because of the obstacles that the technological barriers imply, it's even more important than ever that we have a good plan for each day. Ironically, at the same time, we have to be more flexible than ever, and expect the unexpected as a matter of course.

In the context of this challenge, one of the greatest assets we have at our school is a good learning management software platform--and a solid team of colleagues who guide our understanding of it. This means that everything is in one place. I think this is a definite best practice. Students and parents should not have to keep up with multiple apps or interfaces to facilitate their coursework. Schools should hold their teachers to downs on this, like ours has. Ad hoc approaches to delivering course material, as well-intentioned as they may be, make things tricky and have the potential to generate resentment. (As the parent of three little kids, I can attest to this.)

Lesson 5: With discussion at the core, depth is possible (if we remember that less is more).

I've heard a lot of pessimistic talk about how hard it is to have meaningful classes in this manner. Of course there are things that can't be replicated fully at a distance. But the notion that it's impossible to have deep learning experiences remotely? I don't buy that, either. It's all about our approach. I have been very affirmed by the positive remarks from my students regarding our discussion-based course. It has been that way from the get-go, well before we were relegated to audio or video conferencing. The daily Socratic seminar discussion format has, ironically enough, transitioned quite well to the video conference model. It's not that complicated:

  1. Assign brief preparatory work that invites them to think.

  2. Hold them accountable for it (e.g., make them submit that work in advance of class).

  3. Then, just get together and talk together about why the content matters.

That's pretty much it. It brings the content to life for everyone. It always has, and I think it it always will, regardless of the medium. Depth is more important than breadth now in so, so many ways.

And, by the way, while it's fair to lament the "disconnect" intrinsic to this mode of teaching and learning, I've found the "we-are-all-in-this-together" factor actually has a powerful humanizing effect. When we meet with our students in a videoconference, we are meeting each other in our homes. And even when we use (as we should) every professional discretion such as plain backgrounds and minimal distractions, there is still the conscious awareness that we are all doing this in the sometimes-chaotic thick of our home lives, and that it isn't going to be a flawless experience. That calls for a default commitment to cura personalis (care for the human person).

Lesson 6: Anything other than "formative assessment" is probably pointless. And when it comes to assessment, less is more.

This one is probably presenting some of the toughest challenges for both teachers and students. I'm not a big fan of edu-speak (and there's a lot of it), but the term "formative assessment" makes plenty of sense. Basically, it's the idea that any type of "testing" mechanism should itself be a learning experience, not merely a mechanism to quantify acquired knowledge. In most cases, that means it should involve generative pursuit--creating something--not just reporting knowledge.

Now, any sophisticated discussion of formative assessment has to include the acknowledgement that quantitative, objective assessment does have value. It's not a simple binary, e.g., "multiple choice bad / Socratic discussion good." But the truth is, under these circumstances, there is an even more pronounced set of arguments for de-prioritizing objective testing. First off, from a purely cynical standpoint, we have to acknowledge that there is practically no way to ensure the integrity of almost any objective quizzing or testing.

But that cynical (practical?) thinking isn't the primary reason why we should prioritize formative assessment right now. The more important one is that with the limited interaction we will be afforded with students, we should be doing everything in our power to discuss, talk about, and use the course material. We should invite and challenge them to make something, not report on something.

And lest teachers fear that this will simply result in zero accountability or meaningless grades (and thus eroding incentives for learning), I have found the opposite to be true. So long as meaningful assessment exists, and so long as students are held to accountability through reasonable measures, grades still matter enough to matter. The beautiful thing is, though, I've seen the anxiety over grades fall to record-low levels. All while the kind of class discussions we're having leave me with no doubt that they're doing meaningful thinking about the course content.

What does all this mean for the coming school year?

More than likely, when school does return to physical buildings, we'll need to deal with some lingering form of the restrictions imposed by distance learning. Even if it's not as extreme as what we're facing now, there's a good chance that we'll need to embrace these kinds of lessons to create a meaningful and effective educational experience.

I predict we'll be looking at smaller groups, less-frequent course gatherings, the need for even more meaningful formative assessment, and a strong desire for discussion and interaction to counterbalance what will have been a long interlude of disconnection.


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