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Mahlburg: This is an opportunity to rethink learning

Mahlburg: This is an opportunity to rethink learning

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By Susan Mahlburg

Mahlburg is a high school English teacher with Charlottesville City Schools.

The reality that spring’s foray into virtual learning will continue, likely to a large degree, creates a need to modify face-to-face strategies for use in both hybrid and virtual settings. Stakeholders should view the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to reconceptualize and improve instruction for all settings. The conversation about school re-openings, at its core, should not be a circular one about where students learn — in modified classroom spaces, converted gymnasiums, or at home — but more so how educators structure that learning.

The current conversation about virtual offerings leads nowhere; its focus is wrongly situated on digital tools as replacements for face-to-face teaching approaches. Communities must first acknowledge the underlying nature of learning to effectively prepare for new approaches. Virtual learning not based on socialized interactions that drive student growth will ultimately fail. Conversely, a thoughtful virtual learning model that allows for higher-level thinking and jointly constructed learning spaces will achieve its goals and even move a broken system forward by addressing misconceptions about learning that perpetuate academic inequities. Current pedagogy often takes a socially constructed learning zone for granted, but this doesn’t shift so simply to the virtual sphere and thus requires reexamination.

Heightened virtual interaction does not negate the need for professional educators. Individualized instruction may be even more important in virtual and hybrid models, as a crucial component of teaching is the ability to gain and then leverage intimate knowledge of students’ needs in order to make just the right comment or adaptation to drive student growth. Neither of these features are available in options such as MOOCs (massive open online courses. A new conception of virtual spaces must keep this defining characteristic of the teacher-student relationship in center-stage, with the aim of replicating or even enhancing it. Questions that designers should ask are: How to maximize the amount of teacher/student interaction? How to design interactions and tasks so that teachers gain knowledge about students’ needs? How can teachers be given opportunities to provide constructive, meaningful feedback?

Educators must support students by designing dynamic instruction that enables learners to take cognitive risks. Students dislike rote experiences in physical classrooms; would they jump to complete digitized worksheets or glamorized hyperdocs from their bedrooms? Performance-based virtual tasks provide a solution by infusing critical thinking and stimulating engagement and motivation. Nationwide, concerns have emerged about the efficacy of the ad hoc digital efforts that many schools rolled out during the spring shutdowns; a shift to performance tasks could fix much of the disconnect experienced during the previous round of crisis learning. A key feature of performance assessments and evaluative dialogue is developing students’ internal standards, the ability to tell when they have produced work on par with their best. When tasks grant students the freedom to choose topics or personally meaningful approaches, these advantages are amplified.

Importantly, professional development over the coming weeks should not focus on navigating various digital tools, but instead provide educators with meaningful preparation on what instructional strategies and techniques lead to robust, collaborative digital spaces. The key word here is collaborative: there will be a stark distinction in educational outcomes for students who superficially communicate via shared docs, message boards and other shiny gadgets versus those who engage in exploratory dialogue that leads to multi-dimensional thinking. For the latter to occur, digital learning spaces should provide opportunities for creative insights, contextual connections, and time for learners to cultivate their own perspectives. This is not an argument that hinges on synchronous versus asynchronous learning approaches. It rests on one simple truth: effective virtual learning should not allow students to exist in a silo.

Pedagogy and the finer points of learning theory may seem secondary to safety and equity issues that have dominated national conversation in recent weeks, but, at risk of attracting the same polarization that has afflicted discussion of those topics, the increased reliance on digital learning should make the approach to virtual classrooms a top priority for anyone concerned with the well-being of children. Equity is achieved in physical classrooms by validating communal insights, differentiating instruction, and moving away from grading practices that marginalize some students and, worse, fail to measure depth of thought. These same practices should exist in digital spaces as well, and there is perhaps no tool more powerful for mitigating inequity than mere effective teaching.

The reconception of learning for virtual spaces can unlock more effective instruction in physical classrooms once things go back to normal, providing a stimulus for reexamination and improvement, but only if we take the opportunity.

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