Untethering

There’s something very predictable about the school calendar: the first and last days of school, holidays, conferences, traditional events and programs, and graduation. The same is true of the school day: carpool drop-off and pickup times, the first bell, the Monday schedule, Tuesday schedule, minutes per class, midterms, finals, lunch and recess. This predictability offers comfort and continuity. It makes everything easy for teachers and parents to plan. Other extracurriculars, club sports, ballet and gymnastics, and other after-school activity and events can be organized accordingly because it’s obvious what we mean by the simple words, “after school.” Even children’s dinner and sleep/wake schedules are organized around the daily school calendar and schedule. In the United States, families choose their home based on proximity to the neighborhood schools.

For the last month, COVID-19 has upended that predictability, creating chaos in people’s work and home lives. School campuses nationally (and internationally in many countries) are closed, and teachers and administrators have moved their schedule and curriculum online. Untethered from a physical location, teachers and administrators are no longer tethered to the confines of the school calendar and daily schedule. There’s no daily commute to and from school, no bells, no lunch or recess at the same time for everyone. Remote (or distance) learning has unstructured the day, requiring of the students and adults – parents and teachers – to create new structures and new routines, each one different from one home to the next. Teachers are providing some live instruction, but remote learning is ill-suited to many hours of live instruction. Synchronous, or live, instruction is appropriate for some direct teaching, but it shines when creating connection and community in the virtual classroom. Asynchronous, or independent, learning is best suited for deeper learning and application.

Bigger chunks of asynchronous learning means students have greater control. While on-campus learning is organized around adult needs and priorities, giving the teacher and parent a higher degree of control than the student, remote learning wrests that same control away from the adults and hands it over to the student. The conventional schedule and structure direct the student on what to do, where to go, and when to get there. The student has very little autonomy except in between transitions, and even those are timed and there’s a consequence in traditional schools for missing the bell and arriving tardy. There’s no such restriction or direction with remote learning because the teacher cannot provide several hours of live instruction daily, and every home environment – effectively now a classroom too – is set up differently. In many ways, remote learning is the ultimate form of differentiated learning.

Besides the pandemic and the ensuing human health tragedy, this forced move to remote learning globally for millions of students has created other kinds of chaos and tragedies too. Remote learning is not effective for every student. That level of autonomy requires self-direction and self-discipline. (The same can be said of remote work and teams.) Developmentally, not every student has mastered or gained the executive functioning skills necessary for this complex navigation and management of one’s class and assignment load. Not every student can work backwards from the end of the day or week to create their own class schedule that replaces what has so far been provided by the school on the first day. Very little changes in the school year once it has begun, and whatever changes is carefully managed and controlled. Not anymore.

It might sound like I’m in favor of this type of school or learning all the time; I’m not. Although there are clear benefits for the student of a certain type and age, it has many downsides which make it unsustainable for very long. However, it is worth reflecting here that it’s almost certain we will be in this position again next school year. We don’t know when or for how long, but in the absence of a vaccine to treat the coronavirus, it will once again fracture life and the school year for everyone. Everyone’s been really gracious and forgiving for the last few weeks at school because it’s our first time, but they won’t be when it happens again. So what do we do? How do we plan?

If the traditional school year and day are all about predictability, and teaching and leading in a COVID-19 world are not, then we must design for two environments, one that offers control and another that requires flexibility. But designing for two environments is exhausting and few schools, if any, have the resources to set up and prepare for two schools. Learning and assessing aren’t the same when done remotely, so we need to consider if there are lessons of flexibility and student autonomy that can be interwoven into the physical campus and classroom environment. How might we design the class schedule with flexibility in mind? How do we create flexibility in the school year? Schools have been talking about innovation and innovating for almost two decades now, but almost all have offered tweaks so far, afraid to start over. It required this forced move – this untethering – to shift mindsets, act with nimbleness and new imagination, and reconsider what’s really sacred.

Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message.” When print-based newspapers first moved to the internet, they tried to force the internet to fit their print-based context. Websites were clunky and slow, and navigation was awkward and ineffectual. That was their 1.0 effort, or even their beta initiative, just like the last few weeks have been for schools everywhere. Now, the successful media publications start with a digital and mobile-first mindset, designing first for the medium where they will find their audience. School and college campuses are not going away, but where will we now invest our time and resources? What will we create and do when our students may literally not be able to get to us, as they have for decades? The process of untethering has not been comfortable, but it also means an unshackling. The online medium has created a tinkerer and entrepreneur out of every teacher and administrator. It will be a shame if we only mourn this newfound freedom. We have an opportunity in this crisis to advance new business and pedagogical models. What will we tether to when we can safely return to our campuses?

3 thoughts on “Untethering

  1. “It required this forced move – this untethering – to shift mindsets, act with nimbleness and new imagination, and reconsider what’s really sacred.” I’ve been having the same conversation with other teacher-friend in the past weeks! Especially coming from a more traditional school, the leaps we’ve taken are, for us, unprecedented and, in several cases, for the better. My pedagogical approach has shifted, regardless of whether I’m on site or online. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

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