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Creating Powerful Learning in a Distanced Context

 TFA Ohio’s summer program explored ways to make learning more engaging. Here, seven strategies to try in your classroom.  

Teacher shows off a lesson from her digital, summer curriculum.

August 15, 2020

All across Ohio, schools and families are working tirelessly to ensure young people can engage in safe, meaningful learning. The hurdles are many and the learning curve is steep for all of us. But in the face of these challenges is an opportunity for us to imagine a new future and a more equitable, relevant education system. 

This summer, Teach For America Ohio partnered with a dedicated team of educators to pilot new approaches to learning in a remote context. In running a Camp Revolution, a summer camp that centered wellness and interest-based learning, we sought to gain insights that might inform how we can relaunch schools.  

Below are some of the most salient learnings, meant as a conversation starter for teachers, schools, families, and students. The last few weeks of testing and iteration left us sobered by the hard work ahead of us, but optimistic about our collective capacity to rise to the moment.

1. Listen to Students, Systematically

Students know what works and what doesn’t. This was overwhelmingly our most powerful learning reinforced in our pilot.

Across every age group, when given the opportunity, they not only mirrored back astute reflections but generated ideas and solutions that were consistently the highlights of our learning. And when students opted out, that was feedback. 

The trick was making the commitment to listen and collaborate. Not just in pockets but establishing the systems and rituals to do it consistently.

This Might Look Like: 

  • Holding dedicated and regular times in the week to ask students how things are going and what barriers they’re running into. 
  • Co-creating: Brainstorming ideas alongside students to make the learning work better and be more fun. 
  • Delegating: Giving real responsibility and power to young people to drive portions of the day (i.e., plan our energizer, come up with proposal for end project, etc.).

2. Get Tight on Outcomes and Loose on Methods

The variance in context and needs was immense across groups of students and teachers. Given this, it was critical that educators were empowered to use their judgment to adjust approaches, experiment with new ideas, while staying grounded in clear sense of which outcomes and principles mattered most for us (which this summer was: connection, well-being, relevance, and student interest). 

By being tight on the outcomes and principles, but loose on the methods, we were able to learn faster—comparing which strategies were working best. 

This Might Look Like: 

  • Spending time as a staff or school community defining the priorities and considering trade-offs. 
  • Clarifying what is “tight” and “loose.” Explicit guidance on the areas you encourage innovation. 
  • Creating weekly learning spaces to elevate how educators are adjusting their approach to realize shared outcomes.

3. Build Flexibility and Spaciousness Into the Schedule

The seven- to eight-hour school day structure doesn’t work remotely. Zoom fatigue is real. Distractions and intersecting schedules at home are real. The need for movement is real. 

This summer, we learned a lot about having to manage energy flow by ensuring abundant breaks, limiting the total screen time, integrating moments throughout our time to stand, stretch, have some independence. 

We also had to be responsive to the realities of family lives—sometimes pushing times back for one group to match when parents can get child care, or planning around a student’s job.

This Might Look Like: 

  • Committing to learning the developmental nuances of attention and energy flow. 
  • Maxing out screen-based learning time to under four hours a day.
  • Lots of breaks, with longer stretches (i.e., 20 minutes, not 10 minutes). 
  • Regular off-screen working time.
  • Where possible, flexibility and choice of schedules based on family needs.

4. Bring the Real World In

While always true, we found that students were especially hungry to engage in the issues that are populating the news worldwide—the novel coronavirus, racial justice, and the election. 

Students were not only intellectually interested in learning about these topics, but were having intense lived experiences and emotions about them and needed a space, language, and concrete tools to process them. 

Leaning into these areas allowed us to be responsive and relevant to young people’s lives and offered a gateway into deeply rigorous learning opportunities.

This Might Look Like: 

  • Creating structured, close-knit spaces for students to bring issues and experiences to process to the group. 
  • Doing explicit teaching on identifying, honoring, and managing emotions. 
  • Build learning units around key issues happening in the world today. Teach core content through that lens.

5. Remote Learning Doesn’t Always Mean Virtual

While we found the use of technology to be game-changing and critical in this moment, our summer reminded us that some of the most powerful learning continues to be hands on. 

We built rocket cars, made puppet shows, did yoga. In a world that has been dramatically shrunk to a computer screen, it was both refreshing and engaging to design learning to be tactile, three-dimensional, and analog. 

This was also an important reminder for families without access to technology (or one computer for multiple students). Meaningful learning can still happen when you’re not on a computer.

This Might Look Like: 

  • Sending basic supplies and kits with materials for a project to families. 
  • Centering learning that can bring everyday items into the mix (for example, something you can make with items in the kitchen).
  • Design lessons that require building, gathering, moving, and so on. 
  • Allow students to write/draw/create and submit photos of their work versus always creating it digitally. 

6. Young People Come to School for Connection

Our students miss their friends. This connection and community is one of the primary reasons young people get excited to go to school. 

We found throughout the summer that a significant driver to engage was the opportunity to see other students, to meaningfully collaborate, and to have some downtime to just chat. Many of these same students reported there being little time to do this in the remote learning they experiences in the fall. 

The personal touch point and relationship with a caring teacher—especially one they knew before—was likewise a major differentiator. 

This Might Look Like:

  • Integrating collaboration methods as key instructional strategies in lessons (such as partner projects and checking each others' work).

  • Hold daily, lightly structured space to just connect and have fun with small groups of peers.
  • Where possible, consider having students loop with teachers to build on existing relationship.

7. Make It Delightful (and Worth Showing Up For)

At a time where much of the conversation about remote learning is—reasonably—about solving basic barriers to access or triaging academic content, we’re missing the chance to reframe the question and ask: How would this learning be so delightful and worthwhile that young people would be thrilled to be there? 

This summer taught us that when starting from this frame, the rest often followed. When we intentionally designed for fun, for connection, for novelty and surprise, students and teachers alike were more engaged and creative.

This Might Look Like: 

  • Doubling down on designing for fun—leverage games and competitions. Ask students what would make it more exciting. 

  • Integrating surprises and fresh experiences. Swap up routines. Bring in guests. 
  • Encourage educators to have fun themselves. Their permission to play and get creative will set the tone for everyone.