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(Part 2) Keeping the "Learning" in Online Learning: A Leadership Strategy

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

In the prior article, we uncovered common myths and clarified key principles about virtual/blended learning (see Keeping the “Learning” in Online Learning, Part 1). Here is a summary:

  • Online/virtual learning is an environment. It’s not about the tools. It’s about the learning.

  • Research has shown that a hybrid/blended model (i.e., combining synchronous and asynchronous experiences), and even more generally, a wide variety of learning environments and modalities, is more effective in facilitating learning.

  • The way we craft learning environments, in alignment with our intended learning outcome(s) (i.e., how our purpose guides our decisions), directly impacts the learning.

With this premise in mind, leading schools/districts through the transition to a hybrid learning model demands a systemic lens. Here is a brief synthesis of a 4-part leadership strategy for systemic planning, designed to keep “learning” at the center of online/blended learning.

Two Scenarios

First, let’s consider two different schools/districts. These are just examples, not comprehensive by any means, but simply intended to share a glimpse of successful highlights and inevitable pitfalls of approaching hybrid learning systemically – or not. (Note: Examples are based on true experiences, stories are adapted to preserve anonymity, and details are a tiny bit exaggerated to illustrate some essential points in a hypothetical context.)

HowOnEarthDoWeDoThis School has been struggling with achievement gaps, along with racial/ethnic and socio-economic disparities. After being designated for additional state support last year, teams began the process of understanding the standards alignment process when the pandemic began. Since then transition time was nonexistent, curriculum efforts have halted, and professional learning only included technology training without any time to focus on instructional approaches. In an attempt to foster extensive flexibility in the midst of uncertainty, hardly any elements of routine or consistency were preserved and most teachers sent home worksheets for independent learning. They plan to do the same this year since they’ll only be seeing students in-person once every 6 days and they’ve been advised to limit screen time during remote learning. Families are questioning the value of sending their kids to school if “Zoom school” is no different; school leaders are trying to accommodate as many home-schooling requests as possible and continually reference governor’s mandates, in a difficult climate where a barrage of questions often lack answers. As the school year approaches, classrooms are still being cleaned, 1-day faculty orientation involves getting informed on health policies and physical distancing requirements, and enrollment has declined.

WeAreWhoWeAre School brought faculty together to discuss and affirm its mission the day after they were informed of the emergency. With an uncompromising focus on the school’s “We Believe” statements and collaboratively developed graduation profile, professional learning to prepare for temporary shutdown began with brainstorming what learning in every content area could look like remotely, while still empowering students to reach the school-wide outcomes. Teacher teams continued to meet periodically to share, plan, and reflect on their instructional experiments and experiences; two-way communication with families increased to ensure agility and responsiveness to ongoing questions and needs; constant check-in’s with students fostered a sense of belonging even while remote. As this school year emerges, enrollment has increased with families from a range of diversities and socio-economic levels; teachers and students are excited to see each other; and teacher teams are collaboratively revising their curriculum and assessments, while practicing with new technology tools and physical distancing requirements two weeks in advance for a smooth re-opening.

Strategy 1. Plan a Systemic Approach with All Stakeholders

During the latter end of last school year’s pandemic crisis mode, the schools/districts that stayed true to their mission and core values pivoted more easily, embraced opportunities for experimentation and innovation (albeit sometimes begrudgingly at first), and garnered greater appreciation from students, educators, and families for weathering the storm. Mission sustains focus, grounds decisions, and guides direction. It’s a universal principle that has proven effective in all sectors from industry to medicine to sports. Wearisome circumstances test the strength of an organization’s mission, collective vision for the outcomes of the people it serves, and resilience of the people who embody it.

Online/Hybrid learning involves so much more than instructional strategies or a set of tools; it’s a large-scale change. Engage the whole community – families, students, teachers, support staff, board members, etc. – in gathering input, collecting data, and reflecting on the process. Students will feel valued, teachers will be reinvigorated, parents will recommit to their hope in the school’s role in their children’s lives, and leaders will be reenergized by valuable information to guide critical decisions.

Strategy 2. Build Structures to Support and Facilitate the Work

As educational leaders, we know meaningful change doesn’t happen quickly or easily, but steadily and incrementally. Think ahead about the professional learning capacity needed to equip teachers for successful implementation, time to learn and structures and schedules to support the work, tools and resources directly aligned to the mission-driven direction the school/district decides to pursue, and communication to engage students and families in understanding the transitions. Don’t rush to buy tools and don’t believe the hype that an LMS or online conferencing software is the solution; it’s just one piece of the greater puzzle of systemic change, amidst a myriad of considerations working synergistically to empower learning in a different context.

Strategy 3. Enable the Process to Unfold Organically

The education system has trained and ingrained in us the pursuit of doing things “correctly,” being “right,” feeling good about our “accomplishments.” Yet the people who are regarded as most “successful” in society failed miserably, tried more often than they could count, and learned more from their mistakes than their rewards. The most difficult aspect of implementing readiness skills for the 21st Century (i.e., problem-solving, flexibility, initiative, decision-making, self-awareness, communication, etc.) is not promoting the skills; everyone likes the words. The challenge for school leaders is to cultivate a culture of reflection rather than perfection, where teachers have just as much permission, freedom, and support as students to experiment, fail, revise, and try again. Bring teachers together regularly to share ideas and failures just as much as successes, i.e., to learn from each other. Then equip teachers to foster the same culture and habits in the classroom, both in-person or online.

Strategy 4. Lean toward Empathy. Act with Grace.

When a student turns the online camera off because he’s washing dishes, since he won’t have time before Mom comes home from work because two more classes are coming up, and he has to feed his baby sister who can’t sit still for two seconds because he turned up the volume so he could still somewhat pay attention to his teacher, what’s the policy? When a family has one working parent in a job considered “essential,” thankful for continued employment but given a reduced schedule, and they just found out that Grandma has Covid-19, while the oldest sister of five siblings has to work part-time to help cover expenses, and she didn’t turn in her last three asynchronous assignments, what’s the policy? Do we take points off the grade for keeping cameras off? Do we give zeros for missing work? Some would answer yes, as stepping stones to accountability. Some would answer no, as the responsibility these students are learning outside of school far outweighs numbers in a gradebook. As a leader, you most likely have both and additional perspectives among your team. How will you facilitate the conversation?

Let’s revisit the myths we unsurfaced earlier and the premise for this 4-part systemic strategy. Since online learning is just an environment, it’s one of many. Students learn everywhere (e.g., at home, on the field, at the supermarket, in the shower); we just don’t always have a lens on all the learning from our myopic classroom view. A hybrid/blended model can give us a window into non-school learning if we welcome it. Lean toward empathy.

Remember the Georgia student who was suspended for posting non-masked students on social media? Her punishment was lifted, but then the story got even more interesting. Inspired by reknown Civil Rights leader John Lewis, her statements revealed the potential to become the next prominent human rights advocate. Filled with anxiety, she found her voice and turned a school policy into a national conversation about consequences, rights, and personal conviction. Who had greater influence, the school or the student?

Developing policies that uphold both high expectations while ensuring support to meet those expectations is an arduous and delicate balance. It’s Harvard professor Richard Elmore’s Principle of Reciprocity. I view this balance through the lens of empathy. When we feel what another is feeling, understand what another is experiencing, and recognize there may be a situation underneath, only then we are equipped to act. Empathy paves the way for grace. Now more than ever, children need the adults in their lives. Educators are teachers, mentors, encouragers, a safety net, a pillow, a beacon of hope, a voice of love. Don’t lower expectations; increase support for students to reach expectations while allowing the gifts inside them to flourish. Design policies informed by understanding, guided by empathy, and seasoned with grace.

Vision vs. Reality

As exciting as this adventure can be, the reality is, systemically planning for virtual/blended learning is difficult and often easier said than done (especially during a pandemic!). So here’s my final tip. Don’t forget to celebrate small successes, even the tiniest ones – a conversation, a positive attitude, a smile behind the sigh – and call them out publicly. You are making more progress than it may seem. Your leadership is helping teams see beyond today’s trials and painting tomorrow’s horizons.

~ Ronit Carter, President and Lead Consultant, Learning Lens

© 2020 Learning Lens. All Rights Reserved.

If you could benefit from a collaborative thought partner in your planning efforts, or if you would like to engage your teams in professional learning or coaching, or if you would find any other support helpful in your journey, we would be thrilled to collaborate with you. Let’s have a conversation!

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