Keep calm and carry on: Reasonable approaches to home-based learning

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Apr 1, 2020

The sudden closure of schools across the country has left policymakers, educators, and parents scrambling. Learning solutions right now will, of course, be less than perfect. But that doesn’t mean we have to throw up our hands. With my elementary-aged kids, there have been some nice silver linings amidst this epidemic storm: creative writing assignments, fun drawing activities through Art for Kids Hub, daily piano lessons over video chat with grandam, video calls with friends while playing the Prodigy math game, and basketball in the driveway together for “PE.” As we all wrestle to cope with our current reality, I hope here to offer some helpful perspectives for schools trying to tackle this massive transition.

Reframe the crisis

Because of the sudden and unexpected shift to online learning that left many schools without a backup plan, expectations of student learning have to change. The sooner policymakers, school leaders, educators, and parents accept that fact, the better they will be able to help students learn under our current reality. But changing our expectations does not mean accepting that “optional educational enrichment” is the only option until regular schooling resumes again. Instead, we can use this time as an opportunity to learn and innovate.

Research shows that how we frame a situation—as a threat or as an opportunity—impacts how we respond. When people encounter a significant threat, a response called “threat rigidity” sets in for some. They cease being flexible, double down on well-established routines, and rely on hierarchical command-and-control decision-making. For example, school leaders responding to school closure as a threat will issue top-down edicts to maintain the bell schedule at home and have teachers replicate their class periods through online video chat. Online learning will happen, but it probably won’t be implemented well. In contrast, the same research reveals that when people frame a situation as an opportunity, they are much better at thinking flexibly and creatively as they figure out how to seize the opportunity. 

How do educators make this mindset shift? As mentioned above, the first step is to accept that learning won’t happen as previously expected. Then, look for the potential upsides of the current reality. For example, the necessity of working with students remotely can help educators improve how they communicate with families, figure out mastery-based progression, hone their expertise in supporting home-based learning, and discover new ways to incorporate high-quality online learning tools into their instruction. In times like these, there’s practical wisdom in finding ways to see the glass as half full, not half empty.

Don’t stall over equity

Equity is near the top of the list of concerns educators face right now. The values of their profession direct—and the law dictates—that students with disabilities and students without access to technology at home not be left behind by online learning. Yet sadly, some schools seem to be taking this concern over equity to an unwarranted extreme—reasoning that no schooling is better than inequitable online learning. 

It seems ironic, however, to say now that “no one learns if not everyone can learn.” We know that even in normal circumstances, some kids are in a better position to learn than others. Think of kids who have home, family, or work responsibilities that prevent them from doing homework; kids who come to school hungry or traumatized and can’t focus; kids with undiagnosed special needs whose parents don’t have time or the ability to fight for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). 

Vetoing all learning over equity concerns makes the perfect the enemy of the good. Those concerned about equity should remember that regardless of school closures, families with resources to encourage and support their children’s learning will use those resources, with or without the support of their local schools. Just as always, the role of schools in pursuing equity is to offer free, public education for even the most challenging circumstances so that every student can learn.

Rather than allow equity concerns to halt online education, school leaders should take a multi-pronged approach: serve as many students as possible with the technologies available to those students, and simultaneously find alternatives for students that can’t be served well with technology. It may be that the students who can’t access technology require individual phone calls with teachers and offline learning plans customized to their circumstances. In the broad scheme of things, reserving the most high-touch and personalized solutions for the students with the greatest needs actually makes a lot of sense.

Don’t create one-size fits none solutions

Many schools and districts seem focused on creating the one solution that will meet all their students’ needs. But universal solutions do not exist because students’ and families’ circumstances are different. Some students have parents with flexible work-from-home arrangements. Others do not. Some families are flush with computers, mobile devices, and fast, reliable Internet. Others are not. Some students’ ages and dispositions make hours of independent learning or video-based instruction feasible. For others, these approaches won’t work. 

Rather than trying to figure out a singular best solution, schools should focus on learning what works, for whom, under what circumstances. This starts with outreach to families to find out what their particular circumstances might be. Then, equipped with this information, create different teams within a school to focus on developing different solutions for different sets of student circumstances. Once the initial iterations of different distance learning options are in place, schools should consider allowing families to self-select the options that work best for them. Families’ choices will reveal a lot about their needs and preferences.

As schools started shifting to online learning, I worried that the demands of the present would lead to a backlash against online learning in the future. But if schools, communities, and families can approach online learning as outlined above, I’m optimistic about the discoveries and innovations that will come in response to our current reality. Necessity seems to once again be the mother of invention.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on identifying strategies to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education through Disruptive Innovation. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.