By Sharon Kunde
Teachers are currently closing out the school year and laying the groundwork for the next. But there is, of course, a problem: none of us know what kind of situation we’ll come back to. While school districts and teachers’ unions discuss physical conditions that might make in-person teaching possible (things like reduced schedules, classroom sanitization, extra buses), it remains likely that many of us will use online instruction, either in a blended or intermittent fashion.
In the face of these uncertainties, teachers can prepare this summer by thinking broadly and flexibly about their educational goals. What follows are four guidelines for designing curriculum plans for new and shifting teaching circumstances.
1. See the crisis as an opportunity to align practices with a constructivist philosophy.
In education, we’ve been talking for nearly a century about shifting away from content-oriented, behaviorist instruction and toward constructivist and student-centered instruction. Constructivist education sees knowledge as something that a learner builds within themself through experience and practice, rather than as behaviors that can be reinforced through external rewards, or as a fixed substance to be consumed, mastered, and repeated back to a teacher. Educators can take this opportunity to reflect on the deep skills – cognitive and emotional – that underlie subject-area content. Constrained to teach through a screen on a reduced schedule or even without any face-to-face time, teachers necessarily have less control over content delivery. But by focusing on the metacognitive dimension of learning, teachers can continue to instruct in deeply meaningful ways even if the “amount” of content-area material covered is diminished.
Most teachers blend behaviorist and constructivist approaches, and I am recommending shifting the balance towards constructivism. Instead of giving tricky-to-administer examinations that test knowledge of specific content areas (a more behaviorist task), teachers might assign students independent research project presentations (a more constructivist task). While a teacher might be used to using comprehension quizzes to help students keep up with literature reading assignments, that same teacher might shift to digital reading diaries in which students reflect on aspects of the reading that meant something to them.
2. Emphasize information literacy and critical thinking.
Many practicing teachers – myself included – were brought up before an alluring digital world lurked in sleek packages in every room of the house. Our education didn’t necessarily prepare us for a reality in which screening out distracting, inaccurate, and misleading information would be more vital than finding information in the first place, which in my day involved looking in card catalogs and dog-eared periodical directories. By concentrating on analytical skills needed to evaluate and manipulate information rather than on the accumulation of information, teachers can in fact better prepare students to focus sustained attention on meaningful tasks and reputable sources of information. These kinds of skills can be cultivated through the more independent work that suits digital learning. You can hear more about the importance of information literacy and critical thinking in this interview with Siva Kumari, the director general of the International Baccalaureate.
3. Develop ongoing rather than high-stakes terminal evaluations.
In that same interview, Kumari suggests that digital learning has struck a blow against high-stakes standardized tests. The nightmarish logistics and potential negative outcomes of administering tests like AP exams, the SATs, and IB diploma examinations during the pandemic resulted in many cases in the tests being outright cancelled, and also in colleges dropping admissions requirements in regards to test scores. In their place, more emphasis is being placed on teacher evaluations, which reflect a deeper knowledge of the student within a social context over time. Given what has long been known about the potential for standardized tests to reinforce racial and socioeconomic disparities, the logistical turn away from standardized tests this year has sound ideological underpinnings as well.
4. Don’t undervalue what you can deliver.
In my twice-weekly synchronous online classes, I regularly checked in with students one by one, asking them to name one small fun thing they’d done over the weekend, or to make a recommendation for something safe and local to try during the summer as a means of self-care. These conversations felt incredibly slow to me, and while they were happening I worried about the Shakespeare passages we definitely weren’t going to scrutinize because of the pace of these exchanges. However, during end-of-the-year online family conferences, one of my students thanked me for these conversations, saying that they’d provided a rare opportunity for spontaneous, personal interaction with her peers. Her comment helped me realize that despite the difficulties posed by the digital medium, it is still possible to foster connection and community in an online classroom. In a recent podcast by The Daily, elementary-school teacher Ronda McIntyre mused that if in the fall school continues online or continues in a hybrid scenario, teaching “is not going to feel the same.” While it indeed doesn’t quite feel the same, teachers can still create connection and intimacy in the context of remote learning, while teaching and modeling how to be creative, compassionate, and resilient humans in what will likely only become a more unpredictable world.
Dr. Sharon Kunde is an educator, scholar, and writer. Her current book project is titled “Natural Reading”: Race, Place, and Literary Practice in the United States from Thoreau to Ransom. Her poetry has appeared in The Colorado Review, Salt Front, and The Spoon River Review. Dr. Kunde teaches 8th and 9th grade at the Lycee International de Los Angeles and blogs about hiking in the California backcountry at https://throughhike.wordpress.com/.
Her website is https://www.sharonkunde.com/.