Three Myths of Distance Learning

By Ian Kelleher

I have a unique and marvelous job. I teach science to high schoolers every day, but I am also “Chair of Research” for my school, charged with answering this question: “How do we use the science of teaching and learning to improve every child’s whole school experience?” The days of COVID have been difficult, but a fascinating challenge – how can the science of learning help us in this unique time?

Like many, I have felt like a first-year teacher all over again, but I have found a steady rhythm. Ten months on, however, it is time to stretch my practice beyond the “emergency remote teaching” described by Professor Paul Kirschner. It is nerve-wracking to try something new when I feel so stretched, but my students need it – and there are simple things I can do to improve their learning experience during this tumultuous period. Busting the three myths described below is a manageable next step that should have a significant impact for my students, and yours as well.

Myth 1: Children of today are digital natives, and require little help with technology.

The idea that children today, because they have grown up with so much technology, are tech-savvy “digital natives” has been tested by research and found to be a myth.1 Students require a learning period for new technology like they do for any other skill. Learning is hindered when we design lessons assuming a technological facility or knowledge of the digital landscape that just isn’t as robust as we think. Compounding this, we have noticed that the stress and weirdness of distance learning during COVID has caused many children to struggle with executive functioning tasks, an observation that appears to align with research on the impact of stress2. This means students need even more time and guidance to pick up on new skills than they normally would. To alleviate this, choose a small, well-curated list of EdTech tools; avoid magpie syndrome. Each time you use a new tool for the first time, run through a simple, quick, low-stakes example project, all the way from beginning to submitting, so that your students can learn the steps. We often do a short project that is fun, goofy, or makes students smile – it is all about learning the new tool.

Myth 2: The best time to give students feedback is when you return their graded work.

Providing students with good feedback is hard right now, but so vital during distance learning. There are so many formal and informal moments during a typical in-person school week where communication happens – going from table to table during class, or bumping into a student in the hallway, for example – and without these moments, we need to consciously fill the gap. Importantly, students need a chance to act on the feedback they receive right away. When you give a grade as well as the feedback, students focus on the grade and not what you wrote. That is a waste of your precious time!

The solution is to design assignments where students have a chance to receive feedback and act on it before their final work is submitted. Your feedback should be brief, frequent, and targeted. Don’t try to fix everything at once; you will only overload the student. Put 10-15 minutes of class time aside for students to find and act on their feedback. Think about including a one-minute video or audio piece of feedback occasionally (many LMS’s, or learning management systems, allow this) as this helps boost the emotional climate of how students receive feedback. Include just a few words of feedback when you return graded work.

Myth 3: Student-led inquiry-based learning is a good way to introduce core ideas.

One of the most important papers that all educators should read is Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.”3 Even in distance learning, direct instruction is a much more effective way to learn fundamental knowledge and skills – though this needs to be done well with high quality questioning, formative assessment, multiple modalities of instruction, and should include concrete examples, analogies, and stories to explain abstract concepts. Use Loom or Screencastify to record simple videos of you presenting material. Do this even if you are on a hybrid schedule; it buys you time to pause and think in class, and students benefit from seeing your mask-free face over video.

Projects have their place, though. Once core knowledge and skills are built, assign projects that challenge students to transfer these to a new context. Doing this helps build usable, durable, flexible knowledge in long-term memory, and can be a great way to include nuggets that boost motivation – such as elements of choice, novelty, or real-life relevance, as well as allowing social-connection – and to incorporate small-group check-ins with students.  Check out this article4 for more information about how to do project-based learning well during distance learning.

Evaluating your own distance learning practices can feel like a daunting prospect when you are already navigating uncharted territory. But tackling these three common education misconceptions – and how they might be impacting your remote or hybrid teaching – can be a manageable first step in improving the distance learning experience of your students.

References:

1 Kirschner, P. A., & De Bruyckere, P. (2017). The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. Teaching and Teacher Education, 67, 135–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2017.06.001

2 Shields, G. S., Sazma, M. A., & Yonelinas, A. P. (2016). The effects of acute stress on core executive functions: A meta-analysis and comparison with cortisol. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 68, 651–668.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.06.038

3 Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

4 Whitman, G., Kelleher, I. (2020, September 18). Your checklist for virtual project-based learning. Edutopia. http://www.edutopia.org/article/your-checklist-virtual-project-based-learning


Dr. Ian Kelleher is a science teacher at St. Andrew’s and The Dreyfuss Chair of Research for the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. He is the co-author of Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education. His latest project is Neuroteach Global – online professional development about using the science of learning in the classroom. Twitter: @ijkelleher.

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