Emergency Distance Learning: What’s working (and what’s not)

On Thursday, February 27th, Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe announces that schools should close for two weeks to prevent further spread of COVID-19, novel coronavirus.

My school decided the next afternoon to close for two weeks and introduced a distance learning plan including two days for faculty to gain proficiency with our learning management system and begin planning and creating online content.

Help on the web

There has been a deluge of posts packed with suggestions and recommendations. One of the best is Distance Learning Under Pressure: Getting Your School Ready in a Short Time, which includes many useful suggestions which may or may not work in any given situation. It’s at the top of my list, though, because it places empathy at the top of that priority list. Yoshiko Iwai’s article in Scientific American, Online Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic is also helpful because of its practical advice based on experience.

What’s working: Flexible guidelines

A distance learning plan must be an agreed set of principles and expectations, but not a schedule. Everyone needs to react to a public health emergency in different ways, and school-at-home cannot be the center of our lives in a crisis. One size cannot fit all. The stress of the situation cannot be overstated, and the plan must set all community members’ health – physical, mental, and emotional – as the top priority.

Some students will not be at home. They may stay with relatives who may or may not have broadband internet access. Some may be with a parent at their workplace, some may be home unsupervised. A distance learning plan must take this into consideration by:

  • Operating asynchronously: Students should be allowed to work at their own pace and submit assignments when they can, not according to a strict schedule.
  • Providing easy access to content: Videos available as small files for streaming, and content also available as text for minimal data consumption.
  • Continuing routine tasks from the classroom, although teachers may or may not be able to follow-up. For example, reading for pleasure and independent writing.

This applies mostly to students, but also to teachers: I am teaching from home at the same time I’m helping my two children complete their online learning. Many parents will be be working from home in this way and won’t be able to maintain their job and the full responsibilities of school.

Teachers will be developing entirely new sets of capacities all at once, essentially and instantly starting a new career as an e-learning professional. Everything needs to be scaled down for ease and flexibility of use.

What’s not working: Recreating school at home

Attempting to recreate school at home is literally impossible. It is achievable by degrees depending on the level of embedded technology normally in use in the classroom and the availability of adult support for students at home. What works at school might not even work at home, anyway, so we need to think more creatively.

My younger child, a kindergarten student, struggled to maintain focus through the full-day of activities his teacher was providing online. In school, the mutual support among the children helps him to maintain attention and routines. I asked if she could provide guidance each day about which tasks were required or optional. This helped us to prioritize at home, and seemed to help her feel less pressure to fill the children’s schedule. The required assignments include lesson videos for new content, while the optional tasks are less formal and can be reused each day.

What’s working: Video conferencing

The most indispensable tool for me has been Microsoft Teams. It is the hub of our online communication and has lessened the friction in transitioning to distance learning. Our first reading group session went smoothly for most groups, particularly for students who were already actively utilizing the tools in the Office 365 suite.

Group reading conference using Microsoft Teams

Another service that is ideally suited to the situation in Flipgrid. I believe that it has helped soothe the loneliness that students will inevitably feel when learning in isolation. It has facilitated the ‘social’ in social constructivism at a distance and I look forward to exploring its potential further.

What’s working: Continuing routines

Before the emergency closure, my class had several ongoing routines that students completed independently and were submitted, or could be submitted, digitally. One of these, a Weekly Sharing task, has continued totally unchanged. Students write a blogpost on Kidblog, record a video on Flipgrid, handwrite a journal entry and upload a photograph, or simply type their sharing in a distributed OneNote page that each student uses to document their work, usually by copying and pasting a link to their blog post or video.

This routine has continued, and even flourished, as students have more time and access to the technology they need to create thoughtful pieces. Another tool that we can continue to use with minimal disruption is Quizizz. My students enjoy practicing for quizzes for homework, and then taking the quiz live is a synchronous event that helps us feel more connected.

What’s not working: Sparse tech in school

The majority of students in my class are participating in distance learning using tablet computers, mostly of the iOS variety. Our school owns no tablet computers of any kind, which means the students are using technology at home that they have never used in the classroom. In addition, we have twenty-four notebook computers on a cart shared between four classes – one-hundred students. That’s assuming they are all functioning properly, which they never are.

The elementary school is generally discouraged from embedding technology too deeply, and that approach is coming back to bite us now. Many students who skate by in class without learning to use the technology tools we do utilize are now lost and require help that we can’t provide remotely.

If you want your class or school to be disaster distance learning proof, invest in the technology and make it an essential part of how, where, and when the children learn.

What’s working: Modeling

The best advice for a school leader is to use the distance learning tools you expect teachers to use to teach them how to use them. It would even alleviate the need for teachers to come to school during the closure for ‘training’. Regrettably, the administrative and IT leadership at my school did not do this.

If our IT department had developed online mini-courses about all of the tools available to us, it would be much quicker to get teachers onboard when it became necessary to use those tools. If this were an ongoing process, embedded in our school culture, the transition could have been seamless.

As it is, all of the teachers have struggled to overcome multiple steep learning curves in a short period of time. We have benefited from browsing each others’ pages to glean ideas, and sharing tips on a special Teams channel. It’s a testament to their professionalism, but the resulting added stress and confusion could have been avoided by investing in technology and cultivating a more tech-savvy and capable staff.

What’s not working: Ignoring contract hours

Emergency school closure is going to affect work schedules. It’s unavoidable and a professional must be aware of the need for greater-than-usual flexibility, particularly when it concerns students. I have no complaints about the stream of emails and query messages from 6:30 in the morning to 6:30 at night.

However, school administration doesn’t need special consideration. During the past two weekends, I have been emailed on Sunday. This is typical, so I simply don’t check school email until Monday morning. During this crisis, though, out of concern for students’ needs, I check more frequently. To make it worse, these emails contain requests for tasks to be done in preparation for Monday. That is unacceptable.

If something is that urgent, it should have been addressed on Friday morning. Knowing that teachers are more ‘plugged in’ means that administrators need to be more careful about demanding attention and action outside of contracted working hours.

I have also come to terms with the fact that, while I am working as much as – if not more than usual because I am a homeroom teacher, many support staff and specialist teachers have very little or nothing to do during the closure. It’s not a problem between me and my co-workers though. It’s between them and the administration. It doesn’t do any good for morale, though, when some are working hard all week and others are enjoying a vacation.

What’s working: Audio recording

Audio recording has been a source of quiet salvation in the face of problems such as camera shyness, technological glitches, low bandwidth internet, and more. A recorded read aloud has been a great success, as well as voice recorded assignments using OneNote in place of written work to introduce variety and practice speaking.

Conclusion

At this moment, I feel as disoriented as my students must feel. Teachers have been called in to school tomorrow to reflect and prepare another week of distance learning. Meeting with my grade-level team and sharing stories with colleagues will certainly help to broaden my perspective.

If you are teaching remotely, please comment here or leave a link to your own posts about it. The more we stay connected and share our experiences, the more everyone can make the most of this challenging situation.

Challenge accepted: PLC coordination & coaching

A few weeks ago, the PYP Coordinator at my school sent an invitation for teachers to join a committee whose mission would be to plan and organize professional development opportunities.

Like coaching, but different

This was remarkably similar to a proposal I had offered last spring to take on an additional role as an Innovation Coach. After submitting my proposal to encouraging feedback, I followed up about it every week with no definite answer until finally giving up. So when this committee idea sprung up, I jumped at it.

After exchanging ideas, it was decided that my task would be to introduce, organize, and coordinate our Professional Learning Community (PLC). I got right to work preparing a presentation to introduce the concept and purpose of the PLC to my fellow teachers: PLC Introduction slides. The presentation went smoothly, and while the reception was somewhat mixed, there were many enthusiastic teachers ready to help ‘professionalize’ our faculty.

One notable difference between my innovation coach proposal and this new PLC is that my participants would have been volunteers only. The school administrators decided that classroom and specialist teachers must participate in an action research project. In my opinion, this reduced the intrinsic benefits that affording teachers agency would have had. It also may possibly diminish my role as a coach, since some teachers may see me more as yet another ‘coordinator’ or big brother keeping everyone in line. Hopefully there will still be teachers eager to involve me in their projects, and I will certainly do what I can to be helpful to everyone.

One action that may lead in the direction of being helpful was that I downloaded copies of almost every journal article cited and recommended in our International Baccalaureate Organization Primary Years Programme essential literature. In total there are about 100 articles saved in a public folder in our Microsoft Teams collaboration space.

Nominating topics Edcamp style

After a week to ponder possible topics, we met again to write ideas on large sheets of paper stuck to the walls of our multi-purpose room, inspired by my experiences organizing and hosting Edcamp Tokyo. Teachers voted for their favorites and a list of topics was born:

  • Play-based learning
  • Parent involvement
  • Inspiring writers
  • Student motivation
  • Reading enjoyment
  • Library & inquiry resources
  • Vocabulary development

I created an online form which teachers used to sign-up for their topics over the next two weeks. This was intended to organically bring people together from different grade levels or areas of specialization and reminded me of a favorite quote from Creative Confidence about diverse teams:

With sign-ups about three quarters done, it’s exciting to see how the teams will finally coalesce. The largest will be Play-based Learning with approximately half of the staff. It will need to be split into smaller, more manageable teams, which should be a useful conversation by itself.

Why action research?

The ideal inquiry for these collaborative teams to pursue would be a complete action research project including a literature review, preliminary data collection, designing and conducting and experiment, and then publishing and sharing their results. However, it would also be acceptable to included any of these elements as we get used to the collaborative process.

The reason to frame the projects as ‘action research’ is to elevate the sense of purpose and professionalism within the school. The idea of being a scholar-practitioner would appeal to the more precocious and experienced teachers, providing an opportunity for them to elevate their practice as well as mentor younger teachers.

Hopefully, the benefits will radiate from the early adopters, ultimately benefiting the children under our care.

Off to the races

There is an orientation meeting scheduled for next week, in which we plan to ensure that everyone is on a team and understands how to use our digital collaboration space. After that, the teams will begin meeting by themselves and conducting their projects.

It’s an exciting moment and a bit of a turning point in my career, and I look forward to blogging about it further.

Agency and Independent inquiry

When reports of the Enhanced PYP began surfacing on the International Baccalaureate Twitter feed, I was elated to see that Agency has been placed boldly at the center of the new model:
 enhanced-pyp-model-en
To me, the philosophical implication for this change is that the primary function and goal of education is to build capacity for action. Within the context of the IB, the Learner Profile describes the attributes within which that capacity can increase. For example, a learner may increase agency in the context of historical understanding by becoming more Knowledgeable about history, or increase agency for conflict resolution by taking Principled and Courageous action.
This is more than transformational: It’s revolutionary.

Past & present

Anyone familiar with the industrial model of education (pretty much everyone) should be skeptical about our capacity for this reform. This 180° turn way from standards- and competency-based pedagogy has a few precedents, and I am curious to learn more about classrooms and schools where independence and agency have been assigned top priority.

One school system who fits this paradigm and whose progress I have enjoyed following is High Tech High. Most of what they have shared is related to older students, so I’m curious to see more about their elementary programs.

Agency as the aim of teaching has been gaining momentum since John Dewey at the latest, and can arguably be traced back at least as far as Socrates. Luckily, my teaching experiences have tended to be less traditional and more progressively minded, and the article, How a Focus on Independent Learning Transformed My Most At-Risk Students, certainly reflects my ideas about the importance of independence in learning.

Independent inquiry

One of my approaches to cultivating agency is Independent Inquiry. Since I started the project six years ago, the mission of this project has been to:

Unify learning at school, learning at home, and learning anywhere, anytime.
Empower learners to engage in and reflect on their own inquiry processes.
Encourage interest- and passion-driven learning.
Integrate peers, parents, communities, and global networks into the inquiry process.

While success has varied from year to year, cohort to cohort, I can comfortably claim that the process we use – an online reflection form and weekly meeting in class – helps agency to flourish.

Call to action

Once again, another gem appeared on the IB PYP Twitter feed. The quote below is a perfect call to action for teachers who are serious about promoting Agency – voice, choice, and ownership.

Making physics physical

One of my favorite units of inquiry in Grade 4 at KIST, in the theme of ‘How the world works’, is titled Force & Motion, and focuses on Newton’s Laws of Motion. The unit resources when I arrived at the school included a few useful tools for demonstrations, but lacked class sets of items and structured experiences that students could use to explore and discuss.

Media

One resource we do have is access to excellent videos and online games. Some of our favorites are published by NASA and other space agencies, like Launchpad: Newton’s Laws On-Board the International Space Station (video), and the Physics Games website.

Twitter once again proved its worth as a tool for learning in the quoted tweet above, a live video of an astronaut playing with and observing a fidget spinner in microgravity. All of the media we have collected are engaging, but can’t compete with a fidget spinner for the attention of nine year olds.

Design & technology challenge

Each year, we have added materials and experiences to make the unit more visceral and fun. To kick off the unit, we introduced an initial provocation in the form of a G4 Water Balloon Drop Challenge. Using the rules outlined in the flyer, students research, design, and build their apparatuses independently outside of class. When we gather on the appointed day, I load each with a water balloon and drop them from the second floor balcony. Those that successfully protect the balloon are taken to the third floor and dropped again. The proud few that survive that are finally dropped from the fourth floor.

We often have visiting administrators and younger classes in the audience, so the event has become a well anticipated and exciting way to get our students thinking about forces and motion.

Get physical

Next, we collaborated with our Physical Education teacher to organize a tug-of-war tournament. Between each round of competition, each team reflected on one of Newton’s Laws of Motion to try to improve their performance.

My hope is that whenever these children think about physics or Newton, they will remember this event. Additionally, by systematically reviewing each of the laws during the tournament, there is definitely higher retention of the vocabulary of Newton’s Laws.

Hands-on exploration

This year, our new addition was a set of Newton’s Cradles. With enough for a pair of students to share one, I wrote a series of questions to add some guidance to their explorations, for example, ‘What happens when you raise and release one of the hanging balls?’.

While it is possible to demonstrate a Newton’s Cradle at the front of the classroom, and that would be better than watching a video, having one that every student could touch, see, and hear, up close, instantly transforms the lesson from passive to active.

Making catapults

Finally, as the culminating Summative Assessment Task for the unit, we ordered 1cm x 1cm x 90cm lengths of wood, nails, hammers, hacksaws, and safety goggles for the purpose of building catapults. The objectives were to expose the students to basic design and construction principles, explore Newton’s Laws of Motion in a practical way, then hold a grand catapult tournament on the main field in the center of the school.

4aafbf26-b14c-40fa-bb0e-c37d5f99a8ac-8208-0000112da11f6130_file

Having facilitated a Maker Club in the past, I was aware of the need to emphasize safety early on, but also to trust the students to look after their own well being. I find it’s best if my role is mainly to watch out for unsafe practices and intervene as quickly as possible. Fortunately, it happens rarely, leaving a high degree of autonomy for students and plenty of time for me to interact and promote collaboration among the groups.

adb40de2-06b9-4020-bd5b-4b4fd8ce5dca-8208-0000112e2063103d_file

Children constantly impress me with their ability to creatively solve problems when they are trusted with the tools and freedom to do so.

There were many expected and unexpected benefits of this engagement. The expected ones were quite predictable, but unexpectedly, some of my less precocious students absolutely sprung to life. Some students who tend to be distracted in typical class activities, or struggle with academic work, were impressively inspired by the task of building a catapult. This phenomenon has caused me to think that the way we tend to use class time is unbalanced.

Reflection

Observing the excited energy and positive experiences of my students interacting with concepts and vocabulary of physics has pushed my pedagogical thinking even further in the direction of Constructionism. The idea that a learner figuratively builds understanding by literally building a physical – or virtual – object gains traction for me every time I see it in action.

In terms of assessment for the catapult challenge, I think it’s appropriate to use the method I employed for our Model UN scrimmage: Every student begins with a baseline ‘proficient’ score. In this case, we start with 90%. Then, as the activity progresses, teachers use structured observation to modify students’ scores on targeted skills. For this activity, we were looking for evidence of Spatial Awareness, Cooperation, and Independence.

And as always, the students complete a comprehensive self-assessment of all elements of task and unit.

Experiences like these remind me that school should be a lot more time spent doing tasks like these, and a lot less about rigid standards within a few disciplines.

Student survey analysis 2017

After a shocking experience last year, which I reflected upon in the post, Student Survey analysis 2016, I began this school year with a plan in place to foster kindness and respect in my class.

behavior data

Despite being a generally well-behaved cohort, this class is extremely critical of themselves. Rather than treating it as a problem to solved, I prefer to approach it as an opportunity for growth.

respect data

Observing the language that my students use with each other, I believe that they are simply too… familiar with each other. Rather than seeing each other as peers, perhaps they feel like siblings and don’t have formal relationships. If they become more aware of each other as individuals, it should be possible to cultivate a more formal classroom culture without losing too much of their sense of intimacy with each other.

Self and peer assessment

Since September, I asked students to complete a daily online IB Learner Profile reflection. To view and complete a copy of the form, click this link: IB Learner Profile reflection 2017-18 copy. The primary purpose of the task is to encourage them to think about how their actions lead to growth and improve our community.

Another reflection form that we starting using later in the school year is a PYP Attitude Certificate nomination form. While the purpose of the Learner Profile reflection is introspective, the Attitude form allows students to nominate each other to receive certificates for demonstrating attitudes such as Commitment, Creativity, and Enthusiasm.

These, and other important forms and information, are organized and embedded on our classroom Moodle page. Many of the students have developed a daily habit of checking that page for their homework assignments, previewing announcements for the next day, and completing their reflections and attitude nominations.

In the Spring, after thousands of self-assessments and peer nominations, my class’ opinion of their behaviors have improved.

 

student survey follow up

Surprise

Strangely, these results reveal an unrelated problem. Only 44% of my students completed the first student survey, administered by the school technology department. That improved to 60% on the follow up survey. As the year has progressed, they have been challenged to consistently complete even the simplest online task. Roughly a third of the class has effective online work habits, a third is irregular, and a third need constant reminders and prodding. Early in the school year, I even needed to make part of our routine to call individual students to a computer to supervise them completing long overdue self assessments or essential surveys.

Planning victory

After last year’s disappointing result (56% usually, 36% sometimes) regarding students being allowed to demonstrate understanding in various ways, I started this year with a focus on improved planning of assessments. Expanded opportunities for choice, along with more explicit explanations of the range of choices available, has had the desired effect of increasing the students’ creativity and sense of ownership of their learning.

various demo data

As a teacher who views unit and lesson planning as Learning Experience Design, student agency – voice and choice – are always at the center of planning. For that reason, this is a particularly satisfying student survey result.

Questions in inquiry learning

A welcome development this year in the Elementary School at KIST has been an emphasis on inquiry. It is more than likely due to feedback from our recent IB re-authorization visit and for me, an opportunity to grow in one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. I’ve blogged quite a bit about the theory and practices of inquiry learning, most recently in the post, CLMOOC Unmake: Unintroducing inquiry learning.

When it was announced that inquiry would be a focus, I sifted through articles I had read and collected over the years.

I also enjoyed gliding over memory lane and revisiting some saved tweets with choice perspectives on inquiry.

One article that grabbed my attention last autumn was Good research starts with good questions by David Farkas and Brad Nunnally. What I found most interesting was that many of the pitfalls of research questions are actually key techniques in developing questions for inquiry learning. For example, research should avoid ‘leading questions’ that may skew data in a particular direction. In teaching, we want the learners to find their ways to a common destination, either general or specific.

Erasing prior knowledge

In an occurrence I wish were more common, while reflecting on the experience, a colleague commented that one challenge inquiry teachers face is the desire of students to ‘get the right answers’, or even worse, to answer in the way they believe the teacher wants. This can lead to regurgitated prior knowledge answers rather than creative explorations of the concepts and contexts presented in the questions.

In Grant Wiggins’ article, 5 Tips To Help Students Arrive At Their Own Understandings, the distinction between Understanding and Knowledge is highlighted. It’s vital that learning in an inquiry setting begin with as close to a clean slate as possible. The more a class feels that their teacher is soliciting a ‘right’ answer, the less likely they are to develop deeper and personal understanding.

Student questions

One solution to the problem is to ask students to generate questions based on elements of the understandings we wish them to pursue. In an IB PYP unit of inquiry, the ‘lines of inquiry’ should help to define the scope of an intended inquiry, while the ‘key concepts’ provide a frame or lens through which to interpret one’s findings.

The photo above is a list of questions generated by a provocation in which students identified company logos, then considered them in reference to the line of inquiry, ‘How images, text, and music are used to influence people’s choices’.

Teacher questions

This year, we are collaborating with another grade level team to develop questions together to provoke inquiry into a new unit. The initial concept was to begin with carefully selected materials and a starting question intended to stimulate creativity and curiosity. Subsequent questions would climb the Bloom’s Taxonomy ladder to higher-order thinking skills, as well as ‘funnel’ students’ understandings in the general direction prescribed by the Central Idea and Key Concepts of the unit.

Our first meeting was to develop questions for the other grade’s lesson. Then, we observed them and followed up with a debriefing session, and to develop questions for our lesson. They attended our lesson and we concluded the collaboration with a final debriefing about the entire experience.

The process reinforced my belief in the importance of collaboration and design thinking in Learning Experience Design.

Impact on learning: Author’s purpose

Inspired by a colleague’s presentation during the KIST ‘Teach together; learn together’ professional development event, I took a more formal approach to the impact cycle than I have in the past.

First, I copied the raw data from my students’ diagnostic assessments into an Excel spreadsheet. I added a row at the bottom to show the average result of each test item as a percentage, then used conditional formatting to create a visual perspective into the data.

Reading diagnostic data

This allowed me to identify a general area of need: Reading. Then I simply copied and pasted the test items with average results of less than 50% along with the corresponding learning outcome indicated in the test documentation.

Reading diagnostic data analysis

The common weak thread, in my analysis, can be expressed by the verbs ‘describe’ and ‘explain’. Surprisingly, in Bloom’s Taxonomy, these terms are associated with Knowledge and Comprehension, or ‘lower’ order thinking.

Glaring omission

One issue involves the outcomes related to author’s purpose. Put bluntly, there is no such learning outcome in the standards for Grade 4 at KIST. The students are being assessed in a high stakes manner on learning outcomes that the school doesn’t explicitly teach. I, of course, can add standards about author’s purpose to my working documents. Indeed, that is the purpose of this impact intervention. However, it’s clear that teachers’ voices are needed in the development of the school’s assessment and planning documents to ensure that they are relevant and in alignment with one another.

Intervention

My plan for having a measurable impact on student learning is to ensure that they are exposed to the idea of author’s purpose, and explore it in a variety of ways in our guided reading sessions. This can be done by direct mini lessons and reinforced by revisiting the concept whenever we encounter a novel or remarkable example in the texts we explore.

Another approach would be through precising and close reading of a master text. For this, the grade four team selected an abridged version of Swiss Family Robinson to be integrated with our unit of inquiry in April and May. This plan might be our students’ first opportunity to read a novel together. The text uses rich vocabulary and imagery, so I believe there will be many opportunities to analyze and summarize selections, and hypothesize about Mr Wyss’ purpose for various literary choices.

Measuring impact

To avoid over-assessing my students, I will plan to use the end-of-year English Diagnostic Assessment, of the same type as the one at the start of they year, to measure impact. Throughout the school year, I have assessed and gathered data on a wide variety of learning outcomes informally during guided reading sessions, but this will be the only formal assessment of the learning outcome of author’s purpose.