Throughout the unusual and challenging year that was 2020, it was sometimes a struggle to look beyond the next few weeks—or even days—into the future. Contemplating the future is difficult when the present feels so unsettling, especially in the classroom.
While the abrupt shift to a remote environment forced educators into unfamiliar territory, it also provided us with an opportunity to innovate and potentially change the course of education forever. Throughout a year full of headaches and heartaches, we continued to show up for our students in new and unprecedented ways. We might not have covered all the math equations or history content as flawlessly and thoroughly as we would in a normal year, but we learned a great deal along the way.
I’ve talked with colleagues at the college level as well as several currently practicing teachers about the future of education, and one thing is for sure: COVID-19 has presented a real opportunity to rethink our current education system.
As the world slowly returns to normalcy with the promise of a vaccine, and the idea of in-person instruction becomes a reality, we must ensure that we don’t simply revert back to our pre-pandemic ways.
Here are three reasons I’m hopeful about what’s to come:
Successful engagement can happen both online and in-person.
The pandemic has dispelled the myth that student engagement can only be activated in a classroom setting.
COVID-19 has introduced many of us to tools that allow all students to be fully engaged when learning remotely. Platforms such as Nearpod and Pear Deck, two of my personal favorites, require total participation of students, encouraging them to engage with their peers and the content at hand in a way they may not have in a when teaching in person. Students shouldn’t be sitting in front of their screens watching or listening to someone talk at them for several hours. They need to be interacting and participating with their peers and what is being learned.
An entire group can be responding to questions, sharing their viewpoints, drawing on a slide, or playing an interactive game. Giving students the opportunity to feel involved, valued and appreciated is critical, especially in the online classroom.
It’s also interesting to see how the “lecture” pedagogy is becoming outdated as we teach and learn online. Instead of holding a lecture, what if we offered a recording that students view ahead of time? Then the live class time can be used for engagement and total participation techniques. The benefits of this approach are two-fold—instilling an expectation of accountability for students and providing an efficient way of teaching material and ensuring engagement.
Pre-pandemic, some may have thought that online teaching was the easy way out. While this myth has been heavily dispelled by now, we’ve truly experienced the benefits of remote learning, while at the same time appreciating the need for in-person human interaction that will never go away.
We are cultivating a generation of independent, self-sufficient learners.
Some educators think that this academic year has proven that we do too much for our students. When we see students start to fall behind, we tend to feel the need to jump in and fix things immediately. It’s in our blood.
However, it’s important to let students work through their challenges and be given the opportunity to hold themselves accountable. Since we’re no longer in the classroom setting, students have no choice but to adapt and learn more independently than ever before.
Patrick Mitton, a graduate student in Loyola University Maryland’s Educational Technology program, which I direct, and a teacher at Thomas Viaduct Middle School in Howard County, Md., says he sees this shift firsthand.
“I am seeing a much stronger group of students in my classes,” he says. “They follow up on submitted work, they ask insightful questions, they do not quit at the first sign of struggle. Though I really miss being able to interact with people in-person, this virtual set-up has allowed my students to flourish in ways that just were not possible before the pandemic.”
To take it a step further, many educators are considering what long-term changes we can make to the overall expectations. Some see the five-day school week as outdated and inefficient. Instead, what if students were to spend part of the week in classrooms receiving direct instruction, and the rest of their time working independently at home, volunteering in their community and taking part in internships at local businesses? After all, part of our goal as teachers is to encourage learners to take part in the world and gain real-life experiences both in and out of the classroom.
Parents are becoming strong advocates and allies.
The pandemic has proven time and again that no matter the situation, educators will rise to the occasion to meet the needs of their students. The same can be said of parents.
Parents are no longer on the sidelines of education. Many of them are in the trenches with us day in and day out—providing ongoing support to their children, voicing their concerns, asking insightful questions, solving tech problems—even though they have their own work to complete.
While I know some sanity and normalcy will be restored to parents when we return to full time in-person instruction, I’m hopeful that this level of investment will continue. Parental involvement benefits all children, especially those in low-income homes or those with different abilities.
Jasmin Marie Serrano, one of my graduate students and a special education teacher in Prince George’s County, Md., shares that her students’ parents are painstakingly assisting their children in class every day. Some of the parents work at night, while the others are teleworking during the day. “They are like their children’s dedicated aides,” she tells me, and she sees it in the progress her students are making.
COVID-19 has demonstrated that involving parents should go beyond the parent-teacher conference. We should be engaging parents in discussions about the content and curricula we’re planning for the year, and providing them with resources and strategies to support their child’s education.
Thanks to the pandemic, we have experienced firsthand the ups and downs of virtual learning. We’ve also learned that impactful learning communities can be successfully built in an online environment. Perhaps most importantly, we have been acutely reminded just how essential education is.
When I look back at 2020, I see resilience and passion. And when I look ahead to 2021 and beyond, I see promise and opportunity. I’m hopeful that we will take and apply the lessons learned this year to build a brighter and stronger future for our children and our world.