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Analysis: As schools begin to reopen, some are developing all-virtual options to meet students’ diverse needs. Here are 6 examples

Jean-Claude Brizard and Vic Vuchic | May 12, 2021

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Teaching to the middle has historically been the approach taken by many schools nationwide, where a one-size-fits-all model is the norm and students must figure out how to fit in or fail. When COVID-19 hit and schools quickly pivoted to distance learning, challenges and disparities — many already present but ignored — were revealed for teachers, parents and students. Yet, as the pandemic raged on, some students actually thrived in this at-home learning environment.

Who are these students, and why are they flourishing? What can we learn from them?

One lesson is that many students experience stress due to daily instances of racism. This occurs especially when they do not feel a strong sense of belonging in their school setting, which research shows can lead to reduced academic confidence and performance. Taking classes online eased some of the pressure that students, including Black, immigrant and indigenous kids, felt to assimilate in classrooms and schools.

Distance learning has also benefited students who may struggle with anxiety, are uncomfortable with social interactions, have learning differences or are bullied in school. Presenting material in various formats remotely can allow more students to access information they need to fully participate in class, and the flexibility to learn on their own can give students with unique interests time to explore their passions in the arts, writing and other endeavors, while empowering them to choose how to best schedule their work.

Two key principles of learning highlighted in The End of Average by Todd Rose, former Harvard professor and co-founder of the Populace think tank, are at the core of what’s happening. First, the concept of variability, which states that every learner varies across many dimensions — executive function, emotional regulation, primary language and mental health among them. Nobody is average across every dimension, and these differences impact how we learn best. The Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise has mapped these dimensions of variability so that educators, school system leaders and product developers can understand and design for them.

The second principle is that context impacts learning — how a learner learns best can change based on what the subject is. For example, a child who practices hard to get better at soccer or music has a growth mindset, but that same child can have a fixed mindset when it comes to math, not believing there is any point to trying to improve through hard work. It’s the same child with the same abilities, but changing the context alters how that child thinks and learns.

As students and teachers return to school buildings, they need not boomerang back to the traditional, one-size-fits-all environment, where everyone is expected to learn the same content, the same way, at the same time, in the same context. Instead, they should strive to better understand the “why” behind a student’s behavior, and to design practice and contexts around each learner’s variability, whether in school or online. Doing so could be a lifeline for many students who don’t fit into traditional schools designed for the mythical average or who are left out due to racism, bias and a culture of low expectations.

As classrooms begin to reopen after a year of virtual instruction, some schools and districts are developing all-virtual options — as a way to meet the diverse needs of students, including those who work, need the flexibility of digital learning or have medical conditions; to prioritize the social-emotional needs of students, teachers, parents and caregivers; and to promote equity and racial justice. A few examples:

  • Brooklyn Lab Remote School, part of the Brooklyn Lab Charter School, was created to address the learning needs of students found to benefit from digital learning during the pandemic. Damion Frye, director of remote campus, explained that some students struggled in an in-person learning environment due to “the noise, bright lights, lots of distractions, and other stimuli.” In their new remote learning setting, he sees “these students now not afraid to talk in class. Even if their cameras aren’t on, they are fully engaged.”
  • East Rowan High School (North Carolina) has created a virtual academy in which students can complete high school either fully online or via a hybrid model. The goal is to help students meet their unique academic and life goals through personalization and flexibility.
  • California’s Menlo Park Public Schools are looking to permanently maintain a virtual academy in partnership with other districts to share resources and benefits and collectively work through challenges.
  • Nevada is creating a SEAD (Social, Emotional, and Academic Development) Center to provide a free virtual space for educators to access SEL supports.
  • Delaware has hosted weekly online sessions for teachers and parents to practice mindfulness strategies while discussing the benefits of SEL to facilitate engagement and motivation among students.
  • The Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op, created by the Lakota in South Dakota and expected to continue in a post-COVID-19 world, was developed by parents, grandparents and Lakota educators concerned about the physical and cultural safety of their indigenous students. At the heart of the Lakota community school is the intent to create a sense of belonging for students, which research bears out as a critical factor in motivation.

COVID-19 revealed what already was happening in one-size-fits-all schools and made clear what really matters: developing relationships and creating a sense of belonging for all students; attending to the social and emotional needs of children and adults; recognizing one’s own bias and creating anti-racist classroom instruction within a culturally responsive practice; and understanding students with learning differences and the customized strategies that can help them, and their classmates, learn best.

Jean-Claude Brizard is president and CEO of Digital Promise. Vic Vuchic is the chief innovation officer at Digital Promise.

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