Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

07.24.20Thoughts on Teaching Methods and Schedules Online

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It’s all about the blend, friends…

A colleague who’s in charge of a large district wrote me recently to ask about scheduling teacher and student time this fall with her district most likely going online.

At first I almost said, “Honestly, I just don’t know.”

Because really I don’t. I don’t run schools directly and therefore don’t have to weigh all the factors or make the hard calls. It’s important to recognize when you don’t know enough to advise.

But as I was about to hit send on the email I realized that there’s a related topic I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that’s relevant to scheduling decisions, and while I’m cautious about sharing it with people much closer than me to a difficult problem, how teachers teach informs what scheduling options a school can consider and what decisions are optimal. So perhaps it’s relevant.

First I’ve been thinking for some time about pacing and time allocation … how brutal a day full of zoom calls is even for adults for example, and what a ten year old looks like stumbling out of 4 straight hours on Zoom.  But then again how necessary face to face contact is to learning … and how beneficial routines and consistency are. Those things are hard to marry. And there are other factors like how fatiguing it can be to be working alone without contact on assignments communicated via an increasingly blurry stream of asynchronous videos.

In our workshops we often start by listing the benefits and limitations of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. ‘Fatigue” is on the list of limitations for both. A steady stream of either can be grueling. There’s plenty of research on how fatiguing online interactions are.

The good news is that my team have increasingly been observing synergies between synchronous and asynchronous learning environments that just maybe can help address the challenges of pacing, timing and attention that can limit scheduling options. For example, most people (I think) view synchronous/asynchronous as an either/or choice for a lesson but we’ve been watching a lot of video of what I would describe as hybrids…

Let’s say it’s a math lesson. It’s scheduled from 9-9:50AM. At 9 the teacher might come on and do a ten minute synchronous mini-lesson, working hard to involve every student and achieve full active engagement through everybody writes, zoom chats, and cold calls while she explains the concept—let’s say it’s adding fractions w unlike denominators—and they complete model problem or two together. Then maybe the teacher says. “Ok, here are a few more problems to work on your own… you have 15 minutes to work on them.” But perhaps she adds “Keep your cameras on so you can chat me with questions and I can see how you’re doing while you’re working.”

This allows for a change of pace. Students are looking down at their paper instead of staring at a screen. They can self-pace—the fast moving fast and the more deliberate moving slower. But again there’s that scaffold of support.  Maybe later in the year kids can sign off entirely to do the problem set but for now they are semi-asynchronous…  Sort of like what Eric Snider does in this clip. He can warmly and gently hold them accountable to sustain focus and provide support to those who need it. As they work he says, “I see you working Elisa.  I see you working Juwaun.” Students are seen and appreciated for doing the work and can reach out to Eric if they struggle.  And of course he can check in to see how much time they need. And he keeps the assignment visible on his screen in case they forget. Knikki Hernandez does something similar here: 3-plus minutes of camera-on independent work in the middle of a synchronous lesson.

Maybe 15 minutes later the lesson ends with the teacher bringing students back together for ten mins of synchronous review and five minutes to start your homework.

Perhaps over time this middle section—the semi-asynchronous one–becomes an ‘office hours’ model, especially with older students. Class is scheduled for an hour. We are together for ten mins of it at the beginning and also maybe at the end but in the middle you work on your own and can even sign off the call while the teacher remains avaiable for “office hours” where those who need help or have questions can opt back in (or be asked to opt back in) to a smaller as-needed zoom call.  The hour might end with the class coming back together for a brief recap or it might just end with students turning in what they’ve done via email at 9:50. A mix in the pacing and modes on engagement keeps it a bit more refreshing.

Anyway I think a regular daily time for classes probably makes sense—things work best when they’re consistent. Math is 9-9:50 everyday. But teachers should not think that means they should use the full time for live (or taped!) lessons every day. Doing that would be death by zoom for even the most committed student. Sometimes it might be all independent work done asynchronously except that it’s due at 10am via email so students are accountable for working during that time. They have to vary the setting and context not only between lessons but within them while also assuring gentle loving accountability.

In the end, then, options for how a schools structures time become viable based on how teachers use that time…ideally when they use a blend of synchronous and asynchronous structures in the same lesson.

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