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June 4, 2021

Three Tips for Teaching from a Distance–Even As We Return to In-Person Learning

To understand more about the book we used to create course 5121: Bringing Distance Learning to Life with Equity and Humanity, we invited author and educator Paul Emerich France to share his insights about Humanizing Distance Learning: Centering Equity and Humanity in Times of Crisis, below. Thank you, Paul!

I had an epiphany last spring, one that has stuck with me through the entirety of the pandemic, and one that I’d like to share with you, in hopes that it might guide you in reimagining your practice as you plan for the fall.

Pandemic teaching was challenging on many levels: structural inequities made it challenging for all students to access rich learning experiences; teachers and parents alike were burnt out managing working from home while caring for their children; and meanwhile, the entirety of the world was grieving the loss of so many friends and family members to this horrible pandemic.

Pedagogical challenges mounted, too, but for me, it was more than just managing the complexities of new digital tools and ways of thinking about learning. I observed in myself–and in conversations with other teachers–just how much I was accustomed to over-assisting my students, providing scaffolds and supports that had, perhaps, engendered dependent learning habits (Hammond, 2015) in my students. These dependent learning habits only made distance teaching more challenging.

And all of this experience brought me to this epiphanic question: in some ways, shouldn’t we always be teaching from a distance?

When I say teaching from a distance, I’m neither endorsing distance learning as a standard practice nor suggesting that we transition to web-based learning full-time. Instead, I’m suggesting that we use this moment in time to reflect on which practices engender dependent learning habits, and instead work towards cultures of independent learning within our classrooms.

Let’s be clear: independent learning is not the same as individualized learning. It also doesn’t mean that students should be learning on their own all the time. Independent learning entails exercising student voice, agency, and autonomy, all within the context of a classroom that values collaborative learning and a palpable connectedness between students. If you’re curious about how this would look, check out these five tips for teaching from a distance.

Tip 1: Create a Culture of Liberated Learning

In Humanizing Distance Learning, I provide four skills to cultivate for liberated, independent learning: self-awareness, self-advocacy, self-reflection, and taking action. Cultivating self-awareness helps students better understand and communicate their strengths and challenges, taking a step towards independence in their learning. Once they are aware of their strengths and challenges, they can become advocates for their own learning, asking for assistance when they need it and space to explore when appropriate. Self-awareness also lays a foundation for self-reflection. Students will be capable of more keenly reflecting on how they’ve grown, sometimes even using structured reflection prompts or simply discussing their growth in coaching conversations. However, none of these competencies matter without action. Once students have done the challenging mindwork of cultivating self-awareness, they must be prepared to act on their reflections to make change.

This is, without a doubt, a vulnerable process. It requires students opening themselves up to their teachers and peers, allowing for moments for the humble admission of their imperfections–a practice that our education system often disincentivizes. In fact, our education system more often incentivizes the opposite: perfectionism, urgency, and defensiveness, all of which are characteristics of white supremacy culture. Ultimately, to build a culture of liberated, independent learning, we must dismantle white supremacist thinking in ourselves and in our stsudents.

Tip 2: Praise Risk-Taking and Mistake-Making

Moving towards liberated, independent learning means praising your students’ journeys more than you praise the products of these journeys. In order for students to overcome the pressures of traditional schooling, they need teachers who will incentivize vulnerability in their classrooms. They need teachers who see the value of taking risks and making mistakes. They need teachers who will encourage them in these moments of vulnerability, reminding them that these moments are not only good for learning–they are essential.

Teacher language is critical to properly praising risk-taking and mistake-making. Lowering our standards or coddling students will work against our collective goals for high expectations and equitable learning. On the other hand, providing positive reinforcement can be helpful in scaffolding students’ resilience with risk-taking and mistake-making. You might consider using some of the following prompts from Reclaiming Personalized Learning:

  • Thank you so much for taking that risk! I know it’s scary to take a risk, but because you chose to do so, we all get to learn something new.
  • I am so grateful you shared your mistake with the class! I know sometimes it feels uncomfortable to make mistakes, but I’m glad we all were able to learn something from it. What did you learn?

Tip 3: Build Your Wait Time

If you’re like me, you may feel the urge to intervene the moment you see a student making a mistake. However, intervening too soon can be counterproductive and engender dependent learning. After all, if students don’t learn to identify mistakes on their own, how will they become independent learners?

Knowing when to intervene isn’t black-and-white, which is why we, teachers, need to be kind to ourselves as we explore wait time in our practice. There will be moments where you miss opportunities to intervene, possibly reinforcing a bad habit. Likewise, there will be moments where you intervene too soon, missing a moment for independent learning. 

What I do is quite simple: When I see a student making a mistake, I count to ten in my mind. Oftentimes, by the time I get to ten, my student has already found their mistake. In many cases, students don’t find their mistakes by the time I reach ten, allowing me to intervene with the confidence that it is truly the best for the student.

A Future of Uncertainty

The reality is this: it’s entirely possible we’ll need to transition to distance learning again over the course of the next year. We mustn’t let the memory of our challenges from the past year live in vain; we must, instead, prepare ourselves for more moments where we will need to teach from a distance and build independent learning habits in our students now, so that they are prepared to learn with independence, whether it is within our physical classrooms or from the safety of their own homes.

Course Title: Course 5121: Bringing Distance Learning to Life with Equity and Humanity

Graduate Credits: 3 semester credits

Grade Levels: K-12+


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