I keep hearing the same complaint from parents: “I don’t want my children on these long videoconference calls. It is making them miserable.” These long, synchronous classroom calls which have become the norm in our desperate attempt to teach America’s children remotely during this Covid-19 pandemic are not just causing angst among adults; they are bad for child development. And we, as parents and educators, need to trust the research and replace them with a better, more developmentally appropriate, research-based approach to remote learning: asynchronous, project-based instruction.
Lectures have never been good for children, even in in-person classroom environments. Just ask John Dewey, the founding father of the modern American public education system, who said: “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” Though America has deviated from Dewey’s learning-by-doing philosophy in the last two decades due to No Child Left Behind and other test-based accountability policies like Race To The Top, the research has remained clear: children learn more, retain more, and are more engaged when they are the drivers of their own learning as opposed to simply passive observers of content.
A 2015 Gallup poll showed how disengaged American children already were before the unprecedented limitations of remote learning, with only about a third of American 10th, 11th and 12th grade students saying they feel engaged in school.
Given this, does anybody really think we’re doing the right thing for children by using the same failing instructional approaches on videoconference calls? Students aren’t just going to disengage; they are going to stop showing up and that is one of the worst possible outcomes for students who increasingly need diplomas for living wage employment.
The good news, though, is that there is a more humane, engaging way and it’s called asynchronous learning. Rooted in the age-old Project-Based Learning framework, asynchronous learning changes the role of a teacher from the sole transmitter of academic knowledge (think: lecturer) to a facilitator of learning as the student takes a more active role in the driver’s seat (think: coach). Rather than the teacher showing a student how to solve an academic problem step-by-step and expecting the student to copy them (which, by the way, is exhausting for a teacher), the teacher gives students real-world challenges and asks the students to creatively problem-solve together. A sample project could be as simple as making a color wheel using toys or as complex as developing a health plan that ends Covid-19 transmission in your community.
Practically speaking, in an asynchronous remote learning classroom students wouldn’t sit on long Zoom or Google Hangout calls for most of the day. Instead, they might jump on a short classroom-wide synchronous call to kickoff the day and receive project instructions. Then, the students would spend the majority of their school day working on their project or task asynchronously, demonstrating progress through videos of their work. Throughout the day, the teacher would meet one-on-one or in small groups and support students in the development of their solutions. At the end of a session or day, students would debrief as a full group and share reflections.
Though most education technology (edtech) products, like Zoom and Google Classrooms, were made for the synchronous classroom experience, a slew of new asynchronous education technology products are arriving on the market to fill the asynchronous project-based learning need that is arising in the Covid-19 remote learning era. I am the founder of one such edtech tool called Zigazoo, which gives teachers the ability to assign projects and collect student responses in the form of short videos on a social media-style feed. Padlet helps educators and students create digital collages together and Nearpod enables teachers to make interactive lessons. Google Tools continues to come in handy for asynchronous writing, polling, and messaging.
Though nothing will ever replace the benefits of in-person learning, my advice to teachers and education leaders is to remember that you don’t need to punish yourself or your students by trying to manage full classrooms on hours-long conference calls this year. Be kind to yourself, assign your students interesting projects, learn some new technologies, and help to lead a much-needed revolution away from lecture-based pedagogy in the American education system. It will be healthy for everyone, especially our kids’ mental health and long-term development.