Thursday, November 19, 2020

Imagine If We Stood On the Shoulders of the Remote Learning Giants

Anne Slack

A couple days ago, I wrote a piece that had been long coming in which I called upon educators to embrace the opportunities and challenges presented by this pandemic to reimagine how we teach young children while continuing to embrace the "freedom, equality, and hands-on democratic education" that so many of us fear we are losing, especially with remote learning. In that spirit, I will be throwing out my own thoughts and ideas from time to time, like the ones below.


Remote learning wasn't born in 2020. Mister Rogers was doing it, and doing it well, in 1968. Language teacher Anne Slack pioneered distance learning in the 1950s. Chef Julia Child started teaching the art of French cuisine to Americans in 1963. Art instructor Bob Ross showed us how to paint "happy little trees" throughout the 80's and 90's, while Levar Burton shared his love of books on Reading Rainbow. "The Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin was teaching us about nature and wildlife up until his tragic death in 2006. Documentary filmmaker David Attenborough and science educator Bill Nye the Science Guy are still going strong.

Even a cursory look at the work of these remote educators shows us how most of our schools are getting it wrong in this era of pandemic education. We are continuing to persist in compelling children to "watch," just as we compel them to physically attend during normal times. No one ever made us watch Mister Roger's Neighborhood or The French Chef, which is central to their success.

It's tempting to argue that they compelled us instead with the flash and pizazz of big budget TV production, but the more recent examples of Attenborough and Nye aside, this hasn't typically been true. Indeed, much of the most highly regarded educational programming has been produced on a shoestring, relying on single cameras and little editing. Puppets, painter's tools, books, pots and pans, knowledge, and charm: that's what they had instead of the carrot of expensive productions or the stick of compulsion. Their students opted to tune in because they were interested in the hosts and the subject matter, which, I assert, is the ideal for any classroom, remote or otherwise.

What if we allowed these pioneers, arguably the most successful remote educators in history, to inform us as we struggle to transition to a new era of education? 

The first thing we would need to do, of course, is stop compelling the kids and instead allow them to chose for themselves which "programs" they're going to watch and when. This would mean taking the terrifying step of trusting children with their own education, a stride too long for many, I know. But imagine a scenario in which every teacher in an elementary school (or school district for that matter) conducted their own "class" in ways and on topics of their own choosing, or, even better, the choosing of the children. Some might lecture. Others might engage in the kind of give and take that is enabled by small online groups. There would be music, dance, physical education, art and science. If kids wanted to learn about, say, dinosaurs or Elizabethan fiction, there would be a class on that, and if not, one could quickly be created. If children were facing emotional or social problems, there would be classes on that. And best of all, each of these remote classes would be taught by an educator who knows and loves the topic and every student would be self-motivated to learn because they have chosen to be there.

These pioneers might have focused their content on people of a certain age or stage, but they never told anyone they were either too young or too old. Remote learning would be the perfect opportunity to get rid of teaching children, as the late Ken Robinson put it, according to their "manufacture date" and instead allow the children themselves to decide what they are ready to learn. I've watched and learned a great deal from Mister Roger's Neighborhood, yet when he started broadcasting I was already "too old" for the show. Why can't a precocious eight-year-old sit in on a high school level physics class if they so choose? And why can't a struggling high schooler refresh his knowledge and skills by sitting in on remedial classes without risking the public shame that that might otherwise entail.

We could even improve upon the educational TV model by recording the "episodes," creating libraries of content so that kids who have something better to do during live broadcasts can participate when it works best for them. Informal discussion groups might be enabled, allowing children to interact with one another around what they have learned, sharing insights, asking questions, and otherwise extending their learning, with our without educators being involved.

Like those that came before us, I can imaging educators creating cozy, quirky, and beautiful "places" to which children want to return again and again, like Bob Ross' studio, or taking children to places they might want to go, like museums, libraries, zoos, beaches, or forests. Instead of being stuck in classrooms all day, educators would be free to roam as far afield as they needed in order to bring children the best in remote learning.

And perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from these masters is that all of them ditched the unholy trinity of grades, tests, and homework, trusting their students to learn what they needed to learn, relying instead upon their innate curiosity and motivation, which is the foundation of any real education. 

I know that some teachers are already doing many of these things, and more, in this new era of experimentation. Let's keep experimenting, inventing, sharing, and even failing, as we feel our way forward, but let's also not forget that we see farther when we stand on the shoulders of giants.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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