‘Rigor’ through distance learning calls for quality, not quantity

Photo: Chino Valley Unified School District/FacebookPhoto: Chino Valley Unified School District/FacebookTom ArmelinoAugust 21, 2020As the new school year begins, districts are facing demands from parents and elected officials while also hearing calls for “more rigor” through distance learning.
In making this important shift to higher standards and to meet expectations, teachers, schools and districts should understand that “more rigor” must mean higher quality distance learning, not just more complexity or quantity.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has insisted that distance learning be “rigorous” and include “daily, live interactions” between students and teachers, “challenging assignments” equivalent to those made in in-person classes and lessons adapted for English language learners and students with disability.
Parents and education leaders rightly are demanding improved connectivity and more digital devices, more minutes of remote instruction, grade transparency and greater attention to students’ social and emotional needs.
However — thinking these are hallmarks of “rigor” — some parents also likely will demand ineffective strategies, such as long lists of spelling words, more complex math problems or extra credit assignments, without realizing the severe consequences these demands can have on their child’s motivation to learn.
Given these conflicting demands of rigor without adequate support or preparation for teachers, we run the risk of simultaneously trivializing and complicating access to content and negatively affecting student engagement.
An editorial published in Science notes teaching difficult concepts before a child is ready to understand them is counterproductive and often leads to “overly strict attention to rules, procedures and rote memorization,” ultimately taking all the joy out of learning.
To support teachers and students with distance learning, here are practical approaches to preserving academic and creative rigor:
Provide teachers with ongoing professional development, coaching and time to expand their expertise in using online platforms, creating lessons, collaborating with their colleagues and delving deeply into the tools and content they will use to help students succeed in a distance learning environment.
Use project-based learning to create lessons where students actively explore real-world problems and challenges to help deepen content knowledge. Examples include students exploring racism and social justice in language arts through the use of articles, poems, songs, documentaries and books such as “The Hate U Give” and “Just Mercy” to address relevant issues. Teachers can also assign history lessons that compare and contrast the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Death in the 14th century.
Re-structure learning by combining synchronous activities, regular live interactions where students meet online with their classmates and teachers, with asynchronous activities, where students think deeply and engage with the subject matter alone or with other students independently of the teacher.
Employ a learning strategy of parts, purposes and complexity, Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s approach that helps “make students’ thinking visible through creating lists, maps and drawings of the parts, purposes and complexities of various objects and systems.” This strategy provides students the ability to look beyond obvious features of an object to stimulate curiosity, identify questions for further inquiry and engage them directly in the content. If students are trying to understand a system, such as a “democracy,” having them create a list or draw a picture of what they believe the parts of a democracy might be can help identity what they understand a democracy to be. Participating in a discussion about a democracy can build background knowledge and help students engage in the content.
Use technology to minimize the use of worksheets, textbooks and other paper-and-pencil activities. Practical digital tools include Flipgrid, which allows students and teachers to record short, online videos; WeVideo, an online video editor that can be linked and directly uploaded into Google Drive; Storyline, which features videos of celebrities reading popular children’s books; and Mystery Science, which offers science lessons for students to work on at home.
As we demand “more rigor” in a distance learning environment, we must understand the pressures teachers will be under and help them avoid traps that include more homework, more content and more boring handouts.
While we understand the sense of urgency, and the pressures and importance of addressing the learning needs of all students, learning in a new environment takes time.
We must get this right. Students, educators and families are counting on us.
Tom Armelino is the executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE). This statewide agency supports county offices of education and other local education agencies to improve student outcomes.
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