Watch Out For These 3 Mistakes You’re Making During Distance Teaching

Voices | Remote Learning

Watch Out For These 3 Mistakes You’re Making During Distance Teaching

By Paul Emerich France     Aug 27, 2020

Watch Out For These 3 Mistakes You’re Making During Distance Teaching

If there’s one thing everyone can agree on from this past spring, it’s that distance learning is challenging. Undoubtedly, much of this was due to the fact that teachers had limited time to move their entire curriculum online, and few were trained to carry out what was essentially emergency remote instruction.

But this wasn’t the only reason.

Distance teaching also shone a light on problematic practices that were never effective in person, either. And trying to re-create them in a virtual environment didn’t make them any better. As many schools resume remote instruction this fall, watch out for these three mistakes you may be making. More importantly, give yourself the liberty to try out some of the alternative approaches that can help make distance teaching more sustainable and effective.

Mistake 1: Too Much Passive Screen Time

If your first step in technology integration is making a list of apps to download, you may want to reconsider your approach to technology. Using technology effectively in any environment—education or otherwise—necessitates a human-centered and needs-based approach. We must first ask ourselves, What am I trying to accomplish? before turning to Which technology tools will help me accomplish my goals?

Distance learning isn’t simply about keeping kids busy or filling their minds with academic content. Instead, our goal should always be to encourage productive discourse, critical thinking and problem-solving (which all applies to in-person learning, too). But sometimes, distance learning can take an “app-centric” approach, where students spend more time watching instructional videos and answering multiple-choice questions than talking about concepts with their peers and teachers. They end up consuming content and regurgitating it, as opposed to leveraging technology to build and preserve a sense of community and connectedness of which we are all currently deprived.

When students are engaged in active screen time, they are not simply watching videos and answering questions mindlessly; instead, they are using virtual conferencing tools like Zoom or Google Meet to collaborate on projects and presentations. Or perhaps they’re even using an interactive app like Google Earth to take a virtual field trip. This approach centers both collaboration and students’ humanity, providing them with the socialization they so desperately need.

Mistake 2: Too Little Time for Dialogue and Discourse

Learning is a social process, and as a result, we need to offer ample opportunities for students to be collaborating with their peers and speaking with their teachers about what they’re learning.

Back when we were in classrooms, The Workshop Model was a critical component of my pedagogy. In the Workshop Model, classes begin with brief mini-lessons, where the teacher models a strategy or introduces a problem- or inquiry-based task. After the lesson, students work in small groups or individually with the teacher in an effort to independently practice the skill or work through the assigned task. Meanwhile, teachers deliver individualized feedback and support to students. The workshop concludes with a whole-class debrief about what worked, what didn’t, and what students learned.

The power of the workshop model lies in the opportunities it provides students for dialogue, discourse and convergence with their peers, regardless of ability level. For instance, in a math class, they can spend time conquering an open-ended, problem-based task, sharing with peers different strategies that each arrive at a plausible answer. In a reading workshop, students can read either independently or with buddies, applying the strategy or skill from the mini-lesson, while the teacher circulates and conducts anecdotal formative assessments on their progress. For writing, students apply what they learned to interest-driven writing projects, meanwhile sharing their work with their peers and getting meaningful feedback in the process.

This can all take place during distance learning, too. By clearly identifying expectations for a synchronous learning block, and using Hangout, Zoom or another video app to break the class into small groups, teachers can provide students the same mix of independent work and small-group time, albeit virtually. This preserves a sense of community and a sense of purpose.

Mistake 3: Conflating Work Completion With Learning

Completing worksheets and answering questions isn’t learning. Having spoken with countless parents after remote learning wrapped up in the spring, I heard over and over again how remote learning too frequently entailed completing stacks of worksheets or swaths of pages in a workbook.

Some students completed these tasks quickly, leaving them with nothing to do for days on end. For others, the work was too challenging, requiring them to lean on their parents for help. This posed challenges for working families who were unsure how to diagnose misconceptions or scaffold learning appropriately for their child.

We have a tendency to equate work completion with learning. We take a “more-is-more” approach to assignments, because we fear what might happen if students aren’t constantly producing something. In reality, the most meaningful learning experiences come from conversations between peers and internal self-reflections that resolves cognitive dissonance. While these moments don’t entail a child producing “work,” these moments are indicative of fruitful learning.

All of the “work” that students complete during the workshops I mentioned previously took place in journals. Each of my students have a writer’s journal for writing projects, a thinking journal for openly reflecting on reading and social studies, and a math journal for solving open-ended math tasks. To scaffold learning, all three of these journals have clear structures, leveraging thinking routines from Project Zero or other structures that help students communicate the complexities of their thinking—ultimately limiting busywork and reproducibles like worksheets and workbooks.

Example of Thinking Journal entry
This is a sample of a thinking journal. Students use a Project Zero Thinking Routine (i.e., “See Think Wonder”) to make inferences and ask questions about income inequality in Chicago. Image Source: Voorhees Center, University of Illinois at Chicago via

A Chance to Innovate

We must use this crisis as an opportunity to innovate. Let’s be honest with ourselves: passive learning, fueled by a lack of dialogue and discourse and an overemphasis on work completion, isn’t new. Teachers were making these mistakes long before distance learning. Distance learning is only amplifying these problematic practices and making them more visible.

The sad fact of the matter is that in order to keep teachers and students safe right now, we have to keep them home. We have to engage in distance learning for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean that we have to continue to make the same pedagogical mistakes that haven’t been working for years now. We have a chance to take stock of our priorities, remedy our past errors and rethink how we teach students in a way that recognizes the humanity inherent in education.

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