Pandemic forced us to take a crash course in remote learning — now let’s build on it

The past year has forced a remarkable experiment in how to put the student’s autonomy and interests at the center of their education.

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As children return to their schools, Allison James writes, teachers should build on the creative spirit and lessons of remote learning.

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Chicago’s teachers and students are starting to go back to school after a year that ripped them out of an education system that has been in place for generations, forcing them to find new ways to teach and learn.

We have heard a lot about the downside of the schools being closed, and as an educator, I would be the last person to minimize the reality of the inequities and challenges of remote learning. However, there is another side to this story.

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Over the past year, we have seen a remarkable display of innovation and resilience by both teachers and their students. Their return to the classroom presents a unique opportunity to take the best of what has been realized in this crash course in large-scale remote learning and use it to build a more powerful learning environment.

Let’s take a look at just a few ways that the remote learning experience can improve the in-person education of our kids in the years ahead.

Centering students in their own learning

Throughout the pandemic, students have been asked to become agents of their own learning experience. We see elementary students practicing the same time management skills we expect of adults: logging in to meetings or submitting assignments across platforms. More importantly, we tell our students that they are the drivers of decisions in their education in ways that differ dramatically from being shuttled from class to class reactively at the sound of a bell.

During remote learning, teachers are breaking new ground in the ways they allow students to share in class decisions. Teachers are reflecting on essential questions like: what kinds of platforms and media can students engage with comfortably? What is interesting and relevant enough to these students to make them attend? Students have been brought into the classroom decision-making process out of necessity.

What a shame it would be if we let that sense of participation slip away.

Remote learning compels every educator, to some degree, to become more student-centered in their practice. The past year has forced a remarkable experiment in how to put the student’s autonomy and interests at the center of their education. Now as students and teachers return to in-person schooling, we have the opportunity to take the best of that experience and build it into the classroom of tomorrow.

Taking risks for unexpected rewards

Many veteran teachers have told me that distance teaching and learning caused them to feel “like first-year teachers again.” This sense of operating in ambiguous spaces was unsettling for many educators who, up until the virus rang the dismissal bell, had their classrooms running like clockwork.

But Chicago teachers have shown themselves to be a resilient bunch. Without access to familiar roadmaps for their lessons, they have taken risks by following unfamiliar paths to help students reach their goals. Teachers have sought out digital learning tools and familiarized themselves with an array of virtual interfaces. They have reimagined their physical spaces, using household items to bring a lesson to life or sharing a visual window into their own lives. The pandemic forced even the most experienced teacher to go “off-script” and experiment with these new methods of instruction.

Now imagine going back to a classroom where everything is highly structured, risks are minimized, and teaching is a top-down experience. Yes, it will feel good to have structure and familiar lessons prepared again. The best of our teachers, though, will not fall back into old patterns to minimize risk-taking. Students will be delighted to find new levels of customization and flexibility in the classroom as teachers remain comfortable with being uncomfortable and continue to try new approaches in the post-pandemic world.

What’s next?

In my work running a school-based program that teaches the skills of invention to over 11,000 elementary students to-date, I have had many conversations with the Chicago area’s most innovative teachers. Throughout this period of remote instruction, many more teachers have had their creative and innovative tendencies affirmed, while others have discovered themselves as a newly-minted innovator.

As educators and innovators, we can seize the moment of transition to the classroom by enacting the best lessons of remote learning and reimagining some of the ways we teach. Rather than looking back on the pandemic as a time when education was irreparably damaged, perhaps we can celebrate how it is revealing ways that traditional classrooms can change for the better, and the capacity of both teachers and their students to realize that change.

Allison James is program manager of the Chicago Student Invention Convention, an arm of Chicago Innovation, working with elementary school students and teachers to engage in the skills of invention and innovation. During the pandemic, her organization pivoted from an in-person to fully digital format.

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