Science provides, by definition, fact-based conclusions. But beliefs get their moments in the sun too, and are often rooted in lived experience. As a science teacher and a person of faith, I have sat in this tension all my life. And I have come to understand that science can’t answer questions of faith, nor can faith answer questions of science; the two, again by definition, are mutually exclusive.
So what do you do when your beliefs - for which you may even have some anecdotal evidence - about teaching and learning aren’t supported by the science? You allow the research to challenge your assumptions. Every year we dive deep into the literature to answer tough pedagogical and curricular questions. Here are three myths that we’ve tackled over the years.
Myth #1: Online learning is sterile.
Research: Connection between student and teacher is the cornerstone of online learning.
When the Online School for Girls started, we had to overcome a lot of assumptions, not just about online learning but also about best practices for teaching girls online. With the guidance of Lisa Damour of Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls, we built a research-based pedagogy on four pillars: connection, collaboration, creativity, and application. When it comes to student-teacher connection, the belief isn’t antithetical to the research - the more sterile the online learning environment is, the less likely students are to finish the course. So we design intentionally for the experience of connection, building video, meetings, and collaborations into each course. Ten years later, connection is still the most important piece of the user experience at One Schoolhouse: we track it quarterly in our classes, and draw a direct correlation between the experience of connectedness and our 95% course completion rate. Online learning can’t be sterile.
Myth #2: Students can’t learn language online.
Research: Students don’t learn language well in traditional classrooms.
It turns out that America’s way of teaching a second language is an abysmal failure. The research shows that fewer than 1% of Americans are proficient in the language they studied in school. When I kept saying “no” to our schools who were asking for the full Chinese and Latin sequences online, I was holding tight to my fear that language couldn’t be taught well online. Once I discovered that there’s almost no evidence that “the way we’ve always done it” in traditional classrooms works, then I started exploring progressive practices that do work. And guess what? They all involve either intensive immersion experiences (no surprise there) or the effective use of technology that intentionally breaks the learning into the four language competencies. As a competency-based school, now we had the research to guide the building out our language program.
Myth #3: Some students just can’t learn online.
Research: Most students just haven’t been taught how to learn online yet.
The fixed vs. growth mindset is the decisive blow to the beliefs-trump-research argument. Being open to what the research says - and allowing it to lead you to your answer - allows you to gracefully move from your fixed belief to a more expansive understanding. In this case, the research--and the experience of every teacher I know--says every student learns differently. That’s as true in the online space as it is in the brick-and-mortar classroom. Just as classroom teachers need a toolbox of approaches, well-trained online teachers have an array of strategies at their fingertips to help students who mistakenly think they can't learn online. The truth is, they just can’t do it because no one has taught them how to yet.
Myth-busting research isn’t always a bird in hand, though. There are times when it is hard to find the research that answers my question exactly. We are, as the first supplemental online independent school, a pretty unique entity. No one is studying schools just like ours. But we are cautious not to dismiss research because at first glance it doesn’t seem to specifically apply to us. Often a closer study offers useful analysis that can inform our decisions. Sometimes, I realize that I’m not even asking the right question. In these cases, I have to use the data I’m finding to ask bigger, more mission-aligned questions. So the next time that you are faced with a question about teaching and learning, look to the research and allow it to challenge your assumptions. When you can’t find research that aligns with what you’re looking for, ask yourself if you’re asking the right question. Adjust your question so you can get a bird’s eye view. Your school will be better for it.
Whether you are an administrator, department chair or a classroom teacher, we have research to help on your journey towards challenging assumptions and resources to help you continuously improve your practice. Check them out below:
Cohort PD Courses:
Thinking about how to take your school beyond standardized advanced curriculums but don't know how to go about it? This course, facilitated by Peter Gow, will provide your school with a toolbox for developing and promoting indigenous advanced learning experiences built and designed for your own student body. Course begins April 1, 2019.
Beyond: Preparing Your School for the Journey to Independent Advanced Curriculum
On-Demand PD Programs:
If you are looking to dive into the world of personalized learning, we offer three, four-hour long programs that give you the tools you need to begin to redesign your classroom from a learner-driven approach.
Introduction to Personalized Learning: The Why, How, What
Personalizing Pathways: Creating Student Voice and Choice
Student Agency: The Foundation of a Learner-Driven Pedagogy
White-Papers & Blogs:
Corinne Dedini, Assistant Head of School, shares how One Schoolhouse uses research to support what learning - not teaching - looks like at the School. Want to take a deeper dive into the topic? Take a look at our Pedagogy of One Schoolhouse whitepaper to learn more about our approach to learner-driven courses. Here, we outline why we approach teaching & learning from this perspective and how we stay true to our roots of being research driven in order to continuously update our practice.
When we talked about starting an independent school online, our colleagues at our schools looked at us as if we were crazy. In those days, people in our communities assumed that online learning was everything our schools were not: rote, lonely, boring, easy. When we looked online, we saw the potential for online learning to be so much more: connected, challenging, engaging.
The truth is, in 2009, most online courses were focused on content and rote learning, as you might be able to see from this screenshot from a college course in the same year. But, in 2009, more and more social media tools (what we used to call “web 2.0” tools) were coming online. The internet became about connection, rather than giving knowledge. And, the tools for connection were becoming affordable in a way that they never were before.
This new way of using the internet allowed for a new way to teach online. So, we enlisted the help of our friends at the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, and their exceptional leader, Lisa Damour. The Center scoured research available to create a pedagogical approach for teaching and learning online that was relational, developing four pillars for girls’ learning online:
Thus, connection, collaboration, creativity, and application became the cornerstone of our work with students online, giving us the basis for challenging the assumption that learning online could not be exceptional and relational.
And now, 10 year later, what do we know about at our courses? Well, 97% of our students say that their One Schoolhouse courses are as challenging or more challenging than their face-to-face classes, 82% report gaining greater academic maturity, 77% report being inspired to be creative, and 85% report seeing direct ties between classroom learning and real-world application.
We make progress on each of these fronts every year, continuously going back to the research to update our practice, staying true to our roots of being research driven in order to create something beyond expectation. I’ll write about that part of the journey next month - Design Backwards, Then Measure.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)