Every school year has a pattern--the thrum of excitement in September, the fatigue of November, the jittery speed of May. When you teach online, you observe patterns, too. At One Schoolhouse, we’ve learned that the cadence of the academic year is a little different.
On campus, the third, fourth, and fifth weeks are some of the best of the year, because you’re still coasting on the energy of coming back to school at the same time you get to dig deep into your course material for the first time. Online, however, the pattern shifts, and students can sometimes run into a tricky spot.
When people encounter a new technology tool, they’re eager, and that feeling drives engagement and adoption. Think about a time you tried a new meditation app, or a fitness tracker--you’re excited to use it! After a few weeks, or maybe even a month, however, it’s not quite as exciting. You stop using it regularly, or maybe even altogether.
That’s the novelty effect--when you adopt a new tech tool, you invest energy and time in it. In the vast majority of situations, however, the novelty effect wears off. In an online learning environment, the timing of this effect is especially important. That’s because the novelty effect wears off just as the course ramps up to its full level of challenge. Students get an energy bump from trying new things, but once they know how the system works and what the expectations are, they settle in and can lose momentum.
In those weeks when students are most excited about new challenges, teachers are typically reviewing. This gives students the chance to learn how to learn, before they’re responsible for new material. The time to start learning the new content, however, is generally at exactly the same time that the novelty effect wanes: three to five weeks into the school year.
That means that many schools are now in the time frame when students need to rise and meet this challenge. Our resilient students take the opportunity to lean in and push through. Students--especially those who are accustomed to quick success--may get discouraged fast and say, “I can’t learn online.” What they really mean is, “I am uncomfortable and this is harder than I expected.” Most of our students did school just one way until last spring: in person, on a schedule, and with classmates. When a student takes a class in a different format, the familiar markers and cues just aren’t there. Different doesn't mean better or worse; it just means it's a new experience, and new experiences are often uncomfortable.
Encourage your students to persist through the discomfort and to see it as a necessary step in learning: “This is challenging right now, but if I keep trying, I will get better at it.” Challenge their assumptions that they can’t succeed in the online space. The fastest way to get better is to video conference with the teacher-- these meetings are more effective than email or messaging, because they allow students to get real-time feedback and solutions, and they reinforce trusted relationships. Finally, make sure your school has identified the advisor, teacher or administrator who’s responsible for checking in regularly with a struggling student. When students know they’re not alone, it’s easier to build confidence and competence.
We’ll be discussing safeguards and structures for student support at the start of the year in our live Academic Leaders webinar on Wednesday, September 23 at noon ET. In this webinar, we’ll talk about the best ways to help students navigate new learning modalities and environments. Sign up to join us here.
It is now six months to the day when many of our world’s were flipped upside down by the coronavirus into a seemingly never ending cascade of changes to our lives: new normals, new-new normals, unprecedented challenges, and precedent setting opportunities. At first, we all thought that on-campus schools would have to move online for a couple of weeks or maybe a month. Next, we realized that the rest of the academic year would have to be online. And finally, we realized the 2020-2021 school year would be like no other.
Over the last six months, we’ve helped our 229 consortium schools and hundreds of other schools with a transition to distance learning and now to hybrid learning. Thousands of educators took our professional development courses. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with school heads, association leaders, and academic leaders. In those discussions, I’ve noticed themes emerging; I thought I’d share them today, the start of school for so many.
It’s Like Running a Start-Up
In conversations with colleagues, I hear comments such as: “We tried this out; didn’t work. Had to try something else. That worked for a while, but then went to plan C.” We’re in a state of constant iteration. Trial, failure, another failure, marginal success, more failure, more success. Many schools are in a better position to work through this development cycle because they have implemented design thinking strategies at their school. And yet, this is different from typical design work in schools, because this situation was forced on us.
Eleven years ago, I helped to found what is now One Schoolhouse. For the first two years, there were many sleepless nights, constant second-guessing, numbers swimming around in my head trying to create a business model that would work, learning that some who I thought were allies weren’t, and developing new bonds with colleagues. I was constantly learning and growing, and I was constantly distracted by work, which took a toll on relationships and friendships. The high points are higher; the low points are lower. It was exhausting. Sound familiar?
Everyone is working hard right now, but patience is running low. Last spring, there was a palpable feeling that “we’re all in this together.” There was grace and gratitude from families who knew that distance learning is not what we set out to do. These days, grace and gratitude are gone.
We’re Changing, Fast
When a start-up is successful it changes the status quo -- what were accepted norms are no longer boundaries. We see that today, too. It’s almost as if the changes we imagined five to ten years out are now the reality today.
The successful post-COVID school isn’t asking itself, “How can we get back to normal?” It is asking, “How should we implement what we’ve learned to be different and better moving forward?” Online learning, for example, is here to stay. Schools will need to consider the extent to which hybrid options remain in a post-COVID world, asking questions like:
Colleges and universities have learned over the last ten years that just because there is a physical campus in Cambridge or Chapel Hill or Berkeley, it doesn’t mean that all learning from that university has to take place there. Successful independent schools are learning that lesson today (if they hadn’t already).
This summer, we trained thousands of teachers to prepare for a hybrid learning school year. I’m sure many teachers thought they were coming to us to learn a new technology or learn how to be better on video. But instead, they learned that hybrid and online learning is not about technology or bells-and-whistles; it’s about planning and purpose and connection and mastery--all skills and habits that are essential to good classroom teaching, too. The successful post-COVID school will help teachers transfer newly developed skills into their on-campus classrooms, transforming knowledge acquisition, assessments, reflection, and mastery for the next generation of students.
Where We Can Provide Structures, We Should
Back at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we encouraged schools to follow three general guidelines: be calm and pause; be straightforward and clear; and create simple solutions. These tenets still hold. In times of increased stress and anxiety people cannot process information in the ways that they normally can. Systems have to be simple, and to the extent possible routines should be established.
My friend and colleague, Lisa Damour, made this point in her fantastic new parenting podcast, Ask Lisa. She notes that one of the keys to parenting during the pandemic is to offer your child incredible warmth and steady structures. For classroom teachers, it is important to keep this in mind, too. Develop a trust relationship built on each student knowing that the teacher is a partner in the learning process, using easy to follow structures that help a student navigate through a course. This summer, we advised schools to build a course template and learning cadence that could be followed across an entire school (or at least a division). These types of structures are incredibly important for creating normalcy and allowing students to find success in uncertain times.
It seems this advice, warmth and structure, can apply to ourselves, too. We need to be kind to ourselves as the pressures mount and change. And, we need routines, including and especially routines for self-care.
I’ll be sharing more thoughts in our Academic Leaders Webinar next week on September 16 at 12noon ET - recording posted below! I’ll hope you’ll join me then. Register for our webinar series here: https://bit.ly/3jVnJyC
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO