How has your school started the 2020-2021 school year? In-person learning, all-online learning, the so-called hybrid model? Did you start in-person, and then shift to all- online or part-online, part in-person when some students or staff tested positive for COVID-19? Maybe your youngest students were in the classroom, middle schoolers followed the hybrid plan, and upper schoolers were learning online. Or perhaps your school designed yet another permutation.
What a crazy, uncertain time for K-12 education in the U.S. Teachers, administrators, parents, educational psychologists, and even politicians all weighing in on the best way for schools to cope with the pandemic. One of the most persistent, if not the loudest, voices is coming from those who think online education deserves a larger share of the pie, now and in the future—i.e., after the pandemic. Fans of online learning point to several of its strengths, such as access any time, any place; students can move at their own pace; each has a customizable curriculum. Online education can be more student-centered, bolstering their case that K-12 education needs to move toward more online learning in the years to come.
I admit that online education does have some strengths, but I want to argue here that the weaknesses of online teaching far outweigh its strengths. First, education works best for most students when they establish a solid, reciprocal relationship with their teachers; this rarely happens via Zoom. Student-teacher rapport advances through one-on-one conversations in class, chats in hallways and in one’s office, but also from body language and eye contact.
Second, online learning is most effective when students are highly motivated. But these students always learn, regardless of their environment. Less motivated students need the structure provided by a teacher in a classroom in order to thrive. They need a teacher looking over their shoulders, praising their work and offering suggestions. They also need support from their peers as they work collaboratively.
Third, the social aspects of school, so important for the development of young people, is almost entirely missing from online school. Sure, a class might meet once a week in person, but the vast majority of the time a student is sitting by herself in front of her computer, isolated from her peers—exactly what adults have complained about for years when students stare at their phones disengaged from those around them.
Last, our colleagues who teach in public schools face a tremendous problem that independent school educators rarely encounter—many of their students don’t have the technology to cope with online learning. They may not have a working computer or tablet, or their broadband may be inaccessible, slow, or intermittent.
In the meantime, while the pandemic is upon us, here is a suggestion to keep students in school. Just as temporary hospitals were set up last spring to help manage the huge numbers of COVID-19 patients, why not use empty office buildings, convention halls, and other vacant public venues to house small classes (10 or fewer students) so that students have the benefit of in-class learning and parents can go back to work?
Welcome to the fall 2020 issue of Independent Teacher. This is a special issue because it includes several articles that describe how teachers are coping with teaching in the time of the pandemic as well as essays that discuss other aspects of pedagogy and curriculum. All in all, we think that you will find new ideas and techniques that will improve your own teaching. As always, we are eager to hear from you. Please send comments, responses, or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.