The pandemic has taught us at least four things about distance learning. No. 1) Some students like it and do well. No. 2) Many students don’t like it and don’t do well. No. 3) Teachers, for the most part, don’t like it. No. 4) Teachers are still looking for the right formula that will help all students find success.
Let’s talk about why many students don’t do well with distance learning. Remember when you were a teenager and you asked your parents if you could use the car? If you were fairly new at driving, your parents showed some hesitation about giving you the keys and they probably gave you a list of do’s and don’ts. Why did they do this? They were worried about you making a bad decision that could have resulted in a damaged car, getting a traffic ticket, or, heaven forbid, hurting someone. Why do more car accident injuries occur between the ages of 16-24?
The part of a teen’s brain, the prefrontal cortex, is still in the process of development and won’t be fully developed until the age of around 25. Parents instinctively know this because they lived through that age. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that makes decisions, organizes, plans, sets goals and has less aptitude to focus well. What is needed when you drive? You have to focus on what you are doing and make many decisions.
When I taught my kids how to drive in our old Nissan stick shift pick-up, I helped them focus just like you did when you taught your kids how to drive. “Remember to turn on your signal.” “Don’t get too close to that car ahead of you.” “Remember to look at your rearview mirror.”
All of these were reminders to assist the brain in making the right decision. We can say that the prefrontal cortex is the CFO of the brain. It is the Chief Facilitator Officer. It guides the brain through major decisions just like the CEO of a business.
What happens when students are on their own to learn independently? Some students can handle this just fine. Maybe their brain is wired a bit differently and maybe the part of the brain that helps them focus and plan and stay organized is working a bit better than the prefrontal cortex of most teen brains.
What happens in the classroom? In the classroom the teacher takes over as the CFO of the brain. The teacher gives out all of these reminders about how to do this problem and what you should look for in this paragraph and what you need to do first and so on. This is what CFOs do. They realize students need guidance when making important decisions.
We could make a case for doing more to help students learn on their own. Teachers try to do this by giving students help with study habits and so on. Still, you can’t force the brain to grow faster and we can’t give young people more responsibility when they are not ready for it. What would happen if we let 14-year-olds drive? What would happen if we lowered the drinking age to 16? What would happen if we legalized marijuana for teens?
The reason why most students do not do well with distance learning is that their brains need lots of guidance and if they don’t get it, the students don’t find much success. The result is teachers get frustrated and students get frustrated and parents get frustrated. We are asking students to do something they just are not ready to do.
I don’t want to put a damper on all distance learning for all students because some love it and are making the right decisions. You might say they found their niche in learning. They learn better independently than most students. This is good and this is why all schools should have a distance learning option.
Here’s the main problem with the pandemic and why educators are worried. When students learn virtually, the students that were not doing well before COVID-19, may be doing even worse now. They no longer have the CFO to guide them. There is a term in education called “teaching via proximity.” That is, the closer a teacher gets to a student the more likely that student will be on task and engaged. This is why good teachers seldom sit. They are roaming around, engaging with students, using proximity as a teaching tool. Even though teachers can interact with students with virtual learning, it just isn’t the same. Teachers want their students back in the classroom so they can be close to them.
So, what should educators do? Schools need to adjust their organization around those students who are the least capable at distance learning. In other words schools need to find a way to make sure all of those students who are behind and not finding success are brought back to school and learn face to face to prevent them from falling further behind. This includes K-2 students who very much need to get off to a good start.
How do you do this? If we can find a way to have hybrid classrooms and rotate students in and out of school, we can find a way to return those students who need a CFO the most. Educators are smart people, they can do it.
What about the other students? The other students, for the most part, are doing OK. They may not be speeding way ahead but they aren’t falling way behind. We work out distance learning options for those students.
Let me summarize what I have just said to make it more clear. The brain develops from the back to the front, going from the cerebellum (responsible for movement) to the prefrontal cortex (responsible for decision-making). This growth takes about 25 years to occur. Knowing this, it makes sense then why many students struggle with distance learning. Their brains just aren’t ready for it. Distance learning can have a detrimental impact on those students who truly need the guidance. It can have less effect when we first give consideration to these students when planning distance learning options.
Riddle: What is the best thing to put into pies? (Answer: Your teeth.) The best thing to put into a distance learning plan is the need to first consider those students who do not do well. What can we do to ensure they don’t fall further behind?
There are three ways to achieve a 100% graduation rate. The first is to engage the total community, which we are trying to do with Project Graduate. The second way is to create schools that are entirely different than what we currently have. This is more difficult but it can be done because it has been done. The third way is a combination of one and two.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.