The Pandemic Adds a Lot of Constraints for Schools. That Opens the Door to Creativity.

As someone who has dedicated her career to helping educators leverage online and blended learning to transform their classrooms, this pandemic has certainly provided an opportunity to do the work I love most. Let’s be honest, though. Just because most of us had no option but to take learning to an online or blended format doesn’t mean this is the perfect environment for it.

Teachers are moving online without feeling the confidence, preparedness, and support to effectively teach in this completely different way. Students are not able to move freely around their classrooms or work in close contact with their peers because of social distancing. Many classrooms are existing in a concurrent model, where students who are home are watching a live stream of the classroom activities happening in school. And we’re all doing this under a cloud of anxiety, exhaustion and even fear that comes with living and working through a pandemic.

This is not what online and blended learning should look like. However, it might provide just the circumstances that help us make real, lasting change in the future.

In a pre-COVID-19 world, it was not an easy task for any educator to completely shift what instruction looked like in their classroom. That’s not because we don’t want to do what’s right for kids or that we refuse to change. It’s not because we don’t want to engage in creative work. And it’s certainly not because we think education can’t get better than it is right now. Change is scary. It’s especially scary when we consider that our failures can equate to student failures. That’s a lot of pressure on teachers to not mess this up. When you are seeing even a moderate level of success in your classroom, it can be a hard sell to try something completely new that you don’t know will work.

Ben Orlin, author of “Math with Bad Drawings,” once wrote “creativity is what happens when a mind encounters an obstacle. It’s the human process of finding a way through, over, around, or beneath. No obstacle, no creativity.”

Teaching during a global pandemic certainly created several obstacles for educators. But within those constraints, we had no option but to innovate. This is the bright spot, the silver lining. It offers hope for what education can and will look like when we are running at full capacity again.

The creative solutions and new learning that is happening continue to be a gift for all of us. We are learning new skills, finding creative ways to reach all students, and leveraging online learning in ways that allow us to meet the individual needs of our scholars. This skillset forever changes what is possible for us moving forward.

If we know how to create anytime, anywhere learning opportunities for students, we essentially have the skills to clone ourselves in our future classrooms. We can personalize instruction in small groups while keeping learning going during independent work. We can allow students the flexibility to learn at their own pace when instruction is no longer bound to a strict teacher-paced timeline. We can create learning that works for all students, not just some.

This semester, I had a great conversation with a French teacher at a high school in my district. Brayton Mendenhall started the school year teaching in a hybrid model, with half of his class in person while the other half worked asynchronously from home. Knowing he would have limited live time with students, he felt it was important to reflect on what aspects of the curriculum and his day were most critical to teach in-person with students. He decided that the parts of his curriculum dealing with speaking and listening skills were a priority for live instruction. Other elements of his syllabus were going to be taught using flexible online learning modules.

A semester into this new format, Brayton has excitingly told me that he’s never going back to teaching grammar live in his classroom. Using online learning for this concept gives him more time to focus on French speaking and listening skills directly with students. Despite the constraints of this particular school year, his students are learning the language better than they ever have. The conditions imposed this year allowed creativity to flourish in a way that will forever change what learning looks like in his classroom.

While this situation is not ideal for anyone in schools right now—even those of us who specialize in online and blended learning for a living—there is a lot to be hopeful for regarding what this means for teaching and learning in the future.

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