Last year presented many challenges and accelerated a number of shifts that were already underway in K-12 education. Even before the pandemic, broadband and mobile technology was expanding connectivity across the globe, hybrid and virtual classrooms were gaining steam in providing personalized learning to students, and project-based learning was proving to be an effective, engaging and increasingly popular pedagogy.
The pandemic, however, brought all these innovative, yet still considered by some to be “alternative” education methods to the forefront in ways that our team could have never predicted. It forced school systems to not only rethink their instruction but also figure out how to best use technology to facilitate instruction. Often, that meant moving completely away from replicating in-person, lecture-based models online.
Even with a team of experienced, tech focused staff, we felt the strain of having to instantly pivot our residential summer learning academy to an all remote environment.
But as the adage goes, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and it would be a shame if we don’t collectively continue to utilize many of the innovations we’ve been forced into during the pandemic as a way to improve learning for all students after this crisis ends.
This is what has become part of the driving focus in our roles as CEO and President of SMASH. As an organization on a mission to build a strong, socially conscious and diverse tech workforce, the past year showed us where we can strengthen our existing practices and sharpen our focus and advocacy efforts to be even further out on the leading edge of innovative learning.
These principles highlight five of the largest, fundamental learning truths we hold at the core of our programming. And given the pandemic, we are making an even deeper commitment to seeing these principles inform and guide the design of our educational system going forward.
1. The process of learning is as important as what is being learned.
Before the pandemic, teachers across the country taught students how to read, how to code and how to determine mathematical concepts like the area of a circle mostly from in front of the classroom. The expectation of the students was to digest these lessons while also learning to be resourceful, structure and ask questions and collaborate with their peers—things we have always valued in our programs.
Over this past year, we’ve watched these skills become more than beneficial—but indeed required—for students to master and be successful in the virtual environment where there is limited airtime, more sequential communication, and technology hurdles that can inhibit learning. Students in this environment often have to offer critical, yet productive feedback to an authority figure (their teacher), a skill that is essential in higher learning and the workplace. As educators, we are committed to building on this dynamic in our virtual classrooms and continuing to focus on resourcefulness, self advocacy, and collaboration skills post pandemic.
2. Small-group and peer-based learning offer valuable and engaging learning structures.
When we began our residential summer learning program in 2004, we wrapped our curriculum around a “team model” that reflects the collaborative way that the world works. We minimized the “sage on the stage” instructional model where lecture dominates learning time, and intentionally built our traditional classes around small group learning structures.
In an online environment, we have seen benefits from that early design thinking in terms of helping adapt our students and curriculum in an online format, and creating capacity for instructors to balance interaction with large classes and smaller groups. We’ve also noticed an increased need in the virtual environment for tech that enhances students ability to provide feedback to each other, engage in dialogue and work toward goals while in these groups, which look a lot like the teams in our work world.
We believe more strongly than ever that small-group learning which incorporates and builds on expanding tech platforms will better prepare students for higher learning and work in the years to come.
3. The best educators can leverage collaborative tools and edtech to create structured learning environments.
We watched in awe as millions of educators across the world learned how to use Zoom, Miro, Google Classroom and many other curricular tech tools in a matter of weeks, in some cases, only days. They successfully demonstrated that quick change is possible in what has been perceived as an intransigent system, and students can learn how to collaborate quickly using technology, but only if they have training and support.
The takeaway for us is that we must continue innovating and thinking differently about how we can restructure the school day, homework and assessments inside of new education models, given the potential for our students and teachers to collaborate wherever, whenever.
4. Focus on engaging content, not seat time.
In less than 30 days, we had to transform our environment from one where we could provide 12 to 14 hours a day of instruction, to one where we knew we couldn’t have our students on Zoom for more than 4 to 6 hours a day. This loss in instruction time has threatened to cripple many programs like ours; and we were not alone in wrestling with this challenge. Educators across the country were also acutely aware of the real potential for diminishing returns when it came to balancing synchronous and asynchronous learning times.
However, this challenge also offered us all an invitation to double down and focus on the quality of content being offered given such limited seat time. We created a more streamlined curriculum. A curriculum that has been created, albeit, out of necessity, and we are very pleased with the engagement and outcomes we are seeing. It’s evidence that our educational system should move further away from seat time requirements and focus more on the quality of learning.
5. Team based competition is a great motivator and connector.
Going virtual also allowed us to explore other opportunities to synthesize small-group learning settings, supported by educators and mentors, and where students can share and collaborate across communities, cultures, cities, states and even countries. One new programming element from this effort included our first-ever national pitch competition for our scholars who worked on generating health-based and edtech solutions to COVID-19.
Students said they enjoyed meeting their peers in other states, and we noticed an enhanced desire to engage along with increased creativity. We will continue to research, leverage and promote the latest tools in tech to enable competitions and events that encourage diverse student participation while also broadening the kinds of professional and peer connections they make.
For all the unprecedented challenges that 2020 brought, there were also pockets of ingenuity and innovation. How will we continue to grow and evolve beyond what we’ve faced remains the lingering question. Will we as educators treat the past year as a brief interruption and retreat back into our traditional learning models? Or, will we instead take a hard look and honestly examine what has worked—and what hasn’t—to propel our system forward?