Learning from the Pandemic: Listening to Students | Steve Barkley

Learning from the Pandemic: Listening to Students

My thoughts about the need for us to learn from our students were reinforced and extended when I listened to this webinar recording from Learningforward, How to learn from the pandemic: Name, nourish, connect, and grow!

Panelists, Jal Mehta (Harvard Graduate School of Education), Justin Reich (Professor of Digital Media at MIT), and Neema Avashia (Civics teacher in Boston Public Schools) provided the reminder that none of us as educators have experienced being a student in school during a pandemic and quarantine. We need to hear from the students what they have experienced and what they need from schools and teachers as we move into “what’s next.”

In a Learningforward interview with Metha, he described two ways educators are reacting to the experiences of the last year.

  • For some people who were dissatisfied with schools before — who felt that things were too rushed and that there was not enough opportunity to get to know students — it has provided a new opportunity to rethink practices and redevelop routines in schools.
  • For others, the stress or threat created a tendency to freeze up and be resistant to change. They have seen that it’s so hard and complicated to run schools right now that they are saying, “Let me at least try not to change the pedagogy, the curriculum, the materials.”

Because people are in a state of stress, there has been, on the whole, a conservatism about learning.

Finding out what students think.

In the webinar, Avashia describes how she knew teaching and learning in the spring of 2020 did not go well and that the fall needed to be different, but she did not know how. She decided the only way to find out was to spend time with her students to uncover what worked and didn’t and what they thought might. From listening to her students, she dramatically changed her practices and pushed her school to make changes. (As an example, the school switched to a schedule where students take three courses at a time for four weeks and then switch to a different three, switching back four weeks later.)

Avashia reports that from listening to students concerning the return to schools, she found a serious disconnect with most educators’ focus. While teachers and administrators are discussing “learning loss,” students are sharing their desire to connect with peers and adults, strengthen relationships, explore who they are, and grieve people they have lost. She reminded us of the importance of proximity. “The only way to come up with good solutions is to be proximate with the people most effected by the decision.”

The panelists in the webinar provided these questions to guide a conversation with students:

  1.  What are the aspects of remote learning that you appreciated the most and would like to see carried back to in-person school?
  2. What was really hard about remote learning that you hope you never have to manage again?
  3. After this pandemic what do you hope adults will do to make in-person school better for next year? What do you hope they don’t do school next year?
  4. What do you feel you missed out on or lost because of the pandemic in this school year?
  5. What are you most proud of?

A podcast, Learning From Teens During a Pandemic, with Jeff Utecht at Shifting Schools provides more reinforcement and sample questions for conversations with young people. (You can also hear two teens’ responses.)

  • What is one thing you think adults get wrong when they talk about student learning during the pandemic?
  • In what ways did hybrid or remote learning give you an opportunity to work on skills that otherwise you might not have tapped into?
  • What worked for you during remote or hybrid that surprised you?
  • What is one change you experienced as a learner that you hope we keep in school next year?
  • In your mind what is one way that teachers can design learning that really engages teenagers today?

Students at Skyline High School work together during an after-school tutoring club. <br> <strong>Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action</strong>As I listened to Utecht interacting with the teens, the importance of active listening to the responses was clear. While a survey may gather some common indicators, paraphrasing and probing students’ responses provides a deeper reflection on the students’ part and a richer understanding of the educator’s part.

Now is a great time to create some focus groups or better yet classroom small group conversations that can help us understand how we best approach the coming months. As teachers start in the fall with new groups of students, these conversations can be important opening week activities. Let’s communicate to our students that “who they are” and “what they have experienced” will guide teaching and learning. Instructional coaches and school administrators should be conducting similar small group or one-on-one conversations with teachers and encouraging them to ask and listen similarly with their students.

Photos from Allison Shelley

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