Remote Learning: Challenges and Opportunities

 
 
This image may seem anachronistic in the context of a discussion of remote learning, but you will see that it is actually very much to the point. I am suggesting that what is missing in remote learning and to a lesser degree in physically distant in-person learning is what is called “socio-emotional” learning. 
 
This kind of learning takes place in relationships. It begins in the infant-parent relationship, demonstrated by Tronick’s still face paradigm (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0). It continues in preschool, where—supported by their teachers– children learn to play with their peers and to take turns. It continues in elementary school, where children learn to compete fairly and to tolerate losing. Finally, it continues in high school, where children learn to use their friendships as a bridge to the kind of independent future that our culture values. 
 
Socio-emotional learning is a community affair. One of my favorite preschool teachers told me that what she missed the most in remote learning was the loss of “community”. She had worked so hard to create a “family” in the classroom, only to see it come apart under the constraints of remote teaching. Teachers have tried to build and maintain the sense of community remotely. It has worked more or less well, depending on the developmental age and learning style of the child. In this blog posting I will discuss two features of a community that are compromised in remote learning and even potentially in in-person physically-distant classrooms.
 
One major loss is physical connection—whether it is the exuberant embrace of preschool children welcoming each other at the beginning of the school day, or the teacher’s gentle touch on the shoulder of an elementary school child who has trouble paying attention, or the hug of a high school student comforting a friend who has broken up with a boyfriend—physical contact is an essential part of community. Even when children return to school, physical contact will be limited due to health concerns. What can we do to restore some of this connection?  
 
Young children may benefit from sitting in a parent’s lap or next to them on the couch during a remote learning session. It may help children to hold onto a stuffed animal during the class–even for young children to hold a “class bear” while listening to the teacher remotely. When the children return to school, these bears can come with their children to the classroom, carrying the child’s name to prevent one child’s bear getting mixed up with another’s. All children—even high school students– like to hold onto something—whether it is the family dog or a stuffed animal from their earlier life. 
 
Another major loss is a sense of togetherness. How can we attempt to build a sense of belonging in remote learning? There are community-building exercises used in classrooms that might be adapted to a remote context. For example, young children may name their favorite food, their favorite animal, or their favorite color, and then the teacher may give their classmates a chance to remember what their classmates’ favorites are. Older children can guess the provenance of their classmates ancestors. That enjoyable exercise also emphasizes our paired societal values of diversity and commonality. 
 
In addition to the content of the exercises, the act of playing games creates an experience of doing something together. Games like BINGO, which also teaches number and letter recognition, can be played remotely. BINGO and other games can be creatively redesigned to teach other academic skills as well giving the experience of acting as part of a group. The game of “telephone” can be adapted to remote learning. The awareness of how communication can be distorted by individual misperceptions is a lesson that can be understood at different developmental levels by all children. It is a lesson that underscores the value of community by illustrating how easily community can be disrupted. Older children can work on class projects emphasizing community. They can study Civics as a way of understanding what is happening in our country and imagining how they can take a constructive—perhaps politically active– role in creating a better future.  
 
I don’t want to leave this subject without acknowledging the wealth disparity revealed by the practice of remote learning. Although most families have a smart phone, some have no computer or I pad, and often what devices the family owns must be shared. This of course puts some children at a severe disadvantage.   
 
The children in the image of this blog posting are joyful members of a community, despite experiencing material disadvantage. In my next blog posting I would like to discuss the critical role of parents in remote learning.

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