Beginning in early March 2020 when the pandemic struck, my 10 year-old grand-daughter who lives with her Mom in a large city in the Northwest stopped going to school. A fifth grader, she has since received instruction at home from two teachers. She uses a school-issued tablet loaded with Microsoft Teams software (instead of Zoom). In April 2021, she returned to in-person learning for two hours a day, four days a week .
In early May, I stayed with them a week and they returned with me to stay at my home for another week. In that period of time, I sat in the bedroom or dining room while she worked on her lessons–yes, she gave me permission to do so.
What follows is what I observed about how the two teachers taught and how my grand-daughter responded to that approach. Keep in mind that this is an N=1. I will not be generalizing to all children and youth either in this Northwest city’s schools or other districts that went completely remote during the pandemic. I am just describing what I observed.
The fact that instruction is remote (I avoid the word phrase “remote learning” because I cannot verify whether what was transmitted from teacher to student and student to teacher was actually learned) is, of course, crucial.
The very medium of instruction, that is, from either a school classroom or a kitchen, teachers teach at a distance unintentionally encouraging the dominant mode of classroom instruction in the U.S., that is, teacher-directed (see here). For those teachers who want student-directed learning, that is, for children to participate more in lessons, to make decisions, and to work with class-mates in small groups, well, the screen medium makes that especially difficult, if not impossible. Whole group instruction occurs over Zoom or Teams as does independent learning but not small group activity except for those teachers who have mastered the intricacies of different teaching platforms.
What I saw of these two teachers working with my grand-daughter’s class was the enormous amount of work they put into finding videos, worksheets, questions, and activities that this fifth grade class could cope with. They spoke in what I call teacher-voices that were friendly and demanding. They appeared to me as being well prepared, creative in ways, and determined to cover the fifth grade district curriculum to prepare these 10 and 11 year-olds to move into the sixth grade.
What I observed during these instructional sessions–two hours long–was an antsy, responsible 10 year-old trying her darndest to pay attention and do what the teacher requested. It was hard, however, as she moved from the bed in her Mom’s room to the floor and then to the kitchen table ending up on the rug in the sun room. Her attention span expanded and shrunk before my eyes as this active youngster tuned in and tuned out within a few minutes. She secretly watched online YouTube videos when there were lapses in teacher directions, technical difficulties with the hardware connections or software glitches.
She completed every assignment that the teacher gave and submitted it electronically only after her Mom checked out the work, particularly the math problems. That was part of the regimen that my grand-daughter followed when she logged into the daily lessons four days a week.
The district finally began in-person classroom instruction for K-5 children in mid-May 2021. My grand-daughter went for two hours a day four times a week relishing the contact with other children albeit only a dozen or so classmates were there. While I did drive her to school and pick her up afterwards during the week I was visiting, I did not observe her in class.
Media reports on students’ learning loss during school closures and installation of remote instruction underscore the academic content and skills that students missed while at home or in hybrid settings of in-person and distance instruction (see here and here). Experts predict that such erosion in test scores, especially for low-income minority students including English Language Learners, will show up when standardized tests resume in 2021-2022.
The science of predicting “learning loss” of children after weeks and months away from formal in-person instruction (apart from summer vacations) remains dicey. What is not picked up by standardized tests, of course, is what students learned outside of school, at home, on the street, in the neighborhood, from extended family members, excursions, watching TV programs (beyond cartoons), and work-for-pay. Many young and older teens , for example, entered the job market as vaccinated population increased and businesses re-opened. Small businesses including restaurants, amusement parks, and service-driven industries gobbled up teenagers to fully accommodate customers (see here).
Standardized tests are woefully inadequate tools to assess what is learned outside of school. My grand-daughter, to cite only one example, carefully wearing her mask whenever outside or in shops, read many books taken out from the neighborhood public library, went camping with her Mom and friends numerous times in the waning months of the pandemic. She visited family in California staying over a month in the Monterey area, beachcombing, drawing, and building paper mache projects. She became technically proficient with the tablet she used for school, her mother’s smart phone, and anything else that had a swipe screen or dashboard. She built robots out of paper and cardboard installing triple A batteries in them so that cute robot dog could march across the living room floor. She built houses, again of paper, to make a village in which she put bakeries, grocery stores, a bank and a post office. She drew a map of the village as well. And she did far more than I can include here.
Did she learn a lot from remote instruction during the pandemic? I cannot say. But I can say–from observation and conversations–that she learned a lot informally. Can that learning be captured by existing assessments? Hardly.