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Academic Spotlight: Much Ado About Asynchrony

I know of no educators who uttered the term “asynchronous instruction” before last spring, and now it’s come to occupy so much of our collective headspace.

Yet its meaning is widely ill-defined, not unlike other buzzwords that have taken on ubiquity in the ed sphere (see: “rigor”). No doubt, schools and districts across the county have shaped asynchronous instruction in their own image, perhaps appropriately so, as the needs of no two schools communities are just alike. Still, the term’s loose usage is provoking something of a reaction:

At Partnership Schools, we believe that not all asynchronous instruction is equal. Together, our network team, leaders and teachers are embracing a shared vision of excellent instruction for those students learning from home, so our teachers working together in community can strive forward toward the same end. One component of that vision is an understanding that asynchronous or “on-demand” learning is better suited for some parts of lessons than others, just as we are finding that live, synchronous teaching is maximized through particular instructional aims.

To help distinguish the value of these different modes of teaching, it is helpful first to clarify the terms. Here are some working definitions we landed on to launch our teacher training earlier this month:

  • Asynchronous Instruction: Structured learning time in which students work independently on objectives-aligned tasks. This “on-demand” learning supplements synchronous instruction but cannot replace it.
  • Synchronous Instruction: Live instruction delivered in-person or virtually, in which a teacher instructs explicitly, socializing key learning habits and providing real-time feedback to students about their understanding.

Our teachers use asynchronous instruction to:

  • introduce requisite knowledge 

…like here, where teacher Becca Anderson introduces the “-er” sound:

…or here, where Our Lady Queen of Angels’ Kat Prevo–complete with the crown she should probably wear every day–introduces vocabulary for a Core Knowledge Language Arts lesson on the Middle Ages:


  • model a skill or how to apply a strategy or procedure, as St. Mark-Harlem’s own third grade teacher Kelly Quinn does here:


  • have students practice fundamentals and consolidate their newly acquired knowledge, as Partnership network team member Nehemie Villarceau does with this phonics practice:


  • help students build fluency with core knowledge and skills:

…as OLQA’s Katlin Singh does here, as middle schoolers build their skills around theme in texts:

…and as Immaculate Conception Kindergarten teacher Narlene Pacheco does here:


  • and gradually increase student autonomy and ownership by putting important learning habits into action, as Will Beller does in guiding middle school students to find meaning in a history text:


Live, synchronous minutes are precious, particularly given the realities of how attention works in online group interactions. So teachers leverage those valuable synchronous instructional minutes to:

  • socialize and explicitly teach learning habits (organizing work, exploiting “affordances” in a text, annotating and re-reading, revising and checking work, etc.)
  • provide “real time” feedback about student errors and misunderstanding
  • facilitate discussions as a tool to refine and develop students’ thinking
  • feed knowledge or prompt students to recall it when wrestling through a question.

Most important of all is our approach to the synergy between asynchronous and synchronous instruction. What students study before and after live instruction modulates how effective synchronous instruction is. For example, before bringing students together to unpack and interpret William Golding’s depiction of the slaying of the pig in Lord of the Flies, you’d likely want students to have freshly reviewed Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau’s competing philosophies of human nature (or perhaps some other knowledge-based frame). And you’d probably want them to have read the passage, once or twice (or maybe three times) too!  On the ground, that means our principals have carefully crafted remote learning schedules that bookend live instruction with asynchronous blocks dedicated to the subject in order to maximize students’ absorption rate of what is being studied live.

Just as it is important to know what instructional tasks are best suited to asynchronous instruction, and how to synergize them with live teaching, it is also crucial to deliver the high-quality, curriculum-aligned resources that structure students’ time. Too many teachers across the country are faced with piecing together materials from Youtube and Pinterest, or hurriedly filming asynchronous snippets in the margins of their day.

That is why we’ve committed to ensuring our teachers have pre-recorded, curriculum-aligned mini-lessons for nearly every lesson they teach. With a global view of our content-driven curriculum in mind, we sussed out elements of our curriculum that we believed could effectively be delivered asynchronously, those where the tradeoffs of not instructing live were easiest to mitigate.

As you can see in the clips we’ve showcased above, we leaned in at the network level to create ELA video lessons that span from phonics and read-alouds in the lower grades to vocabulary lessons, explicit knowledge building, and retrieval practice in the upper grades. In math, we’ve been lucky that our careful choices of curriculum, Eureka (elementary) and Saxon Math (middle) offer exemplary pre-recorded math models for each and every lesson.

In the process of creating our own, we’ve learned a thing or two about what it takes to make pre-recorded lessons worthy of our students. In an upcoming Post, we’ll share some of the themes that define strong on-demand lessons in our network.

The lingo may be new in this most unconventional school year, but our commitment to curriculum driven-instruction and those learning tasks that drive lasting knowledge remains unchanged. As a result, we’re embracing one key challenge this moment calls on us to meet: to know what we teach so well that we can discern what may happen asynchronously and how, so our remote learners thrive academically in ways we can all recognize.

Maggie Johnson is Vice President of Academics at the Partnership Schools.