Skip to content

Academic Spotlight: Revisiting Our Principles for Remote Learning

Bringing this novel spring semester to a graceful end calls us to take stock of what we’ve faced these recent months. The impossible mandate: close our schools (to protect our students) and keep schools open (to protect our students). And do it overnight.

To say we are humbled by what our community of fearless educators have done—continuing to educate with compassion and vision in communities dramatically impacted by COVID 19—just doesn’t do justice to what they’ve accomplished.

We believe that one of the best ways to honor their herculean work is to share what it has taught us about teaching and learning in pandemic times.

You might recall that we took on remote learning with a set of core principles to guide our collective effort. This summer in a series of posts, we’ll reflect on those principles and what our teachers have illuminated, as one step in bracing ourselves for the uncertain terrain of the 2020-21 school year.

Chief among them: Remote Learning Isn’t Always Online. 

The announcement of widespread school closures prompted an avalanche of free “ed-tech.” And while this was tantalizing for many school systems, we know now that adopting bevy of  glossy apps was too often unproductive for families.

It did lead to some quality internet humor, though:


View this post on Instagram


?? I’m sure we all feel seen #ifeelattacked #lol #athome #school #distancelearning #remotelearning #funny #zablezoot

A post shared by Diana Preisler (@dianapreisler) on

Fundamentally, our principle that remote learning isn’t always online comes from a deeply rooted belief: that children and learning come first. How children learn must always be driven by their needs and a science-based understanding of how learning happens—not by the shallow promise that an app can replace the magic of a committed teacher armed with a great curriculum.

Don’t get us wrong; technology like Google Classroom, Loom, and Zoom helped us accomplish the impossible. Our teachers needed digital platforms to manage assignments, create forums for discussion, and a user-friendly way to record themselves while projecting digital storybooks and math models. But from the start, we pushed back against the premise that screens beat books or that there was any substitute for a great teacher at the helm of learning.

The high levels of student engagement we’ve witnessed and the touching feedback we’ve received from families about how much they valued frequent interactions with teachers has validated this approach for us.

Instructional Synchrony vs. Asynchrony

At the same time, we’ve learned that it’s not just about how much time students spend online and off. It’s also about striking a balance between synchronous and asynchronous instruction, and using them both with finesse. They are each part of a healthy, virtual academic diet, but can both go wrong in equal measure.

Synchronous instruction allows for the real-time interactions teachers and students crave like checks for understanding and student discussion. But glitches like a suddenly lagging internet speed or untaught virtual classroom systems and routines can derail things in a breath. If a lesson is, say, a bit lethargically-paced, the temptation for a savvy student to subtly navigate to another tab is irresistable.

Asynchronous instruction is eminently practical for families with unpredictable schedules. Beautifully designed independent assignments can socialize the independence and deep thinking that synchronous instruction sometimes short-changes. But bad asynchronous instruction can leave students too much on their own, consolidating repeated mistakes into memory. It can also amplify the isolation of remote learning by attempting to substitute a teacher with a device.

“Dissolving the Screen”

It’s this seemingly counter-intuitive takeaway that strikes us most: asynchronous instruction doesn’t mean packets or apps and synchronous instruction doesn’t require looking into a screen for entire lessons.

Whether it’s used to facilitate synchronous or asynchronous instruction, the technology we employ should be adopted as a tool to lessen the distance between student and teacher, not lengthen it. Doug Lemov’s team has dubbed this idea “dissolving the screen.”

One of our favorite examples of expert asynchronous instruction comes from our very own Narlene Pacheco, kindergarten teacher at Immaculate Conception School in the South Bronx. Narlene’s phonics lesson is pre-recorded, but you wouldn’t know it. She’s leveraged her classroom routines (modeling, call and response, repetition) meticulously to make sure student engagement and participation stays high.

Talk about dissolving the screen– it’s as if Narlene is the room herself.

Dissolving the screen is just as critical in synchronous instruction. We love this example that Teach Like Champion recently shared where students are gathered on zoom for an English lesson, but spend extended periods of time studying and writing about their novels asynchronously, before coming back together for discussion.

Our own Corey Kuminecz similarly weaves periods of asynchronous work throughout his middle school math lessons. Students solve problem sets in their notebook and share answers with him individually over Zoom chat. He’s able to provide targeted, individual feedback before pushing forward with each step in his synchronous lesson.

Corey’s fellow teacher Kelly Simpson leverages asynchronous tasks to support strong synchronous lessons, too. Students regularly complete pre-work before her live lessons so that she can capture common errors in advance and tailor her lesson in response.

As these examples show, keeping a mindful balance of synchrony and asynchrony, and using them in combination, allows technology to serve its highest purpose without taking the limelight away from strong teacher-led instruction and deep student thinking.

Thinking about the school year ahead, we know that our students may be within the four walls of our classrooms on one day and then studying inverse operations or the Mayan Empire from their kitchen table on the next. We remain deeply committed to ensuring that our students’ academic life feels as natural and seamless as is possible in these unnatural times, and that they continue to feel their classroom communities extend far beyond the brick and mortar of their school. This calling requires us to reflect routinely on the principles that ground our vision, keeping a faithful ear to the ground so that no lesson goes unlearned.

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