Unexpected Lessons of the Pandemic

Unexpected Lessons of the Pandemic

Unexpected Lessons of the Pandemic

by Joan Reissman

What We Learned and How Students Benefited

Nobody’s saying the pandemic has been easy. Many families have suffered terrible losses. People have lost loved ones, jobs, homes. Students have felt isolated and disengaged. They’ve missed interaction with their peers. Teachers have felt overwhelmed trying to manage online and in-person students at the same time, forced to do an academic juggling act. But even though the pandemic has exposed many systemic problems, there have been surprising success stories, and some teachers and students have flourished during this time.

Let’s meet students where they are instead of obsessing on Covid slide. Students might be rusty in some areas, but it’s not like they’ve fallen years behind. There are also many positives, and some of the things we can celebrate may not be strictly academic. There are other values to be considered. It’s hard to quantify increased family involvement, support of student voice, increases in technical skills for students, parents, and teachers— but these gains have tremendous value. Students, teachers and families have learned some amazing things and made some important connections, as described in “Accelerating Learning After COVID-19 with Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey”1.

As educators, students and families, we need to look at what worked and who benefited. Why did some students flourish during this period? What did we do differently and what can we learn from our successes? As we reflect, it’s important to examine these successes and not just fall back into established patterns.

First of all, let’s ask students what they’ve learned that was unexpected. Did you ever think your third grader would become adept at managing Zoom meetings? Did being at home increase your family connections? As a parent, did you develop a new understanding and appreciation for the effort your child and teacher put into school work? All of these things count for establishing a positive mindset so that we can return in the fall accentuating what we accomplished. As former MA Secretary of Education Paul Reville said, ”One of the foremost weaknesses of the current system of public education in the United States is its basic design flaw, a “one size fits all” assumption which came from the early 20th-century application of a factory model to education. We teach to the average, assume equality is equity, and figure it’ll all just work out. “But there’s no such thing as average anymore…”2 So instead of teaching to the middle, let’s use what we’ve learned in the past few months to tailor our system to fit all individuals and learning styles. As educators, students and families, who has benefited and what surprises have there been?

Some things we already knew worked well, but the pandemic provided reinforcement. Although there has long been discussion regarding differentiation, the pandemic opened opportunities for students to be more equal partners in designing their learning. Since the rigid class structure and tightly scheduled school days dissolved, students have had more flexibility. They have been able to learn in different ways. They feel like active participants in designing their learning. Giving students a voice is something we need to retain.

As Declan Collins, a student, said, “I think the teachers gave a lot more discretion to the students about what they wanted and what they needed. They were very interactive in the sense that they would ask students how to approach a certain topic.”3  It’s important that we pay more attention to how students learn best. We all learn differently; we need to embrace these differences and find the unique strengths of individual learners.

Another methodology that has been around for a long time has proven to be a great benefit for a variety of reasons– the flipped classroom. The flipped classroom has helped different kinds of students thrive during the pandemic– the diligent and the anxious.

One middle school student, Veronique Mintz, has received a lot of attention for her insightful analysis of how and why the pandemic has benefited her—“Why I’m Learning More With Distance Learning Than I Do in School”. Ms. Mintz is a highly motivated student who has learned a lot during the pandemic. The flipped classroom has helped her succeed in school by giving her time to accelerate in the areas where she is strong and review in the areas where she is weak.

Veronique no longer feels held back when her classmates would rather challenge the teacher than learn the lesson. “She no longer feels forced to cajole her peers or make up for others during the ubiquitous group work that has become such an integral part of every school.”4  The flipped classroom has helped her work on areas where she needs more review, like math. With recorded video lessons, Veronique can work at her own pace. Math is easier because the teacher has time to explain concepts and hold online office hours. Before, “He spent at least a third of class time trying to maintain order.”5 

Anxious students also benefited from remote learning. For some, the bustle and noise of a classroom was a constant distraction. Some found that the classroom atmosphere increased their anxiety. In remote mode, the pressure of social interaction and contribution in class was no longer a factor. Some students felt more comfortable at home because home is a familiar, safe environment. “The challenge of in-classroom [learning] can be the social interaction. And for some kids, that’s actually really hard,”6 said Lynette Guastaferro. Other students who felt social barriers in class were more willing to interact remotely. Students who didn’t contribute much previously were more willing to participate in small group breakout rooms or one on one sessions with the teacher. These students felt more comfortable asking questions by text, email or even phone. Previously, some students were hesitant to say what they didn’t understand in front of the entire class. The opportunity to have individual sessions was the key. They could do the lessons at their own pace without the constant pressure to contribute. The unexpected benefit was that they could focus on the main task— learning the material.

From the teacher’s perspective, valuable lessons were learned on what students were comprehending. Making changes in delivery of instruction can have a huge impact on how the teacher perceives what the student is comprehending. I speak from personal experience. As a teacher, I began my career by providing individualized instruction. Later I delivered instruction to a large group. I was surprised when I gave quizzes to find that students hadn’t absorbed the material at the level I thought they were comprehending. Many teachers have made similar discoveries this year. One teacher, Becky Cary, found when she gave polls on Zoom that students were answering basic questions incorrectly.7 Consequently, Becky was able to give more explanation before moving on. She was able to address student gaps early on and increase engagement. She intends to take these lessons learned back to the classroom in the fall.

Taking back lessons learned is ultimately the key to academic success for many students next year. Although many things were already known, they may have been ignored or not incorporated into classroom practice. Going forward, we need to give students more voice and allow them to communicate what works for them. In the future, we will look for more variety not only in methodology but also in the way we deliver instruction and how we assess student progress.

The pandemic has forced us to realize that there is no “average”. Instead of focusing on what we may have lost, we need to concentrate on what we have learned and how we can use that learning to move forward.

Joan Reissman is a JFYNetWorks learning specialist.

1 Accelerating Learning After COVID-19 with Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey, Corwin Podcast, 5/3/21
2 Seeded amid the many surprises of COVID times, some unexpected positives, by Liz Mineo, Harvard Gazette, 2/18/21
3 Kids Talk About the Ups and Downs of Remote Learning, by Meghan B. Kelly, WBUR, 5/21/21
4, 5, 7 For Some, Remote Learning Has Surprising Benefits, by Natalie Wexler, Forbes, 5/20/21
6 Remote learning has been a disaster for many students. But some kids have thrived, by Azure Gilman, Hechinger Report, 10/3/21


Other posts authored by Joan can be found here.


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