The Great Pause: Leveraging the spring to prepare project-based learning for fall

Leveraging the spring to prepare project-based learning for fall

With time and distance comes perspective—and education is no exception. Even while we are still knee-deep in a dreadful 2020, it is time to take a (mask-covered) breath and evaluate the lessons of these past months. For educators, this means scrutinizing how education is delivered—looking at what we can learn from – as one educator calls it – “The Great Pause.”

There is no denying that the frantic and haphazard switch to online learning this past spring caught us all unaware, with everyone just trying to hobble across the summer-break finish line. Yet, in talking with both educators and students, what sustained the learning when everything shut down were the relationships established in the first few months of the year. While many faculty felt that online learning forced them to relinquish control of the classroom, this shift created potential for accountability and a new learning responsibility—a positive effect that was only possible because of the trust that had already been built.

But as we look forward to an uncertain fall semester, what lessons can we extract from “The Great Pause”? How can we build a stronger relationship with students in the coming months (wherever they may be)?

Now that the dust has settled on the spring semester, we began examining the student and educator experience to help everyone get ready for what comes next.

Rewards of remote learning

Looking back, the challenges are easier to spot and generally not unexpected. Communication (and therefore relationships) between educator and student tended to fall off as the months of virtual learning wore on and Zoom fatigue set in. Communicating even simple things required much more effort, and because students didn’t have as much opportunity for casual conversation, engagement tended to decrease.

However, many educators we interviewed are already looking at the positive changes from this experience:

Increased empathy for students – While everyone can be equal in the classroom, this “democracy of place” was lost while students were stuck at home. Not everyone has an equal home life, and many environments are not conducive to learning. In addition, many students struggled emotionally with this new normal. But these circumstances, while unfortunate, allowed educators a new opportunity to better understand their students’ realities and build deeper connections with them.

New relationships not bound by geography – Virtual can happen anywhere, which means students had an opportunity to connect with experts around the world, outside of their peers and teachers.

New innovations created by necessity – Many educators quickly realized that traditional teaching tools used in the classroom or studio were not effective at building and strengthening the relationship in the virtual world, so they were forced to find new and innovative tech solutions – both oral and visual – to maintain the relationship and communication.

While younger students – so-called “digital natives” – understandably found it easier to maintain relationships online than older faculty members, the past spring put a spotlight on the importance of intentionally engaging students—a lesson that should be remembered no matter where the teaching takes place this fall.

Preparing for learning this fall

In-person, online or a mix of both? No one knows how the coming school year will shake out, but how can you prepare for what comes next? How do you modify tried-and-true teaching methods to adapt?

First, the educators we spoke with said it is time to reframe the use of space. Instead of the traditional learning model, students would benefit from more mentorship, which is inherently relationship-based. In this model, the educator is more like a consultant, and face-to-face meetings focus on communication.

Next, we know everybody learns in different ways, and this move to virtual teaching provides an opportunity to vary your teaching methods. Inside Higher Ed reports that students who took courses this spring using at least six different teaching practices were much more likely to be satisfied with the course than those classes using two or fewer (74% vs. 43%).

Learning communities will continue to be a crucial aspect of education, but the structure may need to change. The most effective communities allow students with similar interests to meet and share ideas back and forth, giving space for the student to self-direct the learning. Educators should seek ways to use the virtual space to fuel these types of powerful interactions. Senegal Alfred Mabry elaborates in EdSurge:

“Learning communities – where students work together with a common goal, purpose or interest – are colleges’ best tool to make online learning hands-on learning … Many colleges already run learning communities in person, but most administrators never imagined a virtual component. Getting students into hybrid or virtual learning communities will give them a more personalized college experience.”

Finally, virtual learning may exclude in-person contact but it doesn’t have to lose that human component. The educators we spoke with recommended using technology to encourage more communication and connection, especially peer-to-peer interaction—making full use of breakout rooms in Zoom, for example. This allows students to engage in a lesson in a deeper way and strengthens the relationship with others in the course.

Relationships overcome remote realities

The coming school year will undoubtedly be challenging to say the least, but it is encouraging to hear that so many teachers and students view this whole experience as an opportunity to improve the learning process for everyone involved. We know this pandemic is changing everything it touches, and change is indeed always hard. But if educators continue to meet students where they are and increase their focus on empathy and relationships, the connection with students will only strengthen in the years to come.

With any luck, “The Great Pause” will become a celebrated time in the decade when education took one major step forward.

Scott Barton serves as a partner at Hollis + Miller Architects and is currently conducting research in the pursuit of his doctorate. Hollis + Miller is an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments, including public K-12, private and higher education. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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