October 18, 2021

No More Easy Button: A Suggested Approach to Post-Pandemic Teaching


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When I buy fruit at the grocery store, I tend to avoid kiwis most of the time, even though I love them. I avoid them because they are hard to prepare. Unlike an apple, which you just wash and bite into, or a banana, which is pretty easy to peel, a kiwi takes work, and even after many years of peeling and cutting kiwis, I’m still not entirely sure I’m doing it right.

And yet if I really think about it, cutting and slicing a kiwi is nothing compared to, say, preparing a watermelon or a pineapple for eating. That’s work. Still, a kiwi is hard enough to make me pass it by most times I shop.

But at least I’m still in the produce section, buying fresh ingredients that I’m planning to cook into healthy meals. That’s a lot harder than going to the frozen food aisles and buying pre-made meals that only require heating up. And while doing that is less healthy, in the frozen food section at least I have a chance of finding healthier food than if I go to a drive-thru and get a burger and fries.

The thing about the burger and fries is that it’s so easy. And so fast. Where I live, I can fill up on hot, delicious food in a matter of minutes just by getting in my car and driving to one of like 30 different fast food places in my town. And for a few minutes while I take my first bites, I’ll feel awesome about that meal, because I’m getting fed and it tastes so good and wow, it was just so easy.

But that feeling won’t last. Soon I’ll start to feel sluggish, and I’ll start thinking about how bad for me that food was, and I’ll tell myself it’s going to be a while before I can do that again, because if I did it for the next meal, and the next, and the next, I would quickly become a very unhealthy human.

Those food choices range from difficult to easy, with things like kiwis and pineapples on the difficult end, and fast food on the easy end. I think it’s safe to assume we have all made choices that are all along that continuum, and that your rationale for your choices is similar to mine: The difficult is usually more rewarding long-term, so when you’re well-rested and on top of your game, you’re able to make more of those difficult choices, but when life gets challenging in other areas, you might lean more toward the easier ones, despite knowing they’re not good for you.

As humans, we’re wired to go for the easy button. And we have so many of them nowadays. Here are some of mine:

  • I have heard bad things about how Amazon treats their workers, but I still order from them at least once a week.
  • I have a lot of books I’d like to read, but instead I watch Netflix. 
  • I have reusable shopping bags, but sometimes I don’t feel like dealing with them and I just use plastic.

This struggle between what’s good for us and what’s convenient, I believe, is part of the human condition.

And we do it in education as well. Here’s just one simple, common example: If we really wanted to find out what a student knew about a topic, having them answer open-ended questions would give us a pretty accurate picture of that knowledge.

But essay questions, or even short-answer questions, are a lot harder to grade than multiple-choice questions, which only ask students to choose correct answers. There’s a chance they might not actually know the material, but just guess the right answer. Still, because multiple choice tests are so efficient, and because we have so many students, we might lean in this direction more often.

Let me repeat that last part: because we have so many students.

Because that’s really the root of it, and I want to be very clear about this: Most of the time when we hit that easy button it’s because we have to. Most schools and districts have been set up in ways that make us feel like we have no choice: Large class sizes, a focus on standardized tests, and a lack of funding means we’re always being asked to do more with less. The conditions under which most teachers teach are not anywhere near ideal for good quality teaching. So the easy button becomes more like a panic button, and we hit it not because we’re lazy, but because we have to survive.

We hit the easy button, and hit it, and hit it again. Cutting corners. Making choices that we know aren’t really best for kids but that we hope are good enough.

And we’ve been doing this for generations, moving kids through the system with what looked like a passable education and sending enough of them out into the world as more or less functional adults, so we were able to tell ourselves that things were working well enough. 

And then the pandemic hit. And we tried to keep doing what we’ve been doing, but remotely. And kids started to fail. Students who used to get straight As stopped turning work in. When class sessions were scheduled over Zoom or Google Meet, less than half the class would show up—even if the meetings were called mandatory.  

Many people blamed COVID. They said remote learning doesn’t work. And I agreed with them, sort of. But what I also believed, and still do, is that the pandemic didn’t create problems. It just revealed them.

The kind of teaching that was happening in a lot of schools was only “working” because the kids were physically in front of us, so most of the kids, most of the time, did what we told them to do. It was a tacit agreement made between educators and families all over the world: You send us your kids, they sit in our schools for seven hours a day and do what we tell them to do, and we’ll give them good enough grades to pass. There was no guarantee under this system that they were actually learning. And there was also, DEFINITELY, no guarantee that they would ever be excited about it.

And now we’re starting to get to a place where restrictions will be lifted, where we can all get back into the buildings together, face to face, eventually without social distancing or masks. And so theoretically, many of the students whose grades dropped so dramatically during the pandemic should start to improve again. But will it be because they’re really learning? Will it be because they’re excited about what they’re doing?

Or will it simply be a matter of compliance? Of humans generally being cooperative and doing what they’re told? I think the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. In many classrooms, the transition may start off energized, where we get kids excited to learn again and plan experiences that take full advantage of the fact that we’re together, in person, again. But if we’re not careful, if we don’t go into it with a different mindset, we could easily slip back into our old ways, where we do what’s easy, what’s most efficient, and not what’s really going to contribute to a high-quality education.

I’d like to propose that we enter this new phase of teaching, this new period in history, with a new mantra: No more easy button. Let’s start to look at every decision we make about the way we do school with a more critical lens, and every time, before we move forward, let’s be asking ourselves: Is this the best move, or are we just hitting the easy button?

Before I start talking about what I think it could look like, I want to emphasize that I’m not talking about MORE. I’m talking about different. Not adding more to our plates, but taking some things off, rearranging stuff, changing the way we approach teaching. NOT adding more to what we’re already doing. You have all done more than enough, especially over the last year.

So this message is not just meant for teachers. You can do some of this on your own, but if the people who are running your school, the parents in your community, the district office, and your state government aren’t on board, if any or all of these parties have expectations that put you into that “easy button” mode where you’re just trying to do more and more, you’re only going to get so far.

The shifts I’m proposing are for everyone.

Using the Mantra: What will it look like?

So if we adopt this new mantra—if we consistently try to move away from that easy button—what will it look like in our teaching practices? Let’s explore four areas: lesson design, assessment, inclusivity, and relationships.

Lesson Design

  • Less fluff: In many classrooms, we gave “assignments” that made it look and feel like students were interacting with and processing our content, but that were actually just keeping them busy. What this meant was that students had a lot of work to do, and we had a lot of grades to record, but real learning wasn’t necessarily happening. It’s this shift, this removal of fluff, reducing our overall quantity of work to only the stuff that’s more densely packed with learning, that will give us room for all the rest of the changes I’ll be suggesting today.
  • More active learning: Another shift would be to plan more hands-on experiences, more project-based and community-based learning, more movement-based learning, and more field studies that let students use their surroundings as part of the curriculum. I think being forced to teach through our computers has given so many teachers a renewed appreciation for the things we can only do in person. And if we cut some of the fluff, we’ll have more time for things like this.
  • More collaboration: We can start giving students more meaningful work to do together. Managing collaborative work is definitely not easy: It creates more chaos in the classroom, you lose a lot of control as a teacher, and there’s always a chance that students aren’t actually doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Doing it WELL is even more challenging, at least at first, because students need training and practice in collaborative skills to make the most of this time. But if you put that time in at the beginning, it really pays off in the end.
  • More pre-recorded content: Now that most teachers have been forced to shift their instruction to digital delivery systems like screencast videos, they’ve seen the benefits of offering direct instruction—in other words, lectures—through video, which allows students to access the content whenever they need it or as often as they need it, and frees up class time for more interactive stuff. Although this takes more work ahead of time, it’s work that’s worth doing when you can. When we had unlimited face-to-face time with our students, some of us allowed far too much of that time to be consumed by passive learning. Now that we have a renewed appreciation for the value of that time, we can use it more deliberately, shifting instruction to digital formats when possible so we can make the most of our time in person.

Assessment

  • More feedback, fewer grades: A letter grade will never help a student grow the way specific, timely feedback will. But grades are so much quicker to give, so we fall back on them. We also might give a lot of grades because our schools or districts require a certain number of points or letter grades to be posted on a regular basis. If we want higher quality learning to happen in our schools, we need to move away from grades and toward feedback as much as we can. If we’ve gotten rid of the “fluffy” busywork assignments and are doing fewer, more robust, collaborative, project-based tasks, this shift should happen naturally, because these assignments lend themselves better to conferencing and rubrics rather than one-off grades.
  • More iteration: Speaking of one-off grades, let’s cut way back on those, too. If a student needs improvement in some area, isn’t it better to give them multiple opportunities to improve, rather than stamping them with a single grade and moving on? If we can make room in our plans to allow students to re-do assignments, we’re likely to see more growth. A system like the mastery-based classroom we featured earlier this year would be a good way to do this.
  • More fluid or incremental deadlines: This past year, many teachers have had little choice but to give lots of grace on deadlines. For the first time, everyone was facing unprecedented conditions that messed with our concentration, threatened our social-emotional wellbeing, and put us in a steady state of low-level anxiety; this made it easier for everyone to give everyone a break. But pre-COVID, we know that many of our students were dealing with other factors that also made it difficult to keep academics at the top of their priority list, and those things aren’t going to magically go away. We can carry the grace we gave each other during the pandemic into the next phase, setting up assignments so that they have more fluid deadlines or, if the assignments are larger, incremental check-ins so that we know students are making progress and can provide feedback and troubleshooting to keep them going.
  • More open-resource tests: We used to refer to these as open-book tests—the name change is meant to reflect the variety of non-print resources we now have available to us. Having school go remote last year, students were suddenly able to “cheat” like never before, again, because we weren’t there to watch them. But why wouldn’t they? We’ve known forever that information is readily available online; memorization is becoming much less desirable. What we should be asking from our students is doing something WITH that information—like developing and defending an opinion about it—some other higher-order task that requires a level of originality that can’t simply be Googled. If designed well, our assessments could be open-book, open-note, open-resource, and still be an excellent measure of what our students have learned.

Inclusivity

  • More universally designed learning experiences: One very typical way to give an assignment is to have students read something, then do something in writing to demonstrate their learning. This type of task favors a certain type of learner, but we can now offer many other options to students so they can choose the pathway that works best for them, like letting them learn the content through video or audio, preferably with some sort of captioning or transcript to accompany them, and demonstrate their learning by recording a response in audio or video form. Providing all of these options takes extra time and extra work, but if we’re giving fewer assignments overall, treating more work as formative instead of having to assign a grade for everything, and working together with our colleagues to share the workload, we’ll be creating learning experiences that reach far more of our students.
  • More introvert-friendly options for participation: Oftentimes, we can have what we think is an excellent class discussion that feels vibrant and energetic, but if we were to watch a playback of it, we’d see that in fact, only a handful of extroverted students were actually carrying the conversation. Teaching remotely has shown us that when we put students into an environment where participation no longer requires speaking up spontaneously in front of a group, we get more participation from introverted students and those who simply process their thoughts more slowly. As we transition to teaching in person, we can be thoughtful about finding ways to allow these students to keep contributing in ways that are more comfortable for them.
  • More remote and hybrid pathways: Even if we are fully in-person, we can continue to offer options for at-home learning for families who need them, circumstances that demand them, and students who happen to learn better under those conditions.
  • Better representation in classroom materials: We can make sure the books and other materials students learn from reflect our students, their families, and the diversity of our world. Sites like We Need Diverse Books and Diverse Book Finder are good places to start working toward this.

Relationships

  • Regular, dedicated time for relationship building. It seems that everyone in education is quick to agree that relationships are important, but if we’re not scheduling in time to build them, those relationships will be flimsy at best, and they’ll be uneven: We’ll get to know the students who demand the most attention and let the others slip through the cracks. It was really hard to do through a video screen; as we regain the privilege of being in the same room together, let’s not waste it. This system for getting to know your students is one way to make sure you’re connecting with everyone.
  • More restorative practices: Although it’s quicker to suspend a student for misbehavior, exclusionary discipline practices and “zero tolerance” policies don’t solve the root problems or prevent repeat behaviors. In fact, they often make things worse. By contrast, restorative practices are more time-consuming and require more thought and emotional labor, but if they’re done the right way, they get much better results. (If you’re new to restorative practices, get a taste of it by reading about the repairing harm strategy.)
  • More anti-bias work on ourselves. The starting point for improving relationships with all students and creating an environment in our schools that feels safe and welcoming to everyone is to study our own biases. Plenty of books and other resources are out there for doing this work; one that has been very successful is the Courageous Conversations About Race book and training.
  • More fun. It’s been a ridiculously hard year, and being physically separated has made a lot of people value face-to-face time in a way they never had before. So now that in-person time is becoming more possible, let’s make the most of it. And that doesn’t mean cramming every minute with productivity. It means making time for joy, every day. In January of this year I asked teachers on Twitter to tell me how their instruction would be different once pandemic restrictions were lifted. Many of the replies contributed to the content of this article, but my favorite one of all came from a teacher named Travis Welch, who simply said, “We are going to laugh. A lot.”

We are heading into a time when we’ll be able to gather together again, work closely, see each other’s faces, get back to normal. But normal didn’t work for a lot of kids. It also didn’t work for a lot of teachers. Too many systems and structures were set up for automation, to make things as efficient and convenient as possible for the people in charge. What I’ve shared with you here are just a few ways we can change things, but there are so many other possibilities.

We are at the very start of a new era. And we are wiser now. Our eyes are even more open to differences in student needs, to inequities in our system, to how important our connection is.

So let’s not go back to the way things used to be. With this fresh start, let’s take that wisdom and use it. As you plan for the upcoming year, keep looking for ways to lean away from the easy button, to do the slower, more nuanced, more satisfying work of prioritizing quality over quantity and creating schools where each student, and each teacher, has what they need to thrive.

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