The sudden shift to remote teaching and learning in higher education and, in many states, in K-12 schools too, seems likely to be a watershed moment. It calls for us to invent an approach to learning that is more resistant to disruption, more resilient.
To be clear, this is work that lies ahead of us. It is not something most of us are doing presently. The work we are up to now, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on schools, is more like what my colleague Steve Krause has called “lifeboat teaching.” We are getting by. Making the best of the circumstances we find ourselves in, scrambling to salvage some of the value of our plans for student learning that did not anticipate a massive viral outbreak.
But soon, we will turn to the design of courses, lessons, projects, and curricula for future semesters. And when we do, I believe we will have to acknowledge a different set of demands for learning to be accessible and inclusive for everyone. We will have to imagine modes of learning that can weather a different kind of storm and remain robust when teachers and learners are forced apart from one another, in space and also in time, with varying levels of access to those things that form the very foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy: basic needs that ensure health and safety.
What is a resilient pedagogy?
A resilient pedagogy requires planning for the important interactions that facilitate learning. These include all the ways that teachers and students need to communicate with one another, see one another, learn from one another, in a variety of contexts that are important to our learning goals and outcomes. It also includes the way students need to see, shift their perspectives of, manipulate, and practice with the objects that scaffold their learning.
Teachers often plan carefully for delivering content. We work very hard to make sure all the key ideas are in place before we publish a syllabus or distribute a class schedule. But when it comes to planning interactions, we can easily take this very important component of learning for granted. The reason is that we are used to having access, face-to-face, to our students and the learning resources that are needed. Face-to-face classrooms are very high-bandwidth and low-latency environments, to say the least. They afford many simultaneous channels of communication, and easy switching between them. Both teachers and students can be spontaneous, even improvisational, with very little advance preparation.
When teacher and learners are remote from one another, however, all of that changes dramatically. When those same learners are also limited to interact asynchronously rather than all together at once, even more coordination is needed to ensure that a relatively simple activity — a discussion or demonstration — does not dissolve into confusion.
Consider what happens when a ceramics class must move online? No access to a kiln. No ability for students to watch carefully from a variety of angles how something is done. And no ability for them to see and learn from one another in ways that make a studio space dynamic and engaging.
With some advanced planning, and the aid of technology, we might remediate some of these shortcomings — the lost affordances of learning in a studio — but even if we take time to produce a video or a simulation that allowed viewers to change line of sight or that permitted students to see different angles on a work in progress…it would not restore the loss of agency the learners have to move about, explore, and reshape the learning environment themselves. It is that sense of learner agency that we want to work hard to protect.
I propose the idea of a resilient pedagogy as a form of planning that would ask us to anticipate these interaction needs better and respond, whether in crisis or in more normal times, by providing resources that make the most important interactions of learning more robust and sustainable, and more accessible for all.
Consider the Studio
I teach writing and user-experience design. My students do projects in steps with lots of chances to give and receive feedback between each step. This is the ideal learning setting because students learn from one another and, by giving feedback, learn to make the lessons they are absorbing clear and explicit — not only to others, but also to themselves.
When I teach in a face-to-face classroom, my classroom tends to be noisy. We spend a lot of time in a communication pattern that I think of as “few-to-few” — students working with one another in small groups. We spend less time in the “one-to-many” pattern that characterizes lecture or presentation or recital. But we also use “many-to-many” quite a lot, discussion and sharing by one member of a group with the larger group with questions and comments.
Despite the challenges that online environments can bring, with planning we can do a lot of the work I describe above online. If we have a resilient learning plan. For me, that begins by placing a high value on the co-located time we do have available and using that time in ways that will make the most of the rich interactions it affords. Usually, these have little to do with delivering information and everything to do with the human aspects of learning — showing empathy, answering questions, challenging students to test their limits, and praising their success. Those kinds of feedback are essential for learners and harder to execute online with a sense of human connection. You can only get so much from a thumbs up on a forum post, after all.
At an operational level, when it comes to the work of creating a learning “space” for my students that considers interactions as well as content, I have a good model. I take a lot of inspiration for my own teaching online by imagining it as a studio.
A studio environment is a place where learners, guided by a teacher, learn with and from one another. The other learners in the room are the most important resource they have in fact, in many cases. Anyone who’s had to sneak a look at the dance steps of someone more graceful in order to know if he is on the right foot knows what I mean.
A studio is a safe place to try things, and to repeat them with intention until they begin to feel less strange. It is safe in two senses. Physically students have protection from the consequences of being new at something. There’s room to fail without getting hurt or breaking things. Psychologically, the studio is a safe place to try things beyond one’s current repertoire. Where it is ok to mess up a little in the spirit of stretching one’s capability. There are handrails in the studio.
A studio is a place where learners can see others like themselves, fellow learners, and watch as they attempt to do similar things, calibrating their own efforts. The mirrors in the studio are just as important. There learners can see themselves and reflect on where they are succeeding and where they might improve.
Planning for Resilience
If it seems like resilient pedagogy is in line with calls for us all to be making learning more inclusive and accessible, it certainly is. As others have observed about this pandemic, dealing with its effects tends to expose our vulnerabilities. The work of making learning more inclusive is not only about making our pedagogy more resilient. But when our pedagogies are not resilient, we are seeing that they tend to break in ways that disadvantage students who we already ask more from. Going forward, we may come to understand that planning to ensure that our most vulnerable students don’t suffer the worst outcomes when we are dealing with sudden shifts is the least we can do.
Ultimately, I think the work of building a resilient approach to teaching and learning should be work to preserve and celebrate the best ways to be together, face-to-face or online, so that we make the most of the time we have set aside for learning. When I select a suite of tools to enable learning in my own classes — online, face-to-face, or a hybrid of both — I try to build a studio. I ask questions like, how will students see and learn from one another? How will they be able to reflect on their own progress? ?How, when I am demonstrating, will students be able to shift perspectives in order to answer their own questions?
My hope is that these questions sound familiar to you. If they are, you are already well-positioned to imagine a resilient pedagogy. It may be that we just need to agree that interactions and content matter equally, and that we can no longer take one of them for granted. Starting as early as the Summer of 2020, we will be planning courses with a different set of assumptions about how they might begin and end, and how they might proceed along the way. That could be an opportunity to make learning the kind of inclusive experience we really want it to be for everyone.
Photo credit: Baker County Tourism. https://flic.kr/p/2gftG9x