To synchronize or asynchronize instruction, that is the balance

Photo by nicollazzi xiong on Pexels.com

In my last post, I sounded a somber note and was feeling just a mite pessimistic about this remote learning thing. It’s hard not to feel that way when you hear ambulances every few minutes and wake up to the steady death tolls in the hundreds across the city each day.

But thanks to inspiration from the hard work of teachers and leaders putting their nose to the grindstone, I’m feeling hopeful about remote learning. We can’t just throw up our hands and write off this time. There is learning to be done, folks. And it’s happening. So let’s get to it!

Let’s talk about synchronous and asynchronous remote learning.

Synchronicity vs. Whenever’s Clever

Synchronous means instruction occurs in real-time, such as via a videoconference or livestream. Asynchronous means instruction happens whenever a learner chooses to access it.

If Twitter be any gauge, people have strong opinions bending towards one or the other. And it seems like individual schools may have a strong preference for one or the other in how they attempt to structure their students’ on-line time.

I’ll admit when this whole remote learning thing kicked off, I had a strong bias myself towards asynchronous learning, more due to familiarity with that form than anything else. I’d never Zoomed or videoconferenced a lesson before. I assumed that the primary function of synchronous would be community building or social-emotional in nature. After all, it really is important to simply see the faces and hear the voices of people we know when we are in this unnatural state of exile.

But after seeing and reading about some strong examples of synchronous learning for instruction, such as via Baltimore teacher Kyair Butts, Brooklyn history teacher Amy Berman, and NYC math teacher Michael Pershan, I realized that synchronous learning can hold a lot of power.

Asking Better Questions

So I think what we should really be asking ourselves is:

What is the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning for this [school/student/content]?

I think a related question could also be:

What is the least amount of synchronous instruction we can provide that will motivate and equip students to complete asynchronous tasks and access resources independently?

It may be that some progression also needs to occur between the two forms over time, such via a gradual release model, whereby more synchronous learning is needed initially for new content or for students who are struggling, then is tapered off.

Teach Like a Champion: Remote Learning Style

I had the opportunity (H/T Tiffany Peltier) to attend a small group Zoom session with Teach Like a Champion guru Doug Lemov last week (UPDATE: the Uncommon team has graciously provided the content for free! Check it out) where he provided what I’ve found to be the most useful guidance for thinking about these two types of remote learning. Rather than suggesting one or the other was superior, he simply laid out some of the opportunities and challenges of each, then asked what might be done to leverage those opportunities and mitigate against their weaknesses. We watched a few example lessons from each form to consider effective teaching moves. I was really impressed with the high quality teaching evident in these videos, which were by teachers that had just jumped into remote learning themselves. Doug posts these videos on his Teach Like a Champion blog, by the way–you should be following his posts, as these models are invaluable. Here’s a few to get you started: K-1 teachers at Brooklyn Rise, Alex Barba’s AP Bio class, and teachers doing online read alouds.

He also provided an overview of cognitive load theory in a nutshell, and really got me thinking about how it is all the more critical that we make our remote learning instruction and tasks as concrete and bite-sized as possible. Why? Because unlike in a traditional classroom, we have no control over our students’ environment. And their working memory may be getting taxed by any number of factors — siblings demanding attention, overstimulation from noise around them, the stress of neighbors and family getting sick, ad nauseam. So we need to provide content and tasks in a manner bite-sized and solid enough that it can be consolidated into long-term memory despite everything else that may be happening.

A few other tips to leave you with from this session:

Synchronous

  • Use cold-calling! Doug modeled this throughout the session and it really keeps you on your toes.
  • Provide frequent opportunities, as in a typical classroom, to consolidate learning and clarify misconceptions, such as via a turn and talk or stop and jot

Asynchronous

  • Include “pause points” to allow students to engage in an activity and provide clear directions for how they will do it
  • Talk slowly
  • Provide a graphic organizer or “tracker” so students can follow your instruction and you can monitor their learning, such as via a Google Doc

That’s a Wrap

Just touching the tip of the iceberg on this, but wanted to get this out there so I can keep building on these ideas. I’ve heard a lot of initial talk about synchronous and asynchronous forms in NYC, but I think there’s still schools that haven’t quite thought through how they are distinguishing between them and attempting to leverage them to full effect.

How are you balancing the two? And what have you found most effective so far?

Forming Google Forms

I hope your week in remote learning is going alright. I don’t know about you, but I hit a kind of spiritual doldrums today — a feeling of slow suffocation. But on the flip side, my son is taking really well to potty training! So there’s that.

There’s also playing around with Google Forms to cheer one’s soul up. That’s what I did this afternoon, and I made another mock lesson, continuing off the flow I had from the last one. This time I tried chopping up smaller videos and embedding questions around them. I also included a Do Now with images.

This is a reading lesson for 8th grade from a Horror unit, focused on “The Tell-tale Heart.” It would follow from a first day of reading the entire text together as a class and discussing the gist.

I apologize for the poor quality of my videos and how absolutely boring I am in them, but I figured this is all in the spirit of learning so these are all first takes.

A note also on the approach I’m taking with this mock lesson: I’m attempting to set up a lesson that is fully asynchronous, while still maintaining the main components of explicit instruction.

I included a Do Now with this one, and realized that it may be better to leave something like that off — since it’s part of one Form, students wouldn’t get immediate feedback on their responses, and instead have to complete the entire Form and lesson. So I don’t think I’d continue with that aspect. It would be nice for Forms to have a feature to grade each section as you complete them. . .

To build off of the last Forms lesson I did, I tried breaking up the videos into smaller chunks to make it slightly more interactive with questions embedded between.

Here’s the Form. Let me know what I can better refine (other than my voice–I know I’m speaking in a monotone)!