To synchronize or asynchronize instruction, that is the balance

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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?

Why Closing Schools Exacerbates Inequity

Many have already picked up on how COVID-19 is exacerbating already existing inequities, from a few different angles:

  • Those who have adequate tech devices and bandwidth vs. those who don’t
  • Those who have pre-existing conditions and health issues vs. those who don’t

Both of these factors loom large in the schools and communities I serve in the Bronx. Many of our students and their families don’t have iPads, laptops, or a desktop computer, nor adequate internet access and bandwidth.

The NYCDOE is tackling this inequity as best it can, sending out internet-enabled devices as they come in to families the most in need. The total number identified needing devices was initially 300,000. That’s a lot to get out there, but it’s happening. That’s amazing.

At first, Spectrum and Optimum were refusing to provide service to those with unpaid bills. Thanks to reporting on this by Chalkbeat and getting publicly shamed, they’ve reversed course.

In terms of health issues, residents of the Bronx are reported to be twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as residents in other parts of the city.

If you have a background of inequality, whether it’s social determinants, access to health care, or anything else, and you throw a virus on top of that, what you’re going to get is exactly what we have, which is people who start out poorer and sicker and are going to get sicker,” said Dr. Neil Calman, president of the Institute for Family Health, which leads the Bronx Health REACH coalition.

And to add to that, poorer people tend to live in greater density. There’s more people sharing apartments, in more crowded buildings, in more crowded neighborhoods, with less means to get any distance from anything. It’s hard to escape a pandemic in such situations, most especially when you still need to get out on public transit to earn your paycheck because you are one of those “essential” workers who are on the front lines of ensuring wealthier people never have to leave their homes.

And we can see this playing out in real-time. Here’s the most recent map of COVID-19 cases in the Bronx.

https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-data.page

See all that deep purple in the middle-west side of the Bronx? That’s where the highest rates of cases are occurring. Those are the communities I serve. We don’t yet know how these correlate to death rates and to socioeconomic status and to race.

But we know enough to know it’s not good. And it’s going to get much worse.

When Home Offers Little Comfort

But I also think we’re overlooking something fundamental about how COVID-19 will further exacerbate social and other inequalities. Closing schools doesn’t just exacerbate inequity because some kids have more access to technology and internet. It further exacerbates inequity because staying at home may mean overcrowded and stressed conditions with poor acoustics, poor air quality, and few trees and other greenery nearby.

In the area of the Bronx my schools are in, we also have the highest rate of students in temporary housing in the city. So what does staying at “home” mean for them? When even in the best of times such instability can be stressful, imagine what that might be like in the midst of a pandemic, as people are losing their jobs, as people are losing their mothers and fathers and grandparents and relatives, as real fear sets in, as the weather warms up and tempers flare, as the streets are filled with the sound of gunning engines and ambulances?

Being at home may mean idyllic boredom for some. For others, it may mean something much more dire. Toxic stress in high poverty blocks was already a killer. Now, we’ve got this pandemic on top of all that.

The optimistic side of me wants to believe that this remote learning thing can be an opportunity to get kids engaged who weren’t engaged by typical school. But the pessimistic side of me is afraid to think more deeply on what this may mean the longer we draw out keeping schools closed.

There’s no winning, either way. Either way, the same communities will lose, big time. That’s the hard thing to look at straight.

We’re talking mitigation, instead of acceleration. We’re talking desperation, instead of inspiration.

I’m hoping this is wrong. I’m hoping we can make this right. Working in education means, fundamentally, that you believe teaching and learning will make the world a better place. I believe it. Let’s reach our kids who are the hardest to reach, who need us the most to reach them, with whatever Zoom Chromebook iPad remote learning application livestream we can.