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Adapting Learning Science for a Changing Learning Landscape

By Nicole Krueger
November 18, 2020
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Longer class times to encourage creative teaching. Fewer courses to minimize cognitive overload. More time for socializing with peers and working on passion projects.

Grounded in the most promising neuroscience, the new daily schedule at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School was carefully designed to prioritize deeper learning and optimize student well-being. After a failed attempt 10 years before, the Maryland private school had finally managed to replace its archaic timetable with a research-based schedule that aligned with how students’ brains work.

It took 18 months to roll out the change. Then COVID-19 struck. Schools closed, learning went online, and the meticulously crafted new schedule quickly fell apart.

“We realized we’d have to start over,” write Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher of The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) at St. Andrew’s. “Once again, we turned to research.”

But what happens when that research doesn’t yet exist? Over the past several years, a growing number of educators have come to rely on learning science to inform their practice – a phenomenon EdSurge has been tracking in a multi-year study on research-based teaching and learning. Now the sudden shift to remote learning has left many teachers scrambling to find and adapt relevant research in the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis and an off-the-cuff nationwide experiment in remote learning.

To draft a new schedule for online school, for example, leaders at St. Andrews had to get creative. They drew upon their own research – including a survey of students, parents and teachers – as well as what they knew about developmentally appropriate screen times and the importance of teacher-directed instruction.

“There’s some research about what remote learning looks like in K-12 education, but we’ve never had a massive shift like this,” says Rachel Burstein, a research associate for EdSurge. “The relevance of some of that research is not totally clear. How do we apply it to this new environment? To what extent can we draw on practices we know are effective for brick-and-mortar classrooms, and what does it mean to implement those practices in environments that are virtual? Does research about remote learning work when all students are in remote settings all of the time?”

Those are big questions. Rather than answer them, the EdSurge report offers insight into the journey educators are taking as they pioneer best practices for remote learning, adapt existing learning science principles for virtual environments and conduct their own research on the fly. Below are a couple of key findings.

Social-emotional learning is a must-have

With a growing body of research indicating the importance of social-emotional learning, there’s little disagreement among educators that modern teaching practices need to serve the whole child. Supporting students through a global crisis, however, has catapulted social-emotional skills from the “nice to have” category to the “absolutely essential” category in many districts.

More than half of the educators surveyed said social-emotional learning was a widespread practice in their schools, while two-thirds reported having a schoolwide curriculum for teaching skills such as resilience, stress management and identity development. More than eight in 10 said they integrate social-emotional learning into their academic subjects.

Infusing instruction with social-emotional learning can be as simple as using Google Forms to check in on students’ moods each day. Noemi Ortiz, a special education teacher for Clovis Unified School District in California, uses the results of her daily survey to decide what and how she will teach.

“Students can’t learn if they’re struggling emotionally,” she says. “And I can’t teach if I don’t know what’s going on with them.”

Teachers and researchers need to collaborate

Although the exact conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic are new, there’s plenty of available research that can be adapted for remote learning. And educators, the study found, desperately want to act on it. But the pandemic has amplified many of the barriers that prevent teachers from putting research into practice.

Overwhelmed and just trying to stay afloat, teachers and school leaders often don’t have the time or resources to develop remote learning practices solidly rooted in research. Some aren’t sure whether or how existing research can be applied to their unique circumstances. And still others don’t see their circumstances reflected in current research at all.

One of the key goals of the EdSurge project was to make research findings more accessible to practitioners. To that end, the organization assembled several Virtual Learning Circles in which educators read articles on a particular learning science topic and then discussed how to leverage the research to improve their own practice. More than two-thirds of participants said the experience inspired them to try something new in their own classrooms.

“What surprises me is how hard it is to talk to teachers about research, data and evidence,” says research project manager Marisa Busch. “They don’t believe they’re using it a lot of the time because they have this prescribed idea of what the term really means. We’re helping people unpack what they’re already doing and validate it.”

The project was just the beginning of what will ultimately be a long-term effort to capture the geyser of new ideas, practices and research the pandemic has unleashed.

“Whether that translates into fruitful collaborations or better use of research in the future, we don’t know,” Burstein says.

Want to learn more about the work EdSurge is doing to advance education? Register for ISTE20 Live and attend these EdSurge sessions: 

ISTE20 Reinventing Education Together graphic

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.