Instead of enjoying graduations and field days, students and teachers in New Jersey are laboring behind computer screens to move through curricula designed for a different context. But taking an instructional program intended for brick-and-mortar classrooms and recasting it in a virtual environment need not be a hastily executed shot in the dark. On the contrary, a purposeful approach rooted in established research in neuroscience and developmental psychology can guide school districts through this unprecedented shift to virtual learning. We see opportunities for reimagining and improving teaching and learning, both inside and outside the physical classroom.
The first opportunity involves instructional delivery. It is tempting to think that the best approach to virtual learning is to imitate a typical school day, with teachers and students logging on to their electronic classrooms at the same time as if they were all together. We do not think so. Those who have spent their careers working in pK-12 classrooms know how much skill and intentionality it takes to shepherd 20-plus students through their learning — managing behaviors, gauging understanding, and involving pupils meaningfully in lessons. This is difficult under ideal circumstances. When teachers are working with a classful of students from their homes and through their screens, it is impossible.
Brain research explains why. To learn, the brain must be able to focus on one stimulus at a time. Attention is a “limited capacity resource”; there is only so much bandwidth available to select and attend to information. One of the biggest obstacles to learning, therefore, is cognitive overload. In a synchronous online classroom, cognitive overload is a given: students are looking at a small screen divided among images of their classmates, teacher, and whatever instructional visuals the teacher may present. They must input and process all those stimuli while at the same time listening, taking notes, and reflecting on the lesson content or others’ commentary.
Additionally, students must contend with a host of possible distractions and interruptions in their immediate environment — cellphones, barking dogs, runaway siblings — over which the teacher has no control. The brain needs focused attention long enough for information to enter into the working memory. Virtual learning should seek to avoid cognitive overload by reducing unnecessary stimuli that compete with that attention. That’s a vote against lengthy periods of whole-class synchronous virtual instruction.
Secrets from YouTube
So, what is the best method of virtual instructional delivery? To address this question, we need look no further than to our students. Ask any kid how they figure out how to do something, and they will likely give you the same answer: YouTube. Whether it’s learning how to make a Rainbow Loom bracelet, memorize Steph Curry’s best moves, or play the chords to Living Colour’s Cult of Personality, YouTube is the go-to resource. Similarly, Khan Academy did not become a household name by brokering live tutoring sessions for groups of 25 students. Rather, founder Salman Khan realized that providing students with digestible video segments of mathematics content enabled students to work at an individualized pace, hit the “pause” button when necessary, and replay key moments as often as needed.
Think of the brain as a hiking path in a forest: Every time you travel down that path it becomes firmer and easier to discern. Similarly, every time a student rewatches a video clip to understand something more completely, to find a missing step, or to think slowly or rehearse, the neural connections and pathways are firming up in the brain, something neuroscientists call encoding and retrieval. It also helps that such independent, self-paced learning experiences are usually less stressful than the extemporaneous requirements of a synchronous online classroom. A brain that is focused and relaxed is a brain that is ready to learn. Schools, in other words, should learn something from YouTube: Independent, self-paced learning experiences are often less stressful and more enjoyable than the synchronous classroom, whether online or virtual. Supplemented by clear learning goals, these experiences can help students prioritize and achieve learning concepts.
Don’t students need to connect directly with their teachers and classmates? Of course! If the front end of virtual learning should rely on video content produced by teachers or thoughtfully selected from existing online platforms, the back end should focus on small group and individualized instruction. To accomplish this, teachers should utilize video conferencing apps to follow up with small groups of students, take questions, and check for understanding. This is also the place where teachers can encourage students to move through “the learning pit” — that crucial stage of cognitive struggle where learners build their capacity and the brain embeds learning more concretely for future retrieval.
Indeed, a hallmark of good classroom teaching is breaking whole classes into smaller groups in order to differentiate among ability levels and drill deeper into mastery. This design is effective in the virtual world as well — provided that groups are kept small enough to minimize extraneous stimuli and enable students’ “effortful construction” of information. By employing a one-two punch of providing video content and then following up with targeted live-conferencing, teachers can achieve effective instructional delivery consistent with what we know about how the brain learns. Since neurons that “fire together, wire together,” design of virtual learning must coherently combine these core components.
Time to move out of nineteenth century
The second opportunity our present context has brought into relief is for schools to permanently break away from the tyranny of time. Our current schooling structures date to the nineteenth century, and our conception of credits and attendance are centered on those structures, including the Carnegie Unit — an attempt in 1906 to quantify how much contact time, or seat time, a student needed to acquire the material of a course. Today, our credit and graduation requirements are still undergirded by this conception, and they have deleterious effects on children.
Based on the need for seat time, the high school day is too long. As a result, many high schoolers today are sleep deprived, a condition that correlates to a host of pernicious outcomes, including higher rates of depression, suicide ideation, and car accidents. We are hearing directly from our students during this prolonged school closure that they are sleeping more and feeling healthier. It is perverse that it has taken a pandemic to provide our adolescent students with a basic life need: sleep.
Any conceptualization of schooling that aligns with brain research must afford students sufficient time for both sleep and exercise, both of which are essential ingredients for deep learning, necessary to strengthen existing neural connections and forge new ones so that information can move from short-term to long-term memory. When this school closure ends, we should leverage what we have learned, reduce the length of the school day, and rethink the demands of time that we impose on our students.
A final opportunity in this national experiment is to seize a salient takeaway: that school is vital in the lives of children. We need students to come together and navigate social relationships. We need students to interface with positive adult role models. We need students to take part in extracurricular programs that impart critical life skills.
When school resumes, we will better appreciate what we have been missing, but we should build upon what we have learned. After Superstorm Sandy, we better fortified New Jersey. We raised homes along the Shore. We installed generators at critical facilities. We revised building codes. We should now take the same approach with our public schools. We should make our instructional design stronger, better aligned with how the brain actually learns, and more conducive to helping students become independent learners. This will be crucial to position us for the next school closure and to enable us to better serve our students at all times. Let’s use this experience to fortify New Jersey again, this time for our children.