Michael Barbour on a Zoom call with J. writer Sue Fishkoff
Michael Barbour teaches instructional design at Touro University California.

Q&A: Education expert weighs options as ‘pandemic pedagogy’ grips schools

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The school year is set to begin for K-12 schools in a matter of weeks. Most of the public districts that have announced reopening plans say they will permit only distance learning. Some are offering both in-person and distance learning, while others — too many — have not yet announced what they will be doing.

Many factors come into play in making these decisions, but primary are the health and safety of students and staff, and the need to provide quality education. Are those values in conflict? Can students learn as well remotely as in a physical classroom? Are teachers and schools prepared for the changes ahead?

J. spoke recently to Michael Barbour, associate professor of instructional design for the College of Education and Health Sciences at Touro University California, a Jewish-run institution on Mare Island in Vallejo. Barbour has spent more than two decades researching and designing systems of K-12 learning modes — distance, online and blended — and has testified before legislative committees in several states, and has consulted for the ministries of education in New Zealand and his native Canada.

These past few weeks, he’s been fielding calls from educators and the media on four continents. And, he’s not shy to say, he’s concerned.

J.: So, what should K-12 schools do?

Michael Barbour: That’s something everyone is struggling with, because there are no “right” answers. There aren’t even good answers. It’s really more of, OK, here are things we need to be aware of, and think through. It’s going to be different for just about every school and every teacher.

Most of the public schools in the Bay Area are not going to have in-person classes. Meanwhile, the Jewish day schools and high schools are planning to offer some in-person schooling, and administrators at those schools say they have been overwhelmed by parents looking to enroll their kids at the last minute, both to get them out of the house and because they believe in-person instruction is crucial for children.

It doesn’t surprise me. As much as we hold teachers in high esteem, the reality is that the public service they perform is as state-subsidized day care. That’s unfortunate, because they do so much more. But this also makes the assumption that schools are the only place where kids gain socialization skills. It’s not the only place that children get those kinds of skills. If that were the case, then every kid being home-schooled would have no social skills, and that is not the case.

Isn’t in-person learning inherently better?

One of the things that gets lost in this discussion of distance learning, or hybrid learning, is that the medium is just that — the medium through which instruction takes place. Much the same way that you and I are talking through Zoom now. We could have done it in person, or over the phone. Each of these mediums allow certain things and have certain challenges.

From the instructional standpoint, a classroom allows me to do some things, but it also comes with certain limitations. A Zoom classroom allows me to do other things, but also comes with some limitations. The same with a learning management system, like a Google Classroom or some of the other tools we can put instruction into, that students can do on their own time.

The key to a good teacher — and this is something colleges like mine could be doing a better job at training teachers to do — a good teacher would say, “OK, I’m teaching this topic today, and could do it quite well using this particular medium. Topic 2 I will teach in a different way, because it requires more real-time interaction.” The medium is just a vehicle we can use. We have to make sure we’re leveraging each medium to its maximum.

There’s this myth that the classroom is the be-all and end-all, that it’s the most wonderful place for instruction to take place. And that’s just not the case.

What are some of the strengths of distance (online) learning?

I used to be a social studies teacher. If I want to have a discussion in the class, and I throw out a prompt, regardless of how much preparation the students have had beforehand, they have maybe 20 to 30 seconds to formulate an answer. Even if you’re the fifth person answering my question, you still have maybe a minute or two to get ready. In the typical classroom setting, I’ll throw out a question. Student A will respond to it, student B will respond to it, student C will respond to it. That’s not really a discussion. It’s three people answering my question, like an interview.

In an asynchronistic online environment, one not taking place in real time — say, a Google News group — the student can read the prompt and then do research online. The student can sit back for an hour or two and just think about the question, trying to plan what they want to say.

Those two mediums provide very different attributes in terms of the discussion. What you tend to find in threaded discussions is that students actually talk to each other much more, as opposed to just answering the question from the teacher. It turns into more of a true discussion, where people are asking questions of each other and are building upon each other’s ideas. I’m not saying one is bad and one is good; they just have very different purposes.

There’s this myth that the classroom is the be-all and end-all, that it’s the most wonderful place for instruction to take place. And that’s just not the case.

Can that technology be used in elementary schools, as well?

It can be, yes. There was an elementary teacher in the Midwest who would use Twitter to engage her third-grade students. She created a class Twitter account they used to create a story. Each person would add a little bit to the story, in 140 characters, after reading what others wrote before. It was an incredibly creative way of using the technology.

Generally, with the younger the students, the more you have to rely on audio and video versus text-based prompts. You’re not going to get the same kind of text-based discussion with 8-year-olds you’d get with 16-year-olds.

What you’re talking about takes a lot of training. And here we have a situation where every teacher is being told, “Now you have to teach all your subjects remotely.” What are they supposed to do? Use Zoom? Use Google Classroom? And should each decide on their own, or is it up to the school?

Well, you’ve identified one of the roots of the problem, what we saw back in March. It’s being called “emergency remote teaching” or “pandemic pedagogy.” Teachers were thrown into it. They left school on Friday and were told they had to do all of this Monday online. I would say, in all honesty, whatever teachers did during the last part of the school year to try and maintain some kind of instructional continuity, hats off to them. They did a wonderful job considering the circumstances.

When we look at the coming fall, it’s a completely different story. By the end of the school year, any school leader out there worth their salt should have been speaking to their teachers and saying, OK, which tools did you use? Which ones went well, and which ones didn’t go so well? Which ones did the kids relate to and seem to engage with? Which ones did they have access to, and which ones didn’t they?

I can take a learning management system like Canvas or Desire2Learn  — they all have threaded discussion forums in them, but they also allow me to do video or audio posting. You could have a school where one teacher uses FlipGrid, another uses Google Classroom and another uses a different system. I have a colleague who is unfortunate enough to have three children in three different grades who had teachers using three different tools for the exact same thing.

That must have been a lot for the parents to deal with, trying to help them at home. So you seem to be saying that it’s the responsibility of school leaders to get feedback from their teachers and coordinate the approach for the coming year, in terms of which tools will be used when and by whom.

I think it should have been done already. Depending on how robust the tools are, the schools should be coming up with three to eight, and saying, these are going to be our institutional tools. And over the summer we are going to provide you, the teacher, with a professional learning opportunity to first learn how to use the tool, and then how to teach with the tool. Because they are two different things.

So how many schools did that?

Very few. Many of the schools sat back and wanted to wait for their departments of education to provide guidance. The California Department of Education guide came out the second week of June. Basically, it has 20 pages of questions, saying, in effect, these are all the things you’re going to have to address. It doesn’t really provide much in the way of solutions. It’s a reasonable planning document, in terms of laying out these are the things schools might not have thought of, but it’s not a good document to tell teachers, here’s what you need to know and do to get ready for September. Or August.

The other state guides are very similar. Very few states said, here is what we want you to do. Most just give a range of options, or say, here are the things you need to take into account.

If they weren’t waiting for their state education departments, a lot of them were waiting for their districts. Even in the private schools, where they don’t have this structure, a lot of them were sitting back to see what the public schools were going to do, and maybe use some of that as a model.

This has never happened before. And here we are, we have some schools that are going to be starting up in three weeks — the public schools here in California — and a lot of this hasn’t happened. They haven’t decided on which tools they’re going to use. They haven’t provided the professional learning that needs to happen.

The reality is, we lost half of March, all of April, all of May, some of June — that’s 35 percent of the school year. We’re not even through the first wave yet. And in pandemics, it’s often the secondary or tertiary waves that are more dangerous. It’s going to affect the 2020-2021 school year. Asking teachers to come back now and try to figure out, how do I remediate the 30 to 35 percent of the curriculum that was lost last year, as well as do 100 percent of my curriculum this school year — that’s a big ask.

There’s a lot we should be doing, that everyone knows we should be doing, but for one reason or another, we’re not. Why didn’t we allocate time over the summer for teachers to come in and learn some of these tools, or provide pedagogy around them, or provide funding so they can go out and find sources of that on their own? Unfortunately, everyone’s got a lot of reasons for why it hasn’t happened, and why it can’t happen. But no one’s really tried to make it happen.

Let’s talk about age. The American Academy of Pediatrics has come out saying that children learn better in a physical classroom. But aren’t there differences if it’s, say, a 5-year-old or an 8-year-old or a 16-year-old?

I think their bigger concern is the amount of interaction that will take place. It’s very different for me as a teacher when there are five of us on Zoom, where I can really interact with the students, versus if I’ve got 30 of you. Again, a lot of this is about how we set it up, how we use the tools we have.

When we think of remote learning, everyone immediately jumps to “online.” There’s a lot of distance learning that has nothing to do with a computer. When cyber charter schools first started in the early 2000s, one of the things they’d do, particularly at the elementary level, is they’d send out a big box to the kid’s home filled with manipulatives — things you can touch and hold and move around. The parents and their kids were posting pictures online of themselves opening these boxes. You could do first- or second-grade math or science class using these manipulatives. You can put circles inside circles, or a piece of pie in the whole pie, and figure out that two halves make a whole.

The jurisdictions that did best during the pandemic pedagogy, the period of emergency remote learning, were those that didn’t rely solely on online tools.

As an elementary school teacher, there’s no reason why I can’t engage with my community over the phone. In some rural areas, even some inner-city areas, that’s going to be a need. If the issue is how much interaction is there between the teacher and students, that one-on-one interaction over the telephone can be quite powerful.

One of the advantages we had last school year that’s going to be a challenge this school year is developing a community. Last year the students and teachers had been together in the classroom, from August or September until March. The difficulty now, and this is where teachers need professional learning, is how do you create a sense of community if half of the students come to school on Monday and Wednesday, the others come on Tuesday and Thursday, and then everyone is remote on Friday? It’s not that it can’t be done. It’s just done in different ways. Unfortunately, it’s not something most teachers are equipped to do.

Any final words of wisdom for school administrators?

We are making the assumption as we approach this that everyone in the building has to be doing the same thing, that I’m going to have some of my lessons online, and some of them face-to-face, and I’m going to do the same thing that the other 20 teachers in the school are doing.

As long as you have an equitable workload, there’s no reason why I can’t assign you to do all the face-to-face instruction, and your colleague can manage all of the online instruction. So many of the teachers are seniors, in that high-risk category. Why don’t we take some of those high-risk teachers and make them online only, and let the younger teachers, or those who don’t fall into those high-risk categories, do the face-to-face?

I don’t hear school leaders asking how we can use the current situation to rethink how instruction is done. If school leaders and teachers would have these conversations, it makes the task ahead, come the fall, a little bit easier.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].