Making the Shift to Virtual Lesson Design

As schools transition to re-open their doors, whether physically or virtually, one thing is clear: This is a time of immense and rich experimentation in schooling. Educators across the globe are collectively leveling up their repertoire to meet the need for more flexible instruction. And they are doing it in a wide variety of in-person, remote, and hybrid models. Amidst the inherent challenge that change poses, there are four guiding principles to help us through the transition:

Good Teaching is Good Teaching

The pedagogy of highly effective teaching is unchanged. Among the things that make a difference in student achievement, educational research affirms that building personal relationships with students matters; establishing routines and a class climate of mutual support matters; designing lessons that are aligned to clear and communicated learning goals matters; checking constantly for understanding matters; and providing effective feedback matters. These elements become even more important in an environment of remote instruction, and keeping them in the spotlight as we put our heads together around how they show up now will have a positive impact on student learning.

We can reassure and remind ourselves that the goal posts for good teaching are the same, and they are within reach. The task before us is simply to expand our understanding of what they look like now, in whatever balance of in-person and virtual instruction the school has adopted.


Time is More Malleable... 

For decades, our brains have been wired to think of a lesson as a continuous segment of time - whether 30, 47, or 90 minutes - but always with a beginning, middle, and end. In the new realities of instruction, time is a more flexible concept. Even the language of time is shifting: Rather than “class time” and “homework time”, lessons are a simple equation that sums “synchronous” and “asynchronous” learning experiences, which can span up to several days.  When teachers are well-grounded in the building blocks of teacher clarity, the key components of a lesson that guide students to worthy learning targets, those discrete chunks fall into place. The good news is that each building block can be accomplished either synchronously or asynchronously. For example, explaining how to calculate volume can be done in Google Meet, but it can also be presented in a video (From Cambridge Public School Teacher Alex Spencer) made by the teacher or a grade-level or department colleague (divide and conquer!). Some teachers engage students by inserting much needed levity while sharing information, like in this video from Cambridge Public School teacher Dan Tobin. 

...But Face-to-Face Time is Precious

We are tempted to squeeze as much as possible into our face-to-face time with students, whether in-person or on the screen. It draws on what feels familiar and comfortable. But the key question that drives our decision-making is this: “Where is the most critical need for interaction?” We now know from experience that students are less likely to show up if there isn’t a real opportunity to connect with the teacher and peers. Do we really want to use our precious synchronous time sharing information or details that could have been transmitted in advance? This pushes the “flipped classroom” notion forward, wherein a teacher might frame the learning upfront with a short screencast video, present new concepts through an interactive EdPuzzle video, and then use synchronous time together to focus on checking for understanding, making students’ thinking visible, and giving support. The added benefit of using technology this way is that students can “replay the tape” and review as many times as needed to digest new concepts or skills. 

Lessons Drive the Tech, Not Vice-Versa

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when newly integrating technology into instruction. It’s also easy to become enamored or fixated on one tool and subsequently try to use it widely, even when it doesn’t fit. Instead of thinking, “What tools do I want to use?”, first ask, “What is the purpose of this part of the lesson, and what kind of experience do I want to create for my learners?” If we want to collect information from students, we might use a poll or Google Form. If we want students to brainstorm and categorize visually, we might use a Jamboard or Padlet.  If we want to present information by modeling or doing a think-aloud, we might use slides with audio voice-over or create a screencast video. Deciding on the purpose quickly narrows our focus to well-matched tools. Moreover, when grade-level teams or departments work together to adopt a consistent set of tools, it enables both students and teachers to develop confidence and mastery in how to use them effectively. These four principles guide the process of today’s lesson planning, and they challenge us to be flexible, take risks, and collaborate. Our work with teachers and administrators affirms that we can do this - together. It will be interesting to see the long-term influences that this time of rich experimentation yields.   

Reena Freedman is an RBT consultant.  Read more here.