What We Have Learned

Catlin Gabel Division Heads reflect on the remote learning experience, and how it will change their approach to teaching and learning in the years to come

Sustaining Community and Connection

By Dawn Isaacs, Head of Beginning and Lower Schools

When we departed campus in March and embarked on remote learning, we could not imagine how much about the world would change before we returned, or the ways the essence of education would be examined and revealed.

Teaching and learning from home have forced a clarification of what is most important about being at school. We’ve needed to simplify, distill what is most important to learn, and allow children individualized paths. Through this process, we’ve been reminded of the importance of human connection and seen the power of a more personalized experience.

While learning from home, some children have thrived because of the ways the experience could be tailored to meet their individual strengths and needs. Many were comfortable in their own spaces and able to balance their needs by setting their own pace for the day. Our learning platform allowed teachers to give individual feedback to students and differentiate experiences.

This time at home has also highlighted the importance of relationships and reminded us how much about learning is social. Children construct knowledge by being in community with other learners as they formulate, test, and share ideas. Our remote learning was most successful when we found ways for children to sustain community. For all of us, it has become a time of national reckoning as the pandemic has amplified and made visible to more people the inequities inherent in our culture. It’s imperative we lean into our call to educate for democracy, and help children build, from within our classrooms, a more just society.

The way forward is a careful combination of fostering community and attending to the individual paths of each child. As we design teaching and learning, we will be accelerating our work to define what is most important to learn, helping children to build on their relationships as they practice how to show up as members of equitable communities, and allowing children the flexibility to learn and work in the ways that honor their strengths and meet their needs.

Shifting the Educational Model

by Ted Chen, Head of Middle School

The remote learning experience has called into question big-picture educational philosophy questions. It has amplified the question of whether schools across the country and world are still relying on an outdated industrial age model, and it calls for us to think about how we can shift away from that model in the years to come.

There have been positive aspects. Remote learning had teachers and students thinking differently, in creative ways, about demonstrating learning. Students showed their learning through new mediums and formats. For example, language students presented their understanding of verb conjugations by creating home-cooking shows and conducting interviews. Students in woodshop focused on interest-based creative projects, such as sewing, cooking, and writing music. All of these projects tapped into student passions and interests while fulfilling learning goals.

In many ways, the learning became more authentic and real. For a science class, students rummaged through their kitchens looking at ingredient lists in search of genetically modified organisms for their unit on the science of food. In the end, they reflected on their learning, connecting it back to the food they found in their homes.

Some aspects of remote learning will continue no matter what the learning modality is in the future. For example, remote learning helped further our divisional goal of streamlining systems to improve content delivery and acquisition. We found that some students were experiencing challenges with organizational tasks like tracking assignments or finding assignments on class websites. We made some adjustments and in the future we will be moving to Google Classroom as our learning management system to help students spend less energy on logistics and more on learning.

Remote learning gave us the opportunity to pause and think about the essential content, skills, and dispositions students need in middle school as well as into the future. And the experience has shone a light on the importance of the partnership between the school and home. With learning primarily taking place in the home, the partnership between teachers, staff, administrators, parents, guardians, and students became even more important. It’s a moment that I hope we all build upon to continue to provide the best for our students.

Defining a New Learning Environment

By Aline Garcia-Rubio ’93, Head of Upper School

Change in education is oftentimes described as moving at a glacial speed. It is difficult to make quick progress within an institution and within larger systems. Whenever there is a disruption, we find ourselves in a situation that may catalyze change. This is an era of disruption. There are some silver linings and benefits from the situation.

The situation requires us to examine the intentions of our courses and education environments—what are the most essential learning goals in the life of school? What skills are students developing? What content knowledge do they need to acquire, and what conceptual understanding are they going to carry forward? What about all the social interactions, the character building, their emotional growth, their awareness of others, their agency toward justice? Suddenly, we’re in a situation where we are forced to really identify the essentials, to articulate them, and then redesign our plans with them in mind.

This is perfectly aligned with the plans that we’ve been working on: making teaching visible to the student and learning visible to the teacher; and emphasizing experiential learning. The situation has propelled us into giving students more choice. While aiming for the same learning goals, we have to ask: Where is there room for students to choose how they want to approach the task?

In working from home, students are learning all kinds of things. They’re using 3-D printers to make face shields; in the absence of co-curricular activities they are taking online courses from colleges and independent organizations; they’re making all sorts of art. At the moment, Catlin Gabel doesn’t award credit for the learning that doesn’t happen in our education environments. That has become an outdated way of thinking. I believe we’re going to examine our practice and define what to award credit for that students are learning independently. It’s independent of Catlin Gabel education, but it’s still education.

There are significant losses, too. The primary losses are in the social and extracurricular components of school life, in the exposure to the larger learning that the community is doing—the spontaneous interactions, music and other art, the interesting dialogues that happen in the hallways, clubs, athletics, and programs that are unavailable to us. This prompts some questions for the future: Could we redefine which environments are learning environments? What is the ideal balance for each different age group of independent work, collaborative work, interactive work, and in-person work? What’s going to invite them to grow?