Why is Distance Learning So Difficult?: 10 Reasons Why In-Person Learning is Important in a Child’s Education
After seeing the title of this article, we can all agree: Remote learning? It’s not easy. We’re all looking for the best-fit learning environment for our families, from our little ones to our high schoolers – and COVID hasn’t made it any easier. We all know remote/distance learning isn’t always the most conducive format for our young learners. But why is it so hard? And what can we do as parents to help make it actually work?
Even with some schools transitioning into a hybrid model, meeting in-person a few times a week, some of the distractions and difficulties still tend to persist with the absence of full time, in-person or live instruction.
Peg Dawson, Ed.D., NCSP gives us insight into the bind we might find ourselves in when it comes to distance learning in her article below.
In my mind, I keep going back to what changed when in-class instruction was curtailed. I’ve maintained that what got exposed was what I call the “hidden curriculum.” People expect kids to have executive skills but no one’s charged with teaching them. And for learning to take place, students either have to have very well-developed executive skills (which may not be developmentally appropriate, since these skills take a minimum of 25 years to reach maturation), or sufficient external supports need to be provided so that weak executive skills don’t prevent kids from learning.
A quick definition of executive skills: these are a set of behaviors, managed out of the frontal lobes, that allow students to “execute tasks”—or in the words of a second-grade teacher I know who wanted to figure out how to explain executive skills to children in her class, they are the skills you need to get things done. In the model that my colleague, Richard Guare, and I developed, the executive skills we feel are the most critical to school success are: response inhibition, working memory, emotional control, flexibility, sustained attention, task initiation, planning/prioritizing, organization, time management, goal-directed persistence, and metacognition.
So what external supports do schools, classrooms, and teachers typically provide with in-person learning that enable children with under-developed executive skills to be successful? Here’s a short list:
- An externally imposed schedule.
- Continuity—the schedule stays pretty much the same on a daily or weekly basis, so that students know what to expect on any given day in any given class.
- A location where learning and teaching are the sanctioned activities.
- A set of learning activities with externally imposed start and stop times.
- Visual cues to help students understand instructions and stay on task.
- Immediate support for students who struggle with the learning tasks.
- Common organizational structures (classrooms and desks) where learning materials are kept and made readily available.
- Limited expectations for students to manage their own time. By this, I mean homework assignments. With in-person learning, homework is limited to more proscribed work and the expectation is that most of that work can be done fairly quickly and handed in the next day. With distance/hybrid learning, students have much greater blocks of time to manage on their own and are more likely to have assignments that are spread out over several days (especially if their classes don’t meet every day). Even before the pandemic, block scheduling and long-term assignments posed a challenge for students who struggled with time management and planning. With distance learning, the problem is worse.
- The presence of a peer group that reinforces focus during in-class instruction and work completion. Peer groups also meet the social needs of students so that during non-instructional times, friendships are made and strengthened. For some kids, getting to see their friends in school is the primary motivator to get them out the door in the morning.
- The emotional connection between teacher and student. For some kids, the emotional connection they have with their teachers is what propelled them to do work they didn’t find particularly interesting or appealing (or at least less interesting or appealing than the other ways they spent their spare time). That emotional connection becomes much more tenuous when the only contact a student has with a teacher is through a Zoom class, with little opportunity for private conversations and words of encouragement.
When you peel all that away, what’s left? You’ve basically taken away massive amounts of support for executive skills. In the absence of all that scaffolding, the student basically has to impose self-discipline. When one googles this word, here are some of the definitions that come up:
- Self-discipline is the ability you have to control and motivate yourself, stay on track and do what is right.
- The ability to make yourself do things you know you should do even when you do not want to.
- The ability to make yourself do the things you know you ought to do, without someone making you do them.
- One of the sites I looked at noted that “Self-discipline is typically a learned behavior that people refine over time through practice and repetition.”
So basically, the pandemic took away all the supports that kids (and their parents) typically rely on for school performance and expected students to develop self-discipline with none of the practice and repetition that allows that skill to be developed!
Translating “self-discipline” into executive skill terminology, we’re basically talking about response inhibition, task initiation, and sustained attention. It’s the ability to set aside fun stuff or preferred activities, to start non-preferred activities (such as class attendance and homework) and to persist with them until the activities are completed. And to be able to propel oneself to do that all on one’s own!
“The kids are both LOVING school. They’ve settled in nicely, both making new friends and adjusting well to a big transition. They are both thrilled with their teachers- and we feel that this is a huge part of their smooth transition. They wake up happy and excited to go to school. We are excited to see what this year brings- and we are grateful. ”
– Tuttle Family on return to school
Portsmouth Christian Academy (PCA) offers on-site and off-site learning for students, putting families in the driver’s seat when it comes to their child’s learning environment. PCA offers synchronous and asynchronous options for students based on each family’s unique situation. The flexibility of offering both on and off-site learning has allowed the school the ability to pivot off-site when needed while still continuing to provide an excellent education.
Successfully implementing technology in the classroom, PCA is proud to continue utilizing its tools to carry out plans on the “path to normal”, working toward live, in-person instruction that maximizes each child’s potential to the fullest. Learn about how we can partner with your family to find the best fit for your child’s education. Visit our Academics page to see what PCA could have in store for your child this upcoming school year.