Students Struggling in Virtual Classrooms Show a Glaring Problem in Our Schools

by Todd Stanley

As anyone not living in a cave knows, COVID has shut down business as usual at most schools and students are learning virtually a lot more than they used to. This is working for some students, but not all. 

Case in point, my own daughter, who is an 8th grader, with two college-educated parents and one sister in college in the home, is struggling in her studies. She is one of those kids that needs a classroom environment where the teacher is always telling her what to do and when to move onto the next lesson. In a virtual setting, because there is not that presence hanging over her, she decides to do some things, but when she does not understand something or has a technology issue, she sort of ignores the assignment and moves onto something else. As a result, her grades are not where they used to be. And don’t think, as the district gifted coordinator and an educator for over 20 years, that I don’t feel like the worst father in the world. This is like a professional basketball player having a son who is not good at shooting free throws, or a professional writer whose kids don’t like to read (yes, that one hangs over my head as well). 

So I have been spending a lot of time lately working with my daughter, going through all of her assignments, checking in through email with her teachers, and trying to get her to a place where she is back on track and able to actually learn something. Some would chalk up my daughter’s problem to a lack of executive functioning skills. She needs to be taught to be more organized. And while this is true to a certain extent, it still doesn’t take away from the fact that if the teacher is not laying down the breadcrumbs in their LMS or classroom, she isn’t going to go where they want her to, no matter how organized she is. This problem is a much larger one. 

Through this process, I had something verified for me that I suspected all along; a lot of kids don’t know how to learn on their own. My daughter has been in schools for 10 years, and in that time, did not have a teacher who taught her to learn independently. As a result, she has become a dolphin in captivity. Instead of being able to find food on her own, she waits for the trainer to come to the dock and hand-feed her fish. If that trainer doesn’t show up one day, the dolphin doesn’t know what to do and just goes hungry. Similarly, my daughter does not know how to learn without a teacher being there to give her the information. 

Interestingly enough, my older daughter, who is taking all of her college classes on-line, has zero problems independently learning. She actually turns her camera off when the professors are talking and takes a nap, then wakes up and learns the information for herself, which she then uses to work on her projects. She has figured out how to independently learn for herself so well that her teachers are no longer necessary for her to learn. 

Some might claim this is a difference in maturity, but I would wager if my older daughter were in 8th grade when the pandemic hit, she would have not only survived, but thrived. This is because she had teachers both at a Montessori elementary school and then at a gifted program in middle school, who taught her independent learning. In Montessori school, she made her own work plan for the week as a 2nd grader, completing tasks at her own pace, prioritizing assignments that were more important than others. In middle school, she did a lot of project-based learning where she was given three weeks for a project, provided some parameters, and then allowed to work at her own leisure as long as she met the deadline. She did this for four years in the gifted program and learned a lot of skills that allowed her to figure out for herself how to learn. 

Meanwhile, my younger daughter had a lot of traditional education where the teacher stands at the front of the room, disseminating information like Oprah giving out cars. A teacher can still be engaging in this manner and students can be learning, but what happens when the teacher is no longer there driving the learning is the issue. This is what is happening to many of our students in the virtual setting who are struggling. 

This ultimately comes down to the Confucian saying of the fish. If you give a person a fish, he will eat for a single day. If you teach him how to fish, he will eat the rest of his life. Schools need to stop giving students the fish and instead, teach them how to catch them for themselves. Then learning at home wouldn’t be such a problem. Of course, this still requires the teacher in the virtual setting to provide projects and other open-ended learning in order for the students to put this skill to use. If you are simply downloading worksheets, doing Quizlets, or listening to a lecture, they are still being given the fish. 

The logical question is, what can we do about this? How can we ensure students are able to fish by themselves instead of depending on the teacher? Inquiry learning is the key. Giving students space and resources to find something out for themselves goes a long way in teaching them self-reliance. You can try this out in your virtual classroom. Don’t just give them activities with close-ended questions that need to be turned in that day. Allow them to work on some long-term projects or do some independent learning. Here is a video to help get students started on how to set this up so that they have scaffolds and structure

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