Spirit of Math is an after-school school for high performing students. Our focus is to introduce higher level thinking and challenges for high performing students. The classes focus on problem solving, collaborative group work, intense discussions, presentations and lots of skill-development practice. This was accomplished well in an environment consisting of in-person classes combined with an online learning management system (LMS). This worked well and developed high level logical reasoning. Shifting all our classes to online meant that the experience was going to be different, not only for the student but for the teachers and the administrators. Because of our complex needs, we have been closely watching the changes that the virtual classes have brought to education. Now that we are in our third week, there are some lesson learned and some patterns and interesting observations emerging.
- The skills of the teachers are magnified. If a teacher was highly skilled in their teaching, such as asking questions, classroom discipline and student engagement, then those skills are shining and are very clear. If a teacher in the in-person classroom was having difficulty with any of these skills, then it cannot not be hidden online. The lack of skills became extremely clear to all those who watched. This consequently has allowed for a much richer discussion regarding teacher professional development needs, and principal development.
- There is an interesting pattern that is appearing. The teachers are speaking more loudly than needed. What happens is that they are talking “at” the kids, raising their voice thinking that the kids will understand the idea better… similar to what happens when people talk to someone who doesn’t speak their language – they talk louder, thinking that they will understand better. Teachers will also talk “at” students trying to engage them and control them because there is very little the teacher can do physically. We are now making the teachers aware of this and helping them use their language and other skills better, rather than the volume of their voices.
- Student engagement is tougher to do. If a teacher depended on engaging students by having them do different activities by moving around, then this doesn’t work anymore. They now must figure out other ways to mentally engage students and get them to think more thoughtfully.
- A good teacher will continually asses the progress of the students during the class. This assessment occurs when a new concept is being “unfolded” with the students, when students work on questions, developing their skills, and throughout the class when students are answering questions, questioning themselves and engaged in conversations with other students. When you are online in a virtual classroom, this assessment is much harder to do, and I would argue almost impossible at times, which means that it is much harder for a teacher to be as effective as they would in an in-class situation. It is also much harder to re-direct students. The questioning and engagement techniques become even more important as those form the basis for the continual formative assessment.
- When teachers become more familiar with the technology, they can relax some more, and their teaching improves. They are greatly affected by their ability to communicate in a variety of modes online. A teacher who can quickly jump from a survey, to writing on a white board, to splitting students into discussion groups are those who are not only engaging students better, but their own enjoyment also improves. Teachers learn this very quickly, even those who found it tough to begin with.