Maxine McKinney de Royston has a pair of perspectives on virtual learning.
The parent of three is also an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, seeing the clash between the reality of what the Madison Metropolitan School District is implementing and what she considers best practices.
MMSD has moved to a nearly full-day schedule of live, remote instruction this fall after its unexpected transition to virtual learning in the spring, when students were learning through screens for fewer hours. McKinney de Royston is concerned the fall plan has "gone a little too far" in requiring too much active screen time.
“I feel like it's just gone too far to the over-planning side and the over-structured side, which is unfortunate, but I also understand that there's competing needs,” she said during the first week of school. “There's the needs by the Department of Public Instruction to get a certain number of instructional minutes. And so everybody's between a rock and a hard place.
“It's just as somebody who studies learning I'm like, ‘No!’”
McKinney de Royston spoke with the Cap Times about what she thinks parents should consider as they help guide their children through virtual learning, encouraging flexibility and recognizing the different methods of learning. She created a “three things” Flipgrid video on the subject for a class.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
From your perspective, both as someone who studies learning and as a parent, what has it been like to watch how the education world has handled the past six months?
It's been very difficult. And it's difficult for a number of reasons. It's difficult because I know that teachers and administrators and school districts are honestly doing the best that they absolutely can. I know that they have good intentions, I know that they're trying hard. I have never gone to a school district or to the Department of Public Instruction, and seen people sitting there drinking coffee, eating doughnuts, and like doing crossword puzzles. People are working their tails off. So I know that people are working very hard and know that people actually care about children.
That being said, I think we're in a place where we have certain ideas about what education looks like, and what schools look like, and what learning looks like, that inhibit us from actually doing the hard work that we need to do to support learning. So right now we have assessments like standardized tests, that tell us when learning is happening, and what kinds of learning is happening. But the ways of learning that they're capturing are very, very narrow.
In your “three things” Flipgrid video, you said learning is multifaceted. Can you explain a bit more about what you meant by that and how parents and teachers can use that idea right now?
One big thing, in terms of understanding learning is multifaceted, is to understand the many ways that learning happens. So we think about learning as cognitive, kind of in-the-brain work. But learning is embodied, it's relational, it's emotional, it's cultural.
Learning is happening all the time and everywhere. So if I know that learning is embodied, I'm not going to say, "Okay, I just need a couple of movement breaks throughout the day." It's going to be something like, "Okay, well, if I'm going to do a morning meeting from 8:30 to 9, maybe I'm going to build within that 8:30 to 9 space an opportunity for us to move our bodies and say, "Okay, the theme for all of today is going to be about understanding how energy works. We're going to look at that in our literacy lesson, we're going to look at that in our math lesson, we're going to look at that in our science lesson, we're going to look at that in our art lesson and our music lessons. And we're going to start a morning meeting by asking each of you to show how you think energy works by using your body." And each of the kids could stand up and do that. Instead, what I see is the morning meeting is everybody sitting in the chairs, looking at the Brady Bunch boxes, and talking.
How do you think teachers can best do that in a virtual environment where they may still be getting to know their students as well through this medium?
One of the things I like to think about is how every idea about learning kind of evokes an idea about teaching. And every idea about teaching and learning is also an idea about society. So if I know that, in society right now, literally, the world is on fire on the west coast, literally anti-Black violence is happening everywhere and kids of all races are trying to make sense of this. And I know that there's a pandemic going on, and kids are wearing masks and doing other kinds of routines that are very foreign to what they're used to, including not being able to see their friends that much or if they see them, not being able to touch them, which is a huge thing.
If I know all of these things, and that's what's going on in society, then I would stop and say, "Well, what are kids learning given all of these things? What are they taking out from this? And how can that inform both what I teach and how I teach?" So knowing that all those things are happening is going to inform how I teach by like, you know what, this may not be the time for me to be the nitpicker about, "I need to have your video on at all times."
You’ve said learning can and should be messy. I think a lot of parents right now are trying to figure out how to keep their kids in front of the screen throughout the day or engaged with the hours of time that they're supposed to be on. What would you say to those parents on that “learning is messy” concept?
This is the advice I give myself, let me be clear. I'm not gonna give any advice that I don't have for myself, which is, one, we have to let go of the idea that our kids are going to learn like they had learned in schools. Let it go. Not happening, let it go. The other is to let go of the idea that test scores are going to demonstrate learning. Let go of that idea. Will there be loss this year in terms of kids' learning? There probably will be in terms of the very rigid ways that we think about learning. And that's concerning, especially for kids for whom we know that school is a main place where they're getting content.
That being said, I honestly feel like as a parent, I can't be beholden to that loss. So for me, putting my kid in front of the screen for learning is the opposite of what I'm actually going to do where I think learning is going to happen.
Because most of the learning is going to happen off screen when they apply the things that they're seeing on screen into other activities. So what I would tell parents is to really differentiate between, "Do you need your kid to just be doing something so that you can get some work done? Or are you trying to support your kid in actually learning?" And both of those are really valid goals.
And then the third thing I say is to honor the fact that what kids are learning right now is very, very important even if it's not connected to anybody's standards.
I'm very good at school. I have been very good at school for a long time. I do not remember half of what I learned when I was in elementary school, or high school — hell, even college. And I'm fine. But the most important learning often happened around things that were not explicitly being taught to me. How I engage in the world, how I'm able to critically make sense around what is being told to me by public health officials.
A lot of those things had to do with the things that my parents told me, my grandparents told me, other people told me. And so that's really important learning. So how do we offer up opportunities for kids to embrace that kind of learning as valuable information and knowledge, as opposed to only prioritize what is being taught in schools?
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