What’s lost in online learning?

K-12 schools are facing uncertainty and the possibility of continuing remote learning this coming fall. Perhaps this is necessary in some parts of the country. But what will it mean for our students, their academic progress, and the way we think about K-12 education?

Even if remote learning is necessary for a little while longer, our students will be longing to attend school in person, and teachers will be longing for the same. Especially in classical schools, online or remote education just can’t match the real thing. Why is that?

Even the highest quality remote instruction can’t compare to what happens in great classical schools each day.

1. There are logistical challenges that affect students’ experience. No matter how technically savvy the teacher, remote or virtual instruction is always going to be clunkier and less engaging than in person instruction.

Even the best prepared online lessons can’t match the quality of in person instruction.

Great teachers are so attuned to their students that even something as subtle as a slight change in facial expression gives them a cue about that student. Things like that get missed when internet connections are weak and faces are blurry. Teaching via Zoom is like having one hand tied behind your back. It’s less effective and therefore less rewarding for teachers.

It’s more efficient for schools to provide asynchronous instruction (where students watch pre-recorded sessions rather than being there live) than synchronous instruction (where students participate in a live class), but in asynchronous instruction, the teacher-student relationship is totally absent. This robs the teacher of essential information about the students he or she is teaching, and of course, the students themselves are much less engaged when they’re not there with the teacher in person.

Great teachers put a lot of thought into the physical space in which students will learn. They carefully select art and maps to put on the walls, measure the height of student desks so that students can sit comfortably, and they think carefully about all of their classroom procedures before the year begins. They understand that great learning is possible in a great learning environment. But with remote instruction, students may or may not have quiet, good places to listen and to write, or the ability to focus. And no matter what, they will be attending school in wildly different physical spaces. This makes it hard for even the best teachers to bring their classes together.

2. Online learning deprives students of role models.

Students in Ms. Frost’s second grade class at Golden View Classical Academy memorize a poem together.

Classical education is about learning information, but it’s more than that, too. Classical schools teach good character, and the first way students learn about character is by watching the adults and older students around them.

Online learning takes away all of the hallway interactions, before and after school conversations, and silent lessons that students learn when they go to school. Teachers do as much teaching by being present in the school as they do when they are preparing lessons and standing in front of a classroom. If a teacher is just a talking head on a screen for 50 minutes a day, or even longer, students will learn less.

3. Online learning is better at mere content delivery than teaching deeper lessons.

5th grade students at Founders Classical Academy of Leander prepare for upper school life by discussing the virtues with Headmaster Mr. Sowers.

Education is more than just knowledge transfer. To be well educated human being requires memorizing things and learning facts, but it’s much more than that, too. A well educated person can put the facts together, and form sound opinions about good and bad, right and wrong. Those higher things are much easier to accomplish in person, because conversation with a teacher and fellow students is the best way to learn not just what to think, but how to think.

If the purpose of school is to fill a child’s head with content-specific information, teacher’s aren’t actually necessary. An online textbook or presentation would suffice. But teachers, and the conversations they have with students, lead to wisdom—the right use of knowledge. Wisdom comes not only from knowledge being passed on in class, but the experience of learning it.

People need community, and this is particularly true for young people engaged in the essential work of learning. Students who struggle together, who continue conversations around lunch tables, who learn from the examples of their teachers and each other understand that learning is a way of life, not a series of boxes to be checked.

Compromises may be necessary in these extraordinary times, but let’s make those compromises when they are necessary and without forgetting the true purpose of K-12 education.

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