Distance Learning: A Journey of Discovery

In the early twentieth century, American philosopher and scholar John Dewey said, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Perhaps, as our country embarks upon a virtual education journey due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this statement is even more relevant now than it was at the time. Schools across the country have been forced to quickly pivot their educational plans without notice, and administrators are challenged with determining if curriculum should be synchronous (students engaging in real-time lessons) or asynchronous (students completing lessons independently).
When faced with this challenge, our School found clarity and direction from Dawson’s Core Beliefs, specifically, "We recognize students learn at different paces and in different ways, and we differentiate instruction accordingly." In keeping with this Core Belief, Dawson has implemented a blended synchronous and asynchronous curriculum model; meaning, some lessons are assigned for students to work through independently using a variety of online resources, while others are delivered through live video conferencing. This hybrid model enables teachers to continue and follow developmentally appropriate practices and differentiate student learning.

Climate of Care First
Now more than ever, social-emotional learning is essential. Our pivot toward a distance learning program focused first on student safety, wellness, and social connectedness. As our School transitioned to distance learning a few weeks ago, student climate of care was at the forefront of every faculty member’s mind. During the first week of distance learning, our goal was to create a new learning platform that made students feel unified, empowered, and engaged.

Assistant Head of School for Teaching & Learning Roxanne Stansbury urged teachers to “go slow before going fast.” Guided by her leadership, teachers spent the first week of distance learning focusing on student well-being and building fundamental digital skills such as time management, self-advocacy, and obviously, some technological know-how. Teachers remained mindful of cognitive overload and digital bombardment; they displayed empathy and compassion as students navigated uncharted waters.  

Unifying Tools
The immediacy of the distance learning implementation provided a great deal of uncertainty, yet a unifying tool that could guide the instructional design process and build the cohesion of our program was integral to our success. Thoughtful ideas were put into place, including an effectiveness rubric (below) that identified non-negotiable components of the learning plans created by teachers.

In addition, an Effectiveness Coach Model was designed to provide teachers with a student perspective of the online content and the organization of materials within the virtual classroom. The feedback loop provided by the effectiveness coaches allowed teachers to calibrate their daily lessons and better meet the developmental needs of their students. 

Faculty Model Resilience and Vulnerability with Use of Technology
Beyond these tools, a schedule for virtual check-ins was created: Faculty meet virtually as grade levels and department teams to discuss distance learning, efficacy resources, and student support. Dawson teachers continue to model resilience and vulnerability for their students by taking risks with new technology tools, websites, and applications, as well as remain intentional when incorporating experiential learning in all subjects. 

For example, middle school science teacher Elisa George challenged students to create a visible light lab, and health and fitness teacher Coach Jessica Balzano encouraged students to participate in a steps challenge. Assignments such as these not only provide needed content, but also authentic feedback through tools such as Flipgrid

During a fourth-grade math lesson, students learned multi-step multiplication through our blended synchronous and asynchronous model: Fourth graders attended a real-time video conference to receive guided support and then worked independently to plan a party and practice their new skills. By intentionally scaffolding lessons such as this, Dawson students receive the powerful benefits of a blended distance learning curriculum.

Looking Ahead
Dawson teachers are seasoned educators who are well equipped to create effective and engaging lessons within the physical classroom. Now they are challenged with transferring those same best practices into virtual platforms. Our school closure has pushed teachers to re-invent lesson planning and expand pedagogical practices, and I am extremely proud and encouraged by the progress our school has made in a very short time.
Looking ahead to the future, Dawson’s faculty is discussing innovative ways to apply newly acquired educational tools and methods to enhance forthcoming student experiences. As we continue to navigate through this unstable time, I find solace in Dewey’s quote; education has forever changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the experience has taught us that we can never again, “teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s.”I believe tomorrow’s students will be better for this.

For more information on Dawson's distance learning journey, watch Zoomcast Episode One

By Amanda Murray-Musgrave
Director of Early Childhood

The Alexander Dawson School

The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain, an independent school located on 33-acres in the community of Summerlin, is Nevada’s first Stanford University Challenge Success partner school for students in early childhood through grade eight. Utilizing the unique Challenge Success framework, Dawson uses research-based strategies and programs that emphasize student academics, wellbeing, and a healthy school-life balance to create more engaged, motivated, and resilient learners and leaders. At Dawson, students achieve their individual potential while savoring life and meeting the challenges of the world.