Authenticity and Collaboration in an Online Setting

Dawson’s pivot to distance learning is a differentiator. From planning to execution to content, our faculty is leading the way in how to design a program that is best for kids. In our latest Zoomcast episode on distance learning, we hear from Assistant Head of School Roxanne Stansbury, Assistant Head of School for Advancement Andrew Bishop, and incredible faculty members Matt Reynolds, Nikki Baker, Hung Le, and Simon Hunt on how Dawson maintains authenticity and collaboration in an online setting. This blog post will complement that discussion and include key examples and links.
Distance learning is an excellent time to leverage open-ended tasks, complex instruction, and write-to-learn activities. For instance, Matt Reynolds, sixth and seventh-grade algebra and pre-algebra teacher, explained how he uses Flipgrid, Google Meet, and desmos in an online setting to measure competencies, empower students to explain their mathematical processes, and model courage over comfort by encouraging mistakes and risk-taking. The creation of a culture supportive of authentic learning is one of the most important elements of a successful online program.

Past research suggests that students learn better in cooperative settings than alone, so a virtual learning classroom still should be a place where teachers and students work together in a collaborative, social environment to develop meaningful learning activities for all students. For example, the first section of our single point rubric designed for distance learning is engagement and wellness. This simple framework builds on a constructivist environment, wherein teachers help students scaffold their learning based on prior knowledge, interest, and skill level. Dawson faculty use reflection, breakout roomsSeesaw portfolios, and projects as tools to encourage students to expand their knowledge of a certain topic. This process builds cognitive skills and encourages student learning by emphasizing relevance, problem-solving, and agency. In sum, the nature of the “essential components” and “key elements” outlined above suggests that authentic learning should be learner-centered, not curriculum-centered. Successful authentic learning programs focus on the individual needs of the student and create supportive learning environments conducive to self-directed learning.

True, deep learning happens not on a worksheet or through a series of commercial videos and closed-ended questions. Learning is a conversation; it requires connection and interaction. As an illustration, Nikki Baker, second-grade instructor, explained how she uses Flipgrid with her students to answer the following question, “How would you teach a first-grader to solve a problem using partial sums?” Assessments also reflect the student-centered focus of authentic instruction. Simon Hunt, seventh-grade critical literacies teacher, uses assessments designed to help students reflect on their work and create strategies to improve and develop their own internal standards. He accomplishes this by providing students choice in dystopian novel selection, writing poetry, composing essays on Voice and Power, and designing lessons for the transfer of knowledge during synchronous and asynchronous classes. As Mr. Hunt says during the Zoomcast, “If it doesn’t transfer, then it doesn’t matter.” Formative assessments are an integral part of the online learning process and should be learning experiences within themselves, strengthening the quality of students’ work and their understanding of themselves as learners. Students are evaluated on multiple measures, and input from teachers, mentors, and advisors factor into the evaluation process. As such, the process used for student assessment allows family, peers, and mentors to contribute meaningfully to students’ progress. The key elements for student evaluation in distance learning include components such as virtual exhibitions, digital portfolios, narratives, and Google Forms. Ultimately, students learn to measure themselves against personal benchmarks and the question: “Is it good enough?”

The current crisis allows educators to reflect on what it truly means to learn. One of the most useful components of distance learning is that we are all in this together. Hung Le, Dawson’s art instructor for grades 3-8, teamed up with Dawson’s sister school in Colorado for an art project on COVID-19. Students created original pieces to explain the impact of the pandemic on society and develop empathy. Collaboration, concentric communities at the micro and macro levels, and common experience have united schools, professional organizations, and educators across the world. Dawson faculty come together in communities that focus on improving practice and professional skills, which in turn promotes effective collaboration and communication between teachers. Dawson’s Data Intervention and Response Team meets bi-weekly to examine the current reality of practices and devise ways to improve upon those practices to increase student motivation and achievement: grade-level teams, instructional coaches, and faculty leaders encourage the examination of student work, observations of other teachers’ classroom practices, and the sharing of common goals. Because professional learning communities give teachers the opportunity to present and discuss individual student achievement and progress, they are particularly useful for promoting methods of effective online instruction.

Building authenticity and collaboration in an online setting for every student support Dawson in living its Vision, “Our graduates will be ready to achieve their individual potential, savor life and meet the challenges of the world.” Compared to the “one-size-fits-all” philosophy of traditional instructional methods, effective online instruction adopts a student-centered instructional focus. Distance learning programs should utilize 21st-century technology and skills to incorporate students’ needs, interests, and aspirations into instructional strategies customized for each student. The most effective distance learning programs comprise strong, positive, learning-focused environments that involve the larger community of students, parents, and teachers.

Learn more about authenticity and collaboration in Dawson's distance learning program in our latest Zoomcast.

By Chris Estrella
Director of K-8

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.