Thoughts on Distance Learning – Vol. 2

“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” 

Mr. Rogers, the education pioneer, had this quote hanging in his Pittsburg studio. He spent his life searching for what was most essential. In his time, it was a radical concept to truly listen to and empathize with a child. Today, it’s commonplace, and deemed critical to include their voice and feelings in their development.

We are living in the most unusual period we have ever experienced, where feelings and emotions often feel more important than academics. The social isolation, the loss of the familiar and routine, the sudden illness of friends and loved ones, and the distressing economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have taxed every single one of us. We are seeing the best and sometimes the worst versions of ourselves, and there is no surfeit of advice coming our way. Each day is an exercise in coping, finding balance, and searching for meaning.

In finding strength and purpose, we draw from a variety of sources: faith, psychology, science, experience, intuition, and other frameworks. In the last decade, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has deeply influenced me personally and professionally. MBSR is an eight-week evidence-based program that offers secular, intensive mindfulness training to assist people with stress, anxiety, depression and pain. Mindfulness has influenced all professional sectors, and has resonated across all age groups.

This past school year, I offered the eight-week course at the American School of Dubai (ASD). Forty-five of us (parents and teachers) formed a community and engaged in the MBSR practices and curriculum.  Equal parts meditation, yoga, self-reflection, and group dialogue, MBSR is centered on nine Foundational Attitudes: Non-judging, Patience, Beginner’s mindset, Trust, Non-striving, Acceptance, Letting go, Generosity, and Gratitude.

As ASD finishes its third week of distance learning, and continues to make adjustments to achieve the right balance between self-paced learning and real-time connection, I have reflected on how these nine attributes can serve as both a lens for purpose and also a source of strength during this challenging time.

Non-judging: Every one of us is doing the very best we can in this unprecedented situation. There will be good days and bad days, times when learning flourishes and other times when learning sputters. Schools can be easy targets for the venting of frustrations. Judging can lock us into reactive patterns of thinking and behaviors that ultimately do not serve us well, and can lead to interpersonal conflict. Taking a compassionate and open-minded, nonjudgmental approach, can disarm our frustration and resentment, removing the caustic effects of that powerful emotion. 

Patience: We have never needed patience more than we need it now, as the school makes adjustments to the program, and tries new ideas. Distance learning is new to our teachers as well, who were trained in a very different context. Impatience is rooted in a conflict between what we would like to happen and what the reality actually is. In cultivating calm and self-control through patience, we draw from our beliefs (recognizing that all things have a life cycle and are constantly changing), and we send kindness and compassion back to ourselves. What a gift!

Beginner’s mindset:  “What is life but the angle of vision.” Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that the perspective we take on a situation can make all the difference. While schooling is familiar, distance learning is not. If we approach this period as if we are seeing and experiencing it for the first time, we become open to discovery, an invigorating experience. This is vuja de, the opposite of déjà vu, which enables us to gain new insights when we meet the familiar with a new perspective.

Trust: For my own high school – aged children, I am taking the long-view, reminding myself that they will be okay in the long run. True tragedy is death and ruin, and not inconvenience or altered learning. I am trusting myself and my feelings, and that I can see clearly and maintain proper perspective in this crisis.

Non-striving: Stanford educator Denise Pope coined the phrase “doing school”, describing how many youth endeavor for perfect grades and entrance to name-brand universities. School becomes a game to be won or lost. The problem with striving, which is very different from having aspirations or reachable goals, is two-fold: it can be very hard if not impossible to achieve, since so much of life is generally out of our direct sphere of control; and it can lead to a vicious cycle that does not end after acceptance to university. With more relaxed grading schemes, and diminished AP and IB exam rigor, it is our hope that this distance learning period forces our students who are “doing school” to take a step back, take their feet off the accelerator, and develop a healthier relationship with grades and achievement motivation.

Acceptance: It is important to validate feelings of anger, grief, or fear. A willingness to accept that this moment right now is our reality, and that we cannot get back what was lost, can lead to well-being and transformation. We may not be able do a traditional graduation at ASD, but we can still celebrate our graduates. We cannot perform in our beautiful theatre, but we can broadcast these performances widely to our communities.  We are better able to meet the myriad of emotions when we can see clearly and accept the reality in which we are living.

Letting Go: It is a uniquely human quality to cling strongly to ideas and beliefs, or to want our situation to be different. Clinging is driven by our likes, dislikes, and judgments. With so much out of our control in this moment, just letting things be can liberate us from a self-imposed, angst-ridden prison.

Generosity: Many think of generosity as the practical sharing of our resources, skills, and wisdom. But on a simple level, generosity is giving our time and attention to those we love, and doing so with a warm heart and kindness. The home isolation that we are all experiencing is the perfect excuse to be present, to find moments to disconnect from our virtual worlds, and give what our children want most from us: our attention.

Gratitude: One of my favorite proverbs is, “When you are angry at someone, give them a gift.” How counterintuitive! Practicing gratitude, whether through service, through reaching out to someone who is struggling, or simply through a kind smile, creates in our mind a kind of buffer to negativity or fussing. I am so grateful to be part of the ASD community during this crisis, and thankful for the health of those immediately around us. Positivity is the kryptonite to negativity, and can snuff out the smoldering fires of disappointment.

Finally, I would like to share a quote sent to me by a friend: “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” (David Hollis)

Additional source material from the MBSR curriculum, and from Adam Grant.

Thoughts on Distance Learning – Vol. 1

“We must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.”  – Gerald G. Jampolsky (American Psychiatrist, age 95)

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented stress on schools and their ability to deliver their programs. Educators around the world have responded admirably to the challenge, as have their students and communities. HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum told the nation this week, “Our education and learning drive will never stop, no matter the circumstances.” This is truth.

Distance learning has started in earnest at the American School of Dubai (ASD). Before it launched, significant thought and research went into developing a comprehensive Continuity of Learning (COL) plan. This included gathering valuable testimonials from sister schools in Asia, who have been living in this present reality for several weeks now.

Distance learning is not new to the education sector. Fully online schools have supported home-schooled students for decades, though maintaining quality of product has been a challenge for the online industry, as many providers simply replicate a passive, teacher-driven learning environment (think correspondence courses of a past era). 

However, there are several exemplary providers of distance education, with the Global Online Academy (GOA) leading the pack (of which ASD is a member school). For nearly a decade, the GOA has leveraged a network of dozens of the finest American and international independent schools, enlisting teachers from these schools to offer a progressive, student-driven, networked learning experience. Hallmarks of GOA’s pedagogy, each of which can be seen in ASD’s COL plan, include:

  • Maintaining strong online learning communities that foster connection and relationships.
  • Reimagining learning, rather than replicating what would have been offered in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Doing the latter has proven unsustainable to teachers and students alike.
  • Finding a balance between asynchronous learning (which allows students to self-pace their work) and synchronous learning (which fosters connection). 
  • Using assessments that allow students to demonstrate their learning through application of the content, rather than regurgitation of facts.

An ASD student’s day (let’s use Yasmine, grade 8, as an example) starts in the morning with her logging in to an online learning platform–Google Classroom–and receiving her asynchronous assignments for the day. She records this in a planner provided to her by the middle school. Yasmine is able to access ASD’s teachers, counselors, and administrators during the daily “office hours”, which leads up to her lunchtime break. Yasmine can choose to consult with a teacher via Google Hangouts, join a synchronous activity with her math class, or start a video chat with her classmates. Yasmine has accessed her learning community to get what she needs, but has done so virtually. She is owning her learning and building agency.

After a healthy lunch and some fresh air, Yasmine’s afternoon is spent continuing to work on her assignments. This may involve further consultation with her teachers. Once finished with her schoolwork, her attention turns to a balance of healthy and fun activities, time with family, and additional home learning through accessing engaging web resources, such as this one from World of Humanities, which links Minecraft and History. Yasmine retires for the night at her normal bedtime hour with an increased sense of confidence (from her successful self-management of her learning). She misses her friends badly, and the fun of extra-curricular activities, but she is in a good and safe place.

ASD will need to be adaptive if its distance learning program becomes a long-term endeavor. It may need to adjust the balance between asynchronous and synchronous activities for some teachers. It may need to re-engage students who lag in their responsibilities. In some cases, teachers may be asked to draw back the amount of work assigned, and in other cases, they will be asked to increase their students’ workload. We will do so by both monitoring online activity, and by routinely gathering feedback from students and their parents. Adaptation is critical due to the inherent challenges of the sudden shift from campus learning to distance learning. 

ASD is confronting many challenges already, only a few days into distance learning: 

  • Managing some parents’ inclination to prefer excessive structure and traditional methodology (e.g. video lecturing). We are reminding parents of ASD’s student-centered approach to teaching and learning.
  • Finding a proper balance of screen time and being unplugged. We are asking parents to track and manage total screen time for their children.
  • Fostering simplicity by asking teachers to avoid introducing new, cumbersome tools to the learning environment (just hosting synchronous activities and creating video content have been overwhelming for many).
  • Connecting with at-risk students who will find distance learning especially challenging, or those who need mental health support.
  • Managing the countless WhatsApp groups in our community. It has been said that “anxiety loves company”, and this medium thrives on anxiety and conflict. These online forums do not seem to be serving people’s mental health well.

It is not just society that may fundamentally change after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Education and the future of schooling will change forever, and this should be seen as a good thing! In this new world, after experiencing a successful distance learning experience, students will have cultivated greater ownership and agency in their learning, and developed more self-awareness of themselves as learners. Teachers will have gained additional skills, incorporating asynchronous activities into their instruction, thus creating more of a hybrid learning experience for students (i.e. teachers will finally relinquish a substantial degree of control). Parents will realize the potential of home learning (beyond worksheets), develop greater empathy for teachers, and see the home-school partnership grow stronger. Families will flourish and bonds will grow deeper. Communities will thrive at a new level.

Finally, it behooves all of us in this distressing and scary time to find the beauty in the ugly or the difficult, for beauty is always around us, if we take the time to look for it. Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince wrote, “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Finding beauty is an essential endeavor, and it is best done through being present and noticing the little things, such as a child discovering something new and exciting, or watching creativity spring up from unexpected sources, or bonding with someone who you lost touch with. Have you noticed the abundance of flowers blooming and birds singing across Dubai? Finding beauty leads to happiness and contentment, and will get us through this crisis.

ASD greatly appreciates the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) for sharing these moments of beauty each day via Twitter, and its role in galvanizing and supporting Dubai’s private schools to meet this challenge head-on. ASD is also extremely thankful for the UAE’s proactive and decisive efforts to make our communities safe and to keep the learning going. #InThisTogetherDubai

Dr. Paul Richards

Superintendent, ASD

(Father of two distance learning students)