Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Distance Learning. Online Learning. Homeschooling. What’s the Difference?

As schools have been required to move their programs from in person to virtual, they have used a number of tools to deliver educational programming to students. Seabury has referred to our at-home program as Distance Learning – Seabury Style because that best describes the program we are providing for our students during this time apart. While we are using online tools and students learn at home, there are some significant differences between online learning, homeschooling, and distance learning. Especially Distance Learning – Seabury Style.

Online learning is widely available. It is designed to deliver content, often in a step-by-step fashion. Students complete a placement test and begin a series of lessons designed to incrementally increase their knowledge and skills. Even in online programs where students have access to a teacher, the primary role of that teacher is to deliver content. Khan Academy, Duolingo and Beast Academy are great examples of online learning programs. Some of our teachers use online learning programs as part of our broader distance-learning program and find they work particularly well when teaching discrete, sequential skills. These programs typically do not provide opportunities for exploring broader multidisciplinary concepts or for collaboration, discussion or building relationships between teachers and students.  Expectations are generalized; programming is based on the progression and pace of typical students.  Even when there are opportunities to test out of skills and speed up the pace of learning, the steps still tend to be small and sequential.  While this can be helpful for some students, some of our students have found this step-by-step approach to be confining when they are able to take bigger leaps in their learning.

Distance learning also shares similarities with homeschooling, but it’s not the same. Homeschooling parents are responsible for seeking out curriculum materials, developing lessons, assessing student progress – for both creating and delivering the child’s educational program. In distance learning, Seabury’s teachers are doing that work. Parents provide the space, time and encouragement for learning to happen – ideally they act as coaches and cheerleaders for the learning process. The program itself, including daily lessons, group and individual gatherings, differentiation for individual needs, evaluation of student work, are provided by Seabury’s teachers. It’s a partnership. A number of our families have homeschooled at some point in their child’s life and have shared that there is a huge difference between helping their children access Seabury’s program and having to create their own programs for their children.

Distance learning, and particularly Distance Learning – Seabury Style, is relational. It is built on relationships between teachers and students, as well as among students. Distance learning is a more complete educational program than online learning. It is designed not just to cover content with one-size-fits-all packets or learning modules. Distance learning teachers design learning experiences for the particular interests, needs and abilities of specific groups of students at specific times.

Just as Seabury’s teachers tailor expectations to address an individual student’s academic needs at school, teachers pay attention to the whole child in distance learning and make adjustments daily. They determine who needs extra help, provide additional challenges for students who want more, and make adjustments for learning needs or family circumstances that require changes in expectations, assignments or timelines. Our specialists provide opportunities for students to engage with art, music and movement. Activities such as class meetings, individual meetings, virtual recess, middle school advisories and class clubs provide students with social opportunities, stress management, and support from adults and kids, in addition to those in their families. Middle school students start their day with a mindfulness activity to help them be centered and engaged. Preschool and kindergarten students have regular sharing times where they get to have the spotlight, and also listen to each other, just as they would in circle time at school.

Just like at school, our teachers evaluate students’ progress and readiness for new material not only through the work they turn in, but through their participation in discussions and individual and small group meetings. Parents and other family members can serve as facilitators and cheerleaders and leave the job of assessment to teachers, who help students decide when their work is good enough and it’s time to move on. Teachers are there to provide the support and encouragement needed for continued growth.

Doing school at home is hard work whether you are supporting your child with online learning, creating a homeschool program, or facilitating their participation in distance-learning. The past months have been a time of learning new routines, figuring out how to manage work and play in the same space, and finding new ways to engage with one another.

We’ve learned a lot during this time that has allowed us to make Distance Learning – Seabury Style even more responsive to the needs of our students and their families. We look forward to the day when we can be back together in person. Regardless of what is required of schools next year, we will be ready to provide Learning – Seabury Style, whether we are 6 feet apart or meeting from a greater distance.

– Head of School Sandi Wollum

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