What can we learn from the discussion about Distance Learning Successes and Failures?

Over the last few months I’ve seen headlines proclaiming distance learning a success and many proclaiming a failure. It’s so interesting to me to dig into what these stories really reveal about how the author and audience understand education systems.

First, let’s start with synchronous and asynchronous. This is in some ways a buzz word conversation but it has real time implications for our teachers, leaders, students and families. Both types of learning are incredibly important to students building and demonstrating understanding. And both happen in our day-to-day “normal” face-to-face school day.

In both asynchronous and synchronous learning, the teacher is intentionally creating opportunities for students to explore ideas, practice and demonstrate learning.

Recently headlines proclaimed distance learning as a failure when synchronous learning was disrupted by technical failures. I would argue (as did this student in his letter to the editor. Thank you John Pendergrass!) that many students and teachers engaged successfully in asynchronous learning throughout the weeks that challenged and engaged them. Simply losing a face to face meeting didn’t change that… yet that wasn’t the story told by the headlines.

Now, is this a matter of sensationalism? Or is this evidence of a deeper misunderstanding of what teaching and learning really means? I’d argue that it reveals more of a misunderstanding of what teachers and students in school today REALLY do each day.

In talking with a colleague recently I had an aha moment. Many who attended school remember the teacher standing at the front of the room, sharing the infinite knowledge. This “sage on a stage” model is what many view teaching as, a profession where we stand and talk or lead discussions throughout the day.

Over the last decade a shift has been happening to what many refer to as “student centered learning.” This means the students have choice over activities they complete, sometimes over topics. Students may work cooperatively with others to learn and present materials. Teachers may design Project Based Learning (PBL) units for students to work on a real life scenario connected to content. Each of these learning opportunities depends on collaboration, critical and creative thinking, and communication with other students.

Student Centered Learning looks very different and may include a small part of “teacher centered learning” or that “sage on the stage” as a mini-lesson or an opening to a class. However, it is not the 60 minute lectures many adults (educators and non-educators alike) experienced in school. Students are evaluating primary sources and documents, creating new content to display their learning, reflecting on what they already know and what they are learning and comparing the two with classmates.

So my question is… are we measuring the success of distance learning against what WE (adults) experienced in school? Or are we measuring against what our students experience?

We need leaders who will explain the difference in learning objectives and outcomes. We need to talk about what IS working for students and why.

Until we are able to talk about learning in terms of student centered learning and explain that to the broader public, we won’t have an accurate appraisal of the success or failure of distance learning. And I’m afraid it causes even more challenges for the plans to return to school. Because we see many members of the public pushing for a return to learning with social distancing, a return to teacher centered learning, which is not the school our students have known.


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