When it comes to distance learning, it’s easy to assume that students can’t wait to return to the relationships and routines of in-person schooling. But a recent piece in Education Dive reveals a startling reality: many Black and brown students are more engaged learning from home, where they feel safer and more supported in a culturally-responsive environment.
This realization is deeply troubling, and schools should recognize it as a wake-up call: with so much of traditional education in flux, now is our opportunity to reshape schooling to be more equitable—equity that transcends questions of connectivity or devices. Done right, nontraditional learning environments and approaches can help students who previously haven’t felt comfortable in school—and whether teaching is happening in schools or remotely, educators should consider how taking the following actions can lead to lasting change.
Nurture relationships to support a sense of belonging
With the dramatic and unexpected pressures of COVID-19, many schools are feeling the strain of tight budgets and the need to “make up for lost time.” But when it comes to keeping students engaged and motivating learning, schools need to prioritize developing a culture of belonging—without that, inequities and learning gaps will only grow.
As a key first step, education leaders are calling for schools to proactively strengthen relationships between students, teachers, and administrators, using mentorship programs and advisories to ensure every student has an advocate they can trust. This approach is valuable in traditional learning environments but important during distance learning as well, when support from a mentor can help keep students motivated and engaged.
Prioritize culturally responsive instruction and content
Over the past few years, many schools have started working to prevent breakdowns of understanding in the classroom due to cultural norms, beliefs, and behaviors. Culturally Responsive Teaching encourages teachers to identify where stereotypes and implicit bias might be affecting their relationships with students and parents, helping them create a school environment that’s more inclusive and affirms students’ identities.
Understanding students’ backgrounds and prioritizing culturally responsive instruction is critical for schools now and going forward, especially when it comes to serving diverse perspectives and supporting English Language Learners. An important aspect of this is that district and school administrators provide students with differentiated content that’s available across reading levels, especially when it can be implemented in blended environments and accessed as easily from home as in the classroom.
Commit to student voice and choice
The shift to distance learning and need to keep students engaged from home has brought with it new hybrid learning models, and for some students—especially those in remedial learning programs—this is their first experience of individual choice in learning. Now, with a growing understanding of how important it is for students to have agency and see themselves in what they learn, Black educators are asking schools to commit to student voice and choice for all learners, especially those who may have previously been marginalized or lacked resources.
Student choice, culturally responsive teaching, and one-on-one mentorship are all key ways schools can drive student motivation—and they’re especially important when it comes to making sure students of color, and especially BIPOC students, feel fully supported by their school communities. Students with disabilities will also benefit from these approaches, as they too often lack instruction and content that’s responsive to their experiences. And as many students continue distance learning into the fall, administrators must also consider how the digital divide plays a role in equity, as even the best content and instruction won’t be able to move the needle if it can’t be accessed by students who lack the internet or technology.
Every student deserves to see themselves in educational content and have a voice in their learning, and rather than fearing change, education stakeholders can recognize the opportunities for more equitable schooling. The flexibility afforded by blended learning may be new and overwhelming, but it also means that elements of traditional education can be reimagined to better meet the needs of diverse student bodies. As challenging as this year has been for schools, it’s important to recognize that distance learning is opening doors that may not have been available to educators before.