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Doug Lemov on Dissolving the Screen to Reach Students

Doug Lemov has spent 15 years distilling effective teaching practices in his Teach Like A Champion books and on a website by the same name. In a new book released this month, Teaching in the Online Classroom, Lemov and his team of 15 educators watched tapes of remote teaching to identify what works—and doesn’t work—in the online environment. FutureEd Editorial Director Phyllis W. Jordan interviewed Lemov about what they learned.

You write in the book that online teaching will never replace the classroom experience. Why is that?

It's the power of culture. Classrooms are first and foremost a culture. We're not always aware of the degree to which they are. But when you're in a classroom, when you are in a well-designed classroom, you are in a place that not just reflects you and your ideas but draws out the best of you. The social aspects of the classroom motivate us and inspire us and bring out the best in us and change us in a way that I just don't think that online teaching can.

 How do you build that connection and command student attention in online teaching?

Eyes are really, really important. Of the 11 million sensory receptors in your brain, 10 million of them are visual receptors. So one of the most important things to command students' attention is for them to see and be seen. We have to be able to look at each other and know that someone is looking at us to make us feel locked into a real conversation.

There are all kinds of data on what happens to people when they're on screens. The average person shifts tasks when they're on screen every couple of seconds, multiple times a minute. Our attention is fractured. And one of the ways of sustaining people's attention is getting cameras on.

Then I can let them know that I see them and say, "Thank you, you're doing a great job on the task, and I appreciate that answer." Or maybe ask students to write in the chat and then tell them I see them working. But I have to be intentional about providing reinforcement for focus and sustaining attention and actively drawing all kids in.

What does that look like?

It means doing things like cold calling, which is asking a student to answer a question whether or not they volunteered. If I know that I can opt-out of a conversation if I'm not going to volunteer, then I can metaphorically or literally turn my camera off and checkout during a session, and my attention will wander. But if I know I have to be accountable, if I know someone might ask my opinion because they want to know what I think, then I have to concentrate.

All those things apply in the bricks and mortar classroom. But these moves become more critical in an online setting where it's harder to get a signal of belonging, and students are multiple times more likely to be distracted and distractable.

You talk about dissolving the screen. Is that part of what you're getting at here?

Dissolving the screen is our phrase for building relationships and having students feel connected to us and us connected to them. But specifically doing it by reminding them that we are connected through the content.

This is a point that Adeyemi Stembridge makes in his great book on culturally responsive teaching in the classroom, where he describes the way that you build relationships as a triangle: teacher, student, and content. And by working on content together and engaging ideas together we build relationships.

How do you do that online?

First of all, as a teacher I show my face, and I lean into the screen, and I show my enthusiasm for things. I greet students when I start class and I'm excited, but really quickly we start learning and we start doing a task together. And what draws students in is the relationship that we build together while we're pursuing a task.

Is that relationship-building harder for teachers who maybe have never been in person with students this year?

Oh, my gosh, yes. It was really, really hard last spring, and we had the benefit of six months together getting to know our kids in person. And suddenly, for many of us, we haven't met much face-to-face, if at all. So we don't have that shared culture and the connection that we have built. That said, a lot of what we're trying to do in mastering online instruction is to build the closest possible experience to what we would get in the classroom.

[Read More: Voices from the Classroom: Teachers on Teaching in the Pandemic]

We're never going to get all the way there, but don't underestimate the power of a phone call. I have a colleague, he's got a second grader. And one day, his teacher called him for five minutes and said, "How are you liking the book?" And the second grader said, "It's okay. I like it." She said, "Why don't you read it a little bit to me.” And so he read aloud to her for four or five minutes and then she asked him a couple of questions about the book. After that day, things were just very different for this boy because he felt more connected to his teacher.

There's a lot of technology out there, but I think a lot of the keys to success are low-tech and they're about things that we already understand as teachers.

One thing that's critical for teachers, of course, is to read the room. Are there techniques for doing that online?

Sometimes we talk about reading the room in a behavioral cultural sense, like how do I know people are locked in and paying attention and focused and how do I read whether they care about what I'm talking about? And there, again, it's seeing people that's really important. A very small thing that we've learned is to use gallery view in Zoom. It's so easy to put your slides up and let yourself become a tiny keyhole in the corner and not really be able to see all of your students while you're talking to them. When you want to have a five-minute discussion with your class, you should take down your slides and have everyone see each other's faces.

On the academic side, how do you read the room? How do you know whether your kids are learning anything?

This is the fundamental question of teaching, but times 10 online. In a classroom, you would walk around and you would look over students' shoulders. In some ways, this can be easier to do online if you have kids working in a linked Google Sheet. You can actually look over their shoulders and see what they're doing. But rather than having to walk around the room, you just go click, click, click on your computer. There are some decent tools, but thinking intentionally about assessment is really important online, as well.

Beyond these informal assessments, you also have standardized tests. Do we need to think about new ways to do those in an online environment?

I see a lot of the comments on social media about abolishing tests this year. And I understand why people feel that way because we are up against so much. And it feels really hard to imagine being judged for things way beyond our control. And yet, how will we understand the degree and nature and extent and specifics of the learning loss unless we measure? I can understand why we’d accept that individuals would be less directly accountable this year, but we would be fools to throw away a stream of data.

I was talking this morning to the principal of a really, really good school. It's just one of those schools in a neighborhood that’s a beacon.  It was devastating for her to talk about the fact that her students are not just learning slower, but that many of them are regressing, and that the situation was much, much worse in reading than in math. She talked about not only why reading was worse, but which parts of reading: decoding fluency and word work. She had a really clear sense of not just that it was a crisis, but the nature of the crisis. And that came from test data.

In your book, you talk about screen fatigue, which is clearly not an issue in an in-person classroom. How can teachers combat that?

We coined a phrase in the book called semi-synchronous. If I have a classroom 9 to 10 o’clock with my students, I could do an hour of Zoom, like question-and-answer and chat and everyone talking to each other. But that becomes really tiring and leads to screen fatigue. I could also do 12 minutes of really engaging, high-energy, synchronous instruction to bring everyone into the classroom to start. And then I could say, "Great, 15 minutes for you to read the rest of the chapter on your own and answer the three questions that I sent you. But keep your cameras on, message me, chat me back if you have any questions or areas of concern, or words you don't understand. And I'll check in with you in 10 minutes to see if you need more time.”

Giving them a break from the screen, while still giving them tacit accountability, helps them follow through and stay on task.

We started this conversation with the acknowledgment that online learning is not the ideal way to do education. But are there things or lessons we can pull from this experience that will serve us in good stead when we go back to full-time, in-person classrooms?

There are both positive lessons and negative lessons. The negative lessons are when we get back in classrooms, hopefully, we will never have questions again about how important the culture that we build in bricks and mortar classrooms is. And hopefully, we will never make the mistake again of teaching reading without understanding the science of reading. The information on the science is out there. It can make us better. We can no longer afford not to be better.

[Read More: An Unexpected Zoom Encounter Brings a Teacher and Students Closer]

On the positive side, there are ways that we can use technology to gather data on student learning in real-time that can be useful when we get back into classrooms. And I think people have gotten a lot more comfortable with them. One other thing is everyone speaks Zoom now. And so a kid who's absent or a kid who's far away or a kid who's in a school that doesn't have AP Physics, all of a sudden, there are possibilities for those kids.

Another thing is that asynchronous instruction provides lots of opportunities for students to have agency over their learning. I can take a 20-minute lecture, and I chop it up into four- or five-minute chunks. And at the end of the first five-minute chunk, I say, "Review your notes now. And when you're ready to go onto part two, click here and press the button." And that says to the student, "You get to self-pace. You decide when you're ready.”

So I do think there are probably some ways that technology can allow us to differentiate instruction a bit more and give students a little more of agency. But I want to be honest. It is clearly a net loss over what we can do in the classroom.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.