There's a Simple Solution to the Coronavirus Remote Learning Crisis

Teaching 30 kids via Zoom is difficult. Learning this way is even more difficult. The preferred alternative is far simpler – and immeasurably more effective

Israel Sorek
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An 8-year-old child on her computer. Precisely in a period of lockdown and alienation, it’s better to talk than lecture.
An 8-year-old child on her computer. Precisely in a period of lockdown and alienation, it’s better to talk than lecture. Credit: Kara Illig / AP
Israel Sorek

It’s true: Teaching 30 pupils via Zoom is difficult. Learning this way is even more difficult. Meaningful, engrossing, challenging learning that stirs curiosity is almost impossible to achieve when the teacher is solely present on a screen and there’s no way to know what’s really happening on the other side.

But the truth is that it’s not necessary to get bogged down in the complications of Zoom or any other remote technology. Much of the confusion in the education system – especially at a time when schools are shuttered – at the elementary level, is easily resolvable, and not by ultra-sophisticated methods, but the polar opposite. The method is called personalized teaching, individual encounter, dialogue or simply a meaningful conversation. It’s a solution that already exists and was successfully implemented in the pre-coronavirus world.

Two years ago, a book sponsored in part by the Israel Teachers Union, titled “Diversity Is the New Standard,” examined the idea of personalized learning, which was beginning to strike roots. The book included an article by this writer, in which teachers laud the intimate encounter – unvarnished, mindful, conversational – between teacher and pupil. Yet, instead of the concept being put into practice under the aegis of the current crisis, it seems to be fading into oblivion.

Imagine a complete teaching model based not exclusively but mostly on personal meetings: A teacher meets with a pupil for a video conference or a “regular” talk. The event lasts 10 minutes, a quarter of an hour, maybe longer. The subject of the conversation can be a book the pupil has read, a film or a television series he (or she) liked, an essay he wrote or thoughts that have occurred to him. (By the way, this method can be used – with modifications, of course – in the higher grades and in teaching subjects such as math and sciences as well.)

During the conversation, it will be possible to direct the pupil to observe things differently than he has done before, to encourage original thought and to share mutually inspiring items. There will be attentiveness in this conversation, because that’s the way it is when two people participate in a dialogue.

Yes, dialogue. That’s the technology we need to adopt today. Precisely in a period of lockdown and alienation, it’s better to talk than to lecture. Better to converse than to try to teach a class via Zoom.

Ask yourself what is more beneficial to the average pupil: a conversation of a quarter of an hour every other day, accompanied by an assignment requiring observation, reading or writing – or four dreary classes of 45 minutes, where pupils try to hide the fact that they are immersed in a game, put on an act of having a technical hitch or absorb hardly anything said by the teacher.

Organizing all learning around personal encounters or “personalized teaching” is far less complicated, in general, than organizing frontal lessons for a heterogeneous class, and it makes much more sense, too. Each pupil has his own pace of learning, unique emphases and singular path of understanding and expression, and every encounter between two people generates a dialogue that is a type of distinct entity.

Consider how much respect is implicit in an educational encounter in which a teacher of Bible, of literature, of creative expression or of civics holds serious, personal conversations with individual pupils in the fifth, eighth or 11th grade, about an essay they read (or, if they didn’t read it, they can devote their short encounter to reading or to watching a film) – compared to a standard lesson via Zoom or a regular class.

True, an entire schedule based on personal talks of this nature entails exhausting dialogic devotion on the part of the teacher. An encounter that is all intentionality, approaching Buber-like I-Thou relations, provides not only a meaningful human connection but is an exhausting experience as well. But consider how satisfying it is, how much passion inheres in that routine, compared to a fixed schedule for a class of 30, for whom lack of interest is virtually a “requisite” for their participation in the event.

Is this practical? Let’s suppose that a teacher can hold three such encounters an hour. In the course of a reasonable workday, the teacher will meet with 15 to 18 pupils (because time is needed to write to and about each one). Over four workdays, 30 to 36 pupils can participate in two short, meaningful encounters with their teachers. The activity of teaching will thus effectively become a praxis of guidance and mentoring, intellectual and spiritual counseling of individual human beings.

This is the true and proper way to enter the 21st century. Not with cutting-edge technology, but simple, pure humanity. Not a Zoom control technique but a zoom-in for a person-to-person encounter. Not because this is what is feasible under constraints of distance, but because it is what is necessary.

Of course, a question of principle arises: If it’s enough for teachers to hold, say, two guided conversations with a student every week, and if three or four engaged teachers are enough for each pupil, what will their classmates do with the endless time that becomes available to them?

The world of children, and above all their time, is not an empty container that adults need to fill with significant content, lest it overflow with nonsense at best and with violent, harmful material at worst. A boy in whom curiosity is piqued will want to satisfy it; a girl who is imbued with a desire to solve and explore will want to fulfill it.

The assumption that it’s necessary to “fill up” children’s time is based on the world we are all familiar with, in which schooling itself resembled an infinite expanse of arid content that was only waiting to be disgorged in an exam – and then immediately forgotten. In that old world, students mainly waited for every recess, break or vacation to tear loose. That desire only caused additional stress for their teachers and parents, and at any given moment they loaded them up with mountains of material that’s mostly meaningless to the pupils.

Have you ever met inquisitive, critical, inquiring, argumentative girls and boys who are quick to be amazed and are chock-full of questions? Obviously, you yourselves could have been or maybe were those girls and boys for a time. I am convinced that your own children are actually like that, because the motivation to learn, to ask and to explore will spring to life, among pupils and teachers alike, if they are left to engage in their dialogue and to reflect on its ramifications.

The encounter that can be forged between the zenith of technology and the zenith of simplicity must not be allowed to encounter the anxiety-laden, artificial barriers among which we lived both pre-coronavirus and during the period of quarantine. The motivation to explore and to think can be sustained, because young people, who have not yet become cynical, appreciate sincerity and yearn for encounter.

During the considerable free time that will ensue, pupils will view short films or read what suits them, challenges them and attracts them. True, all this depends on age, on the level of interest that exists, whether it was there from the start. But after all, it’s precisely the differences and the diversity of personalities, tendencies and preferences among students that make it so important to switch to dialogic, personal teaching.

A smart, sensitive teacher can also ask pupils (as least the more mature ones) to find for her articles, songs and movies that support a position or oppose it. That smart teacher will then be able to initiate a debate and ask the pupil to take a stand and back it up, and then ask him to defend the opposite position. There is a vast platform here for encounter that contains elements of learning and games, exploration and solving, questioning and polemics – or all of them together.

When an encounter is created – an encounter in the full sense of the word, one that’s person-to-person – the motivation simply awakens like the phoenix, and continues to rise. The anxieties of the adults – parents and teachers alike – must not become our guides. Good teachers do not allow anxieties to be their impetus. The true hero of a story, as the author and scholar Yoel Hoffmann noted, is the space: the gap between person and person. That space will become filled with content if we allow it to occur.

Israel Sorek is a lecturer in philosophy and program director of the Mandel Center for Leadership in the Negev.