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  • Danielle Allen

How to COVID Impacts (Language) Learning

Truth be told, I'm tired of listening to commercials that begin with, "Now, more than ever" and "During these challenging times" but you've got to admit, this year feels a bit different from years' past. As we begin a new school year, the question we are trying to answer is, "How will COVID impact our learning?" In a matter of weeks, couches became classrooms, home offices became conference rooms, and educators became magicians weaving together extensive curriculums to be delivered over Zoom overnight.

I had the pleasure of teaching grades 2-8 from geological rock formations to underwater robotics. From my observation in the classroom, we educators rely heavily on the use of screens. We deliver information through powerpoints, video clips, and full-on "documentary days" because they offer convenience and flare beyond black and white print-outs. That being said, I was also a student whose courses made the switch from in-person to online classes during the semester. As an adult with a degree from Princeton, it took extraordinary will-power and discipline to stay awake during the 6-hour long online lectures, much less take diligent notes. Being an educator and a student allowed me to experience what I thought was working in the classroom versus what actually was.

This all made me think since when did our potential and success become dictated by the amount of time we can spend on screens? And what are the repercussions of our zombie-like reliance on electronics in learning? This is an important question to ask not only as a digital learning-based platform but as educators. What effects does our technology have on our community of learners, and is this the best way to facilitate learning?

So let's talk about the top three arenas COVID changes in the world of education:

1. The New Social

The most obvious is how COVID and technology impact our ability to socialize. If you said in-person learning facilitates socialization in schools, I would agree and disagree. When we learn in-person, we can't hide. We have to wear pants. We can't google the answer in a different tab. We can't turn our cameras off when we feel tired. We have to be present. We have to read the body language of those around us. However, if you take a look into most classrooms, they're facilitated for lectures, not conversations.

Language education is a perfect example of how well we facilitate socialization in the classroom. Give students a prompt to introduce themselves and a fun fact to share with their neighbors and watch the wave of blushed faces spread across the room. Many students become embarrassed by their lack of proper pronunciation or vocabulary opting to fill in the phrase in their native tongue. I've seen it happen in numerous classrooms, and it makes me wonder if we can't facilitate conversations in courses designed for conversation, how well are we facilitating socialization in other classes?

As we've gone digital opting for Zoom classes and pajama bottoms, I wonder how the desire to hide behind a screen can be amplified during our school year. Socialization isn't just about seeing your friends in the hallway. It's about working through social problems. We might chuckle at the gaggle of middle school girls hustling down the hallway because they have to tell Lydia the news about Tommy and Jessica over the summer, but it's actually fundamental to how we relate to each other as humans.

2. The New Curriculum

If you think you're going to sit down attentively for 7 hours of lessons and lectures, you've either got amazing self-discipline or you're delusional. Now, when you begin to think about how our school curriculums are created, it makes you wonder how efficient they are at conceptual and critical thinking.

Let's take my 6-hour lecture for example, even though we had 5-10 minute breaks every hour, by hour three, my brain was mush. I wasn't retaining any of the very important information about fetal cardiac transition post-delivery in newborns. Why not? It's the same reason the school teacher in Charlie Brown only spoke in "Wah, wah, womp, womp, wah." Neurologically speaking, our brains are really good at processing out background noise. Neurons in your auditory cortex work to block out repetitive noises, which unfortunately is your lecturing teacher.

Our brains literally crave novelty and new experiences. Think back to your education, can you pick out the direct words of any of your teachers during their lectures? What about the time the chemistry teacher blew something up to demonstrate exothermic reactions? That field trip to the science and space museum? Your math teacher dancing on the tables?

Educators are faced with a challenge we've been avoiding for years: how do we make this curriculum entertaining? This is the heart of education. We understand enough about the brain to know that our brains block out boring things and pay attention to exciting things. However, most of our curriculums to date use the datums that hard work and grinding through problem sets will make you successful. While this is true to some extent, why make learning so difficult? The difficulty of learning should be rooted in the forging of new pathways and creative problem solving, not in the methods of learning the information.

3. The New Exploration

Talk about all dressed up and nowhere to go. Hands down, field trips are the happiest day of any students' week. Getting out into the world and exploring a new place with your friends is riveting. So now that our museums, gardens, zoos, study abroads, and centers of exploration and socialization are closed or at limited capacity, how do we compensate for their absence?

This time may be just what we needed to rethink how we bring novelty and new experiences into the learning environment. The magic about education is that students are learning whether they understand the material or not. In the past, we've judged students on their ability to retain information, regurgitate tables and dates, without giving too much consideration if we're even testing the right process. Now, we are forced to work with our students to understand if the way we deliver information resonates with them. Education has become a two-way street where the teacher is just as much the student and vice versa. Education itself has become the new experiment.

So, Where Do We Go from Here...?

What does our future look like? What should we prioritize? How do we get there? Here are our thoughts at Si · La · Bul:

1. Education and learning should be pervasive and continuous at all levels.

2. Progress should be tracked and compared to the student's previous achievements.

3. Novelty and rewards should be incorporated into the education and learning process

4. Teachers and student should leverage the power of community for collective problem-solving

5. Education and learning should integrate incremental improvements to the system

This is the way we operate Si · La · Bul. Too many times we talk with language learners who say they, "just don't have the language brain" or were "never good in school," but we asked is it the learner or the learning system? If the way you learn a language isn't filled with music, food, people, and culture, why learn a language?

We believe culture is the motivational anchor to language learning. It also provides a breadth of insight that textbooks and flashcards aren't able to produce. We believe language is living and you need the burst of life to truly understand what you are learning and why.

COVID has brought to light many things in our society, but one of the opportunities we believe in is the ability to change the way we learn for the benefit of every student out there.

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