Synchronous and asynchronous instructional time are BOTH precious

Of all the topics that we as academic leaders have fielded over these past few months, in contemplating with colleagues what teaching and learning should look in the many different remote and hybrid schooling models under consideration in our districts, few have been more meaty – and, indeed, more professionally enriching – than those surrounding what gets taught synchronously and what can (indeed, should?) happen asynchronously. 

Enthusiasm for the “flipped classroom” – the idea that students are introduced to new material on their own, generally at home for homework, before they’re asked to engage with it at school – was high in many education circles ten years ago.  But since the idea became largely associated with individualized instruction, it probably didn’t receive the kind of mainstream, district-level attention in professional learning that we now, in hindsight, might wish it had.  

Well, COVID has changed all that.  With synchronous instructional time – whether face-to-face or online – more precious than ever, how best to use that time and what can be (indeed might best be) “flipped,” is of pressing importance.   

Between the three of us, our districts are using four different high-quality ELA curricula – ARC Core, Bookworms, Study Sync, and Wit & Wisdom.  In all cases, we’ve been able to work with our publishing and professional learning partners  to help make the decision about which modality is best for different parts of the lesson.  They have helped us to identify what students can and should do on their own and what is best executed collaboratively.

For example, the authors of Bookworms suggest that students in grades 3-5 asynchronously participate in choral and repeated readings of the shared texts using video the teacher has pre recorded and posted.  The classroom discussion of the texts is then conducted synchronously, followed by asynchronous self-selected or partner reading.   

Wit & Wisdom’s authors have created videos that focus on knowledge-building and the core ELA competencies of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking. Some teachers elect to share the videos directly with students and then embed synchronous opportunities for students to share and discuss their ideas or responses to prompts.  Other teachers view the videos in order to further unpack and internalize the lessons themselves, before developing their own plan for synchronous instruction. Teachers also share the vocabulary videos selectively in order to provide explicit, systematic, intensive vocabulary instruction on key content and academic words as needed.

Instructional technology tools like Pear Deck, Flipgrid, and Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook have made our curricular content more accessible to students when they’re not in the same physical classroom as the teacher.  Using these tools has, of course, required a lot of time training teachers on to determine which are best suited to the individual elements of the lesson; which serve to enhance (and not sacrifice) our curriculum’s rigor, best support the student-to-student engagement that is so important when grappling with complex texts, and provide our teachers with opportunities for frequent formative assessments throughout the lesson. 

One of the things we’ve found so galvanizing about this topic of synchronous vs. asynchronous instruction is that it surfaces questions of our teaching staff that can only be answered by deep study of the curriculum being used.  In fact, thinking carefully and deliberately about how we want students to engage with the content – what type of engagement will best meet a particular learning objective – requires our teachers not just to know how the lessons unfold and work together, but how we want students to access and interact with the content.  This is powerful professional learning, requiring the kind of internalization of the lesson that is profoundly rewarding.

As families and teachers alike become normalized to the distinctions between synchronous and asynchronous instruction, and come to appreciate the benefits that purposeful use of each can have on teaching and learning, we have a hard time imagining that some version of the “flipped classroom” (or whatever it may be called in the future) isn’t here to stay.   The agency students and parents have experienced during this time, which is surely one of the upsides of COVID, will permanently transform how content is delivered to students – and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Nakia Hardy is the Deputy Superintendent of Academic Services in Durham Public Schools (NC), Kathleen Skellie is the Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for Ballston Spa Central School District (NY), and Colleen Stearns is the Vice President, Curriculum and Instruction at IDEA Public Schools.