Design Remote Learning with the Learners’ Families in Mind! Part 3: Balance Learning with Families’ Changing Priorities!

For schools and teachers wrestling with how to respond to families’ changing priorities . . .
This is Part 3 of our Remote Learning blog series. View Part 1 and Part 2.

Remote Learning Has Been Extended. Families Must Find Balance.

Across the country, governors have announced school closures for the remainder of the academic year. They have immediately followed with a declaration that remote learning will be implemented in order to keep learners on track and ready for the next school year. Each district has been expected to develop, if they haven’t already, and share their plans for remote learning that is responsive to community needs (e.g., distribute devices to enable online learning, partner with public television to deliver learning content) and feasible for teachers to carry out (e.g., focus on core subjects or key standards, limited grading or suspended testing requirements). 

No matter the learning expectations, content, and devices recommended by districts and schools, our teachers, learners, and families are adjusting to a “new  normal” and balancing their learning with living during a global pandemic. Many remote plans account for learners’ separation from their schools and identify several options for continuing schooling in terms of access to content and assignments and even meals. Most teachers are working diligently to translate these plans into action by pushing out assignments online or via paper packets, facilitating virtual discussions, moderating Q & A through group chats, email or phone without the usual routines and support of their brick and mortar classrooms. All while working from a place of compassion and checking-in with learners and their families about coping through these uncertain times.


Despite these valiant efforts, families still feel very overwhelmed and frustrated as they support their learners at home. A few weeks ago, many expected remote learning to have run its course and for us all to have returned to our “regular lives”. Now, that remote learning plans have been extended through the end of the school year, how can schools and teachers leverage their partnerships with each other and families to support a more balanced learning experience?

Consider the following points in your next round of instructional planning:

Consideration #3: Balance Remote Learning with Families’ Changing Priorities
Plan Responsively. Empower Families.

“Teamwork Makes the Dream Work”: During this time, families have limited bandwidth in terms of time, patience, and resources to support their learners. They need assurances that the planned remote learning for their children is not filler for their at-home school day, but meaningful learning activities that help them progress toward key learning outcomes for this or next school year. (Read Consideration #1: Prioritize What Learners Need to Learn Most.) Thoughtful collaboration and coordination among teachers and schools can benefit learners at home tremendously. 

    • Collaboration: With phrases like global pandemic, self-quarantine, and self-distancing, it may feel like an end-of-world scenario. But remote learning is far from an “every teacher for themselves” situation. Collaboration can increase the quality of remote learning experiences. Colleagues draw on each other’s instructional knowledge and experience and work together to adapt lessons already proven effective with learners. When designing new instruction, it is this knowledge and experience combined with professional dialogue and feedback that shift remote learning from a series of trial and error to informed design experiments that engage learners in the best possible instruction at home. As well, virtual collaboration among educators affords a “walk in learners’ shoes” experience that has the potential to improve the remote learning experience.
    • Coordination: Imagine you are a middle or high school student. You have at least 4 different classes or subjects per day. Every teacher doles out at least one assignment a day that requires at least 1 hour to learn and another hour to practice or demonstrate what you learned. All of sudden, you have more assigned learning time than your ad hoc at-home learning environment can accommodate. This is compounded for families with multiple learners. Coordination across teams and schools can help families plan for when and how they need to focus their divided attention, waning energy, and finite resources.
      • For teachers, collaboration across grade-level is required to ensure that learning plans are reasonable for learners and manageable for families given these unusual circumstances. For teachers already collaborating, add a “checks and balances” discussion into your planning and reflection discussions. As well, consider the design of integrated learning experiences that span several standards or subject areas.
      • Instructional leaders, curriculum coordinators, school administrators and district staff have an advantage here in that they have a bird’s eye view of remote learning plans. A review with a focus on balancing learning for families might reveal 
        • cases where learners are overloaded (e.g., too many assignments due on a particular day, several teachers assigned projects with similar timelines) 
        • redundancies (e.g., multiple teachers designing and delivering different lessons for the same prioritized standards, individual reading time assigned by two or more teachers)
        • potential connections (e.g., several teachers have inquired about the best use of a digital tool, grade-level choice boards or playlists to coordinate assignments from multiple teachers)
        • emerging best practices (e.g., format for project, digital tool for asynchronous discussions, feedback to learners about progress toward learning outcomes). 

All educators in schools and districts play a key role in carrying out remote learning plans. Seek opportunities to collaborate and coordinate with teachers and instructional leaders to ensure families are supporting the best possible learning at home.

“Timing is Everything”: Learners’ school lives have changed! 

  • Location of school: was separate from home | now home in living room, kitchen, or bedroom 
  • Classmates: were peers | now siblings, parents, and pets
  • Social interactions with peers: was all day, face-to-face | now limited, digitally-enabled 
  • Schedules: was school-driven, consistent | now family-driven, varies from day-to-day 

Although we are requiring continued learning in spite of these significant changes, we cannot expect learners to “do school” at home like they “do school” at school. For remote learning to be successful for learners and their families, we must revisit our notions of an effective learning environment, especially with respect to time for learning. 

Earlier this year, it may have been a reasonable expectation that learners complete assignments by the end of a class period or in the evening for homework. Remember they had you, routines, and resources to support them. Now at home, learners may need to assist siblings to complete assignments, pitch in with chores to help their household function with 24/7 occupancy, or participate in family activities that foster togetherness and uplift spirits. Plus, many families are struggling to coordinate time and space for learning in addition to managing multiple learners’ daily assignment and submission schedules. Offer learners and their families some respite. 

  • Extend Learning Times: Plan for a longer duration for lessons and learning tasks. Consider chunking a 45-minute in-person lesson into two or more online learning segments using the appropriate digital tools for delivery and checks for understanding. Also, try spacing 1-2 days between the assignment and submission of work. This gives learners additional time to access the lesson and assignment, work on the assignment while experiencing a number of distractions, seek resources if they need additional support, or balance your workload with that of other classes and teachers who may or may not have coordinated their remote learning plans. 
  • Mix It Up: For those with digital remote learning plans, it is possible to convene learners as a whole class or in small groups. This offers another point of connection between you and your learners and  learners with their peers. Of course, these moments are not just about lessons and assignments, they are a chance to check-in with learners during this stressful and uncertain time, re-establish relationships in this very trying context, and express the care and compassion that motivates learning. 

These synchronous moments when everyone is together can be very powerful. They can also burden families. For example, morning meetings happen easily during the school day because learners have already shown up per their usual routine – drop-off, bus, walk or bike. The commute during remote learning may be shorter and without the infinite parent drop-off line, but still as or even more hectic at home. Families vary in their desire or ability to adhere to a strict schedule. Learners may share devices with siblings or even their parents who have commitments. A quiet space free from distraction is at a premium. It is not learning as usual, which requires you to change your instructional interactions to meet the different needs of families. In addition to time of day, consider varying the

    • Purpose: Plan for different types of real-time meetings as a whole class or with small groups or individual learners. Some learners will thrive on connecting with their peers often. Others really need that time with you for clarification or personalized motivation. Many need to see and hear you teach a concept so they ask questions or share their thinking in the moment. Learners and families value and prioritize these different aspects of learning. Allow them multiple opportunities to tap into the power of synchronous learning in the way that fits their remote learning routines and values at home.
    • Mode: Consider when asynchronous learning can reap the same benefits as a synchronous meet up: relationship building and social connections or dialogue that include sharing ideas, asking questions, and offering explanations and justifications. For example, if you wish to
      • Inspire or reflect: Share a video with a call to action within your Learning Management System (LMS) (e.g., a Google Classroom Announcement). After learners watch, they can share a goal for the upcoming week, reflection on the past week, or a hope for the week to come.
      • Explain or clarify: Ask learners to read, view, or interact with content that teaches a concept. This can be a teaching video you create with tools like Screencastify, an article or visual on a given topic, or an interactive simulation of science phenomena. Then, request learners to post, text, or email questions or points of confusion. Craft responses to generate a FAQ for your self-help center or to distribute to learners and their families. Click here to view Consideration #2: Plan Learning for Varying Levels of Family Support. 
      • Foster academic discussion dialogue: Engage learners with asynchronous class discussions using LMS discussion tools, digital tools like Padlet or Flipgrid, or even the commenting features in Google Docs or Microsoft Word. Asynchronous discussions allow you to slow the pace of conversation and build in structure for more high quality responses and exchanges. Click here to view Future Ready webinar recording: Leveraging Digital Tools to Foster Rigorous Academic Discussion for All Students.
      • Promote social connections: Designate a collaborative space (e.g., discussion thread, a grid in Flipgrid, or a group chat) for learners to share more social aspects of their remote learning experiences at home. They can introduce their siblings or pets via photos, share action videos playing their favorite video game or physical activity, or contribute conversation topics or how-tos about common interests. 

By no means do these suggestions replace necessary, important 1-on-1 outreach to families to ensure they are safe and have access to appropriate learning resources. To optimize learner engagement, vary when and how learners and their families engage in remote learning.

“Bestow the Gift of Choice”: Shifting learning from the school building to home requires flexibility in teachers, learners, and families. Respond to this need by planning instruction that offers learners options: 

  • Choice: Consider playlists or choice boards that encourage learners to choose from a set of learning tasks that can vary by subject or topic, process (e.g., guided practice vs. open-ended inquiry  ), product or presentation of learning (e.g., podcast vs. debate), or tool (e.g., iMovie for video production vs. Adobe Spark for visual collage in Adobe). 
    • Regardless of your comfort level with choice, provide clear expectations, such as “Complete X options by a certain day.” or “You must complete options A and B by Wednesday. Then choose 1 more option to complete by the end of this week.”
    • Be mindful. Time and energy are precious commodities for families. If you don’t plan to provide feedback (grades, questions to push thinking, suggestions for revisions, etc.), don’t assign it. 
  • Voice: For many states and districts, the mandate to provide continuous learning opportunities is ambiguous and open for interpretation. While remote learning should be guided by prioritized standards, learning at home with families is happening beyond the remote learning plans established by schools and teachers. Especially now that families have access to a generous donation of learning materials, such as virtual museum tours and zoo animal cams; streaming story times, drawing classes, performances, and broadcasts of educational programming for all ages. Encourage a genius hour or the pursuit of passion projects with family members. Find the appropriate forum for learners to share their experiences as a reminder that learning is interest-driven, passion-filled, and lifelong.

Build “choice and voice” options into remote learning instruction.

As we continue to navigate remote learning, it is essential that we recognize and respond to changes in schooling and family life. Families have adjusted tremendously to school and workplace closures. Their daily lives have been upended and filled with uncertainty and anxiety. Yet, we still want what’s best for children. With respect to and in service of learners, their families, and our communities, we must revisit our ideals of what it means to learn and show what has been learned. We must re-engage families as partners who are managing shifting priorities related to safety and wellness while also reconsidering their beliefs about teaching and learning and the role of schooling for their learners. In our collective efforts to be responsive during this evolving global pandemic, let’s leave some space in our planning and reflections to reimagine learning at home and when teachers and learners return to their school buildings.

Please share anecdotes or examples of how you are helping families achieve balance during remote learning. Good Luck!

Read previous entries in our Remote Learning blog series: Design Remote Learning with Learners’ Families in Mind:


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