Grappling with Distance Learning

When Charles Merrill founded the renowned Commonwealth School of Boston in 1957, he created a single rule for students:

“No rollerskating in the hallway.”

Just as an acorn contains an entire tree, Mr. Merrill knew that by planting this one idea in the heads of students and teachers, an entire moral and intellectual ecosystem would spring up regarding the way people should behave towards and with each other. I recently read this anecdote in Ted and Nancy Sizemore’s wonderful book The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract, which they use to illustrate how educators can inspire people to think deeply about the ways their behaviors and choices impact others, and how we each exist within a personal and collective framework.

Our school’s mission is to inspire children to lead lives of purpose and compassion through scholarship and citizenship. In our pursuit of this noble goal, we embody the three main purposes of schools that the Sizemore’s believe are essential: to prepare people for the world of work, to prepare people to think deeply and critically and to prepare people to be thoughtful citizens and decent human beings.

To say that doing this well during emergency-implemented distance learning is a challenge is to understate the scope of the problem.

Knowledge and skills form the basis of our academic efforts, but they are not a goal in themselves. Academic knowledge about letter-sound correspondence, the water cycle, or the spelling of multisyllabic words is a means to our greater ends, as are learning the skills of calculating the slope of a function or the number of protons in a molecule. But in the current period of distance learning, an easy over-reliance on these relatively simple aspects of curriculum is deeply unfulfilling; we know children are not simply empty vessels to fill up with facts. And yet, anxiety builds about whether students — and in particular, our students — are “falling behind” some made-up standards (quick note: they aren’t).

Engagement is another essential element of our program because we know that non-cognitive factors such as motivation and perseverance impact children’s learning results and academic performance through information recall, test scores, and skill acquisition. In periods of engagement, children can sustain and grow their attention, curiosity, and interest in the work that the teacher presents. And in this very strange time of remote instruction, engagement is an important indicator to teachers that a child’s progress reflects deeper mastery learning. But very few of us adults are used to engaging through online meetings for hours each day, and the intellectual and emotional drain on children required to do this is even greater. It is no surprise that engagement wanes as we near the end of the school year.

And yet, engagement alone is not enough, for it does not require that the student truly bring themselves to the learning struggle. The Sizemores propose the word grappling as the defining goal in the development of a child’s character, and demand that students invest in their learning for themselves. I often say that when our students graduate, they can’t still be doing school simply to please their parents; it has to be for themselves at that point. By putting themselves on the line as they try to do what they’ve never done before, children learn to reason through perspectives, examine assumptions, and trust themselves and their abilities to succeed in the face of challenge. In a scenario, no one asked for and at a time no one can control, our distance learning program continues to develop this essential spark in students.

And in an entirely different way, we are all grappling with distance learning this spring. We’re tired and sad and mad that forces beyond our control have thrust this situation upon our community (and others around the globe). Though the flow of academic knowledge is affected, though engagement is difficult to sustain, our commitment is unwavering in leading students to truly grapple with the ideas we present, and in doing so develop their future selves. Our school’s Portrait of a Graduate equally prioritizes loving learning, working hard, and valuing intrinsic understanding as it ensures students have a sense of agency and confidence in order to take action to bring their ideas into reality. Our progress towards that vision continues.


Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School