Why is remote learning so awful?

I wrote this piece on flipped classrooms for the now-defunct Cuny Institute for Education Policy. 

For this version I’ve done a copy edit and added references to Zoom, but otherwise this is what I published when I was trying to persuade my school district to abandon its flipped-classroom initiative. 

If you’d like to go directly to the section on remote learning, skip to Good teaching and the science of the sitcom.

The Flipped Classroom (7/24/2014)

or: Why Is Remote Learning So Awful? (3/24/2021)

By Catherine Johnson

Flipped classrooms came to my New York district by stealth. 

Months after teachers had commenced “turning learning on its head,” as the newsletter would eventually put it, school board members had not heard the term “flipped classroom” and did not know what a flipped classroom was. By the time they found out, high school-by-YouTube was a fait accompli

Board members could still call halt, but while no one on the board appears to be wowed by the concept, a majority has bought the district’s rationale: all children learn differently

For the “child-centered” administrators who head my district, flipped classrooms fulfill the ultimate promise of differentiated instruction. Outside class, students can watch their teachers’ recorded PowerPoint lessons at a time and place of their choosing; inside class, the teacher can work one-on-one with students who require extra “support.” With the teacher thus occupied, students who understood the video can explain it to students who didn’t, also one-on-one. 

Et voilà: twenty different students doing twenty different things, because all students learn differently. 

There’s just one problem: we have no good evidence all children learn differently, and no good reason to take it on faith that they do. How exactly would nature go about producing a species every member of which possessed a unique way of learning? And why? In reality, all people, including the cognitively challenged, possess the same basic learning architecture of the brain: neurons, synapses, the hippocampus, the basal ganglia, and so on. 

Important differences among students do exist, of course: differences in ability, interest, motivation, executive function, and—extremely important—prior knowledge. A student coming into algebra without having mastered fractions “learns differently” (much more slowly) from a student coming into algebra who has. A student coming into algebra who is mathematically gifted “learns differently” (much more rapidly) from a student coming into algebra who is not gifted.

Such are the real learning differences students possess, and flipped classrooms do not address them. In fact, flipped classrooms may widen learning gaps, if the experience of online courses can be taken as an indication. Researchers Shanna Smith Jaggars and Di Xu report that while all students in their comparison of online to bricks-and-mortar classes did worse online, the students who fared worst were males, younger students, Black students, and students with lower grade point averages going in.       

Good teaching and the science of the sitcom

Why might younger, less motivated, or less capable students do worse in flipped classrooms? Probably because amateur lesson videos posted on YouTube are bad teaching. 

Amateur lesson videos are bad teaching because virtually all of them are boring, no matter how dynamic the teacher in person. I should know. I have acquired, over the years, an entire collection of professionally produced lectures from The Great Courses, not one of which I have ever managed to watch all the way through.

The reason I can’t watch a Great Courses DVD to the end is the same reason flipped-classroom “consultants” tell teachers to limit their PowerPoint lectures to seven minutes: lectures that are interesting live are boring on tape

Boredom is death to attention and, thus, to learning because we can’t learn what we don’t attend to. When a student is bored watching a video (or sitting in a Zoom class), he or she stops paying attention and stops learning. 

By now many of us have had the experience of our brains shutting down during a Zoom meeting or class, but why should this be? What makes YouTube videos and Zoom classrooms so dull compared to the alternative? 

Why do we seem to need the living presence of others to stay tuned in?

Not surprisingly, there are brain-based reasons for live instruction’s superior ability to hold interest, which cognitive science has elucidated. Among them are “shared attention” and “mood contagion,” neither of which seems to work as well long distance. The impossibility of camera-to-camera eye contact is probably a big contributor here.

The fundamental reason for the attention-sapping nature of remote learning probably comes down to the brain’s state of arousal. Psychologists have known for more than one hundred years that optimal performance requires optimal arousal, neither too low nor too high. Interestingly, some researchers suggest that boredom, likely brought on by under-stimulation, appears to be an unpleasant state of excessively high arousal, not low.

Under-stimulation is the issue in remote learning, especially when student cameras are off. Even when cameras are on, students see only an indistinct set of poorly-lit faces accompanied by disembodied speech. Add in the inevitable Wifi failures and you have a remote classroom filled with humans whose brains are starved for input.

Boredom is the result.

Boredom destroys our ability to remain “present.” That may be the purpose of boredom, in fact; some researchers speculate that boredom exists for the specific purpose of driving us to do something else—anything else—thus ensuring a stream of experiences we would otherwise miss. Redirecting participants to off-topic activities is certainly what boredom accomplishes in a remote meeting or class. How many students are playing video games while technically attending school? Boredom reduces our attention to whatever it is we are doing now

Optimal arousal suppresses boredom. When our brains are optimally aroused we can readily muster, energy, interest, and attention for the task at hand. And evoking optimal arousal–capturing and then holding students’ attention–is a core part of a teacher’s job. Good teachers constantly monitor and respond to student arousal levels, keeping their charges awake and tuned in to the greatest degree possible, and against all odds. 

Teachers can’t monitor arousal levels when they’re interacting with a sea of black squares.

For their part, students help teachers help them in the same way a laugh track helps a sitcom be funny. If you’ve never seen clips of The Big Bang Theory sans laugh track, it’s worth taking a look. Without the canned laughter, the show is a dud. People rarely laugh alone, and inside the classroom it’s the presence of peers that makes the teacher’s jokes funny (and the lesson compelling), long after the 7-minute barrier has been breached. 

Shared humor modulates arousal levels in the brain.

Teacher jokes deserve special attention because humor is part and parcel of many teachers’ classroom style, and not solely because comic relief is as welcome in life as it is in fiction. Used well, humor is a memory aid as well as a modulator of arousal. Humor helps students recall lessons because laughter reflects emotion, and emotion heightens memory. Even mild emotion increases recall of otherwise neutral material, a discovery made only in the last decade. The mild positive emotion evoked by the “found humor” of the classroom can also reduce anxiety and improve student performance, as a handful of studies have recently found. Teacher humor exists for a reason. 

Unfortunately, when teachers record their lessons, humor goes missing. Instructional screencasts are an exceptionally earnest form, as a sampling of the Example Videos posted by the Flipped Learning Network reveals. It could hardly be otherwise. Teachers are not professional online content providers. Few of us know how to be spontaneously amusing in a pre-recorded PowerPoint movie with a voice-over. Or in a classroom hosted by Microsoft Teams.

Even if teachers tried to insert humor into a taped lesson, it wouldn’t be funny because most classroom humor is situational. A historian I know once inadvertently set off a 40-minute running gag when he characterized a political group as having undergone a “cleavage.” His 18-year-old students perked up when one said he’d never heard the word “cleavage” used in that sense. 

Cleavage! Ha ha! 

Inside a classroom filled with late adolescents, the word “cleavage” is hilarious. But a scholarly reference to political cleavage isn’t hilarious at all when you’re an 18-year old college freshman watching a PowerPoint lecture alone in your room. Even if it were, no instructor in his right mind would record a lecture laced with gratuitous references to cleavage and post it on the Internet. Prerecorded humor doesn’t work. It doesn’t work even for professional comics, who are always filmed entertaining an in-house audience. You had to be there, we say, and the new era of Zoom teaching makes clear you have to be there in person.

If you can’t be there in person, you need a laugh track.

It’s the presence of teacher and students inside a room together that makes the magic. Students smile at their teachers’ jokes not because the jokes are dazzling, but because their peers are smiling, too. And the humor keeps everyone awake. In a well-run classroom, peers do help each other learn—but not because the advanced students can be required to teach the non-advanced, as flipped classrooms (and break-out rooms?) so often do.

Advanced Students need to advance

Which brings us to the reason advanced students, not just those younger and less able, also suffer in flipped classrooms.

Flipped-classroom advocates often expect advanced students to help their less-advanced peers. But this approach assumes that talented students know how to explain difficult concepts as well as the teacher does. They don’t! Good teaching takes years to master, and good students are not intrinsically good teachers. They may be worse teachers, in fact, because they don’t see why a concept that’s easy for them is difficult for others. They don’t know where the confusion lies; they don’t know how quickly or slowly to speak; they don’t know which examples or analogies to deploy; they don’t know how to “check for understanding,” and on and on.

Why would they know these things? 

Even if they did, they are not employees of the school district and should not be expected to reteach concepts the video has failed to convey. They are students who need to progress in their own studies. Advanced students need to advance, too. 

In the end, lessons and lectures are a performance art, and the performing arts are best experienced live. In person, a good teacher pumps energy and emotion into the room, and the students respond in kind. Their shared experience makes the lesson brighter, better, and far more memorable, in every sense of the word. Flipped classrooms simply cannot match learning in the living presence of others. 

Nor, today, can remote learning by Zoom.


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