The Two Most Important Things to Know About Online Learning

Twitter is the place where people go to complain. I saw a tweet where someone shared a teacher’s rules for her online classroom. The tweet disparaged the teacher’s insistence that students not eat during class.

The problem with most of the discourse about online learning is no different than the problems we had a month ago when online learning wasn’t the focus of everyone’s attention. And that problem is that without a sense of focused principles, all we have is a lot of complaining without a sense of what is important. It might sound silly to restrict eating in class when the child in question is sitting in their own kitchen, and I’d agree; nevertheless, it’s far more important that we turn our attention to what does matter.

1. The Task

Alfie Kohn is best known for his book Punished by Rewards, but another favorite of mine is Beyond Discipline. His main point–there are hundreds of books about controlling children in the classroom, and they almost never have anything to say about what children are being asked to do.

Current discourse about online learning often focus on the technology, not the task. If we don’t ask children to engage in worthwhile learning tasks, the whole enterprise is misguided. We can list rules, teach kids protocols for online hand raising, and introduce them to Zoom; but if we don’t have a great task, all they will learn are rules, protocols, and how to use Zoom.

2. The Community

Yesterday I taught my first online math circle, and my main take-away is that recreating the kind of community you build in an in person classroom is challenging! A strong classroom community makes it possible for students to feel comfortable sharing their mistakes–and thinking about your thinking is where learning happens. That comfort gives teachers the chance to do formative assessment effectively, which is the most important feature of a powerful classroom. (Formative assessment–collecting information about what kids do and don’t understand and acting on that information.)

As you evaluate the learning experiences you or your children having, start by asking yourself, what’s the task, and what opportunities are we given to make personal connections to support learning? Teaching decisions follow from there.


In addition to our online math circles, I’m also making a weekly post with a math circle task that can be done at home. Check out these posts for what I believe are some worthwhile tasks!

1: 1D Tic Tac Toe

2: Knight Moves

3: Domino Variations–Get It Covered