Select Page

Part II, Digital Abstraction and Student Learning.

In part one of this series, I discussed my positionality as the Chief Executive Officer of a public inner-city school system in California. We reviewed that through this health crisis, rather than being engaged in incremental change, that nearly 1.5 billion students globally, their educational support systems, and their families had undergone a rapid change. I discussed this change through the framework of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Kuhn (2012) where he argued that paradigms represent groups of practitioners rather than subject matter. He claimed that “…any study of paradigm-directed, or of paradigm-shattering, research must begin by locating the responsible group or groups” (2012, p. 179)

Figure 1. A simple model of responsible groups practice for educational paradigm development. 

I argued that this crisis had subjected educational systems to what Kuhn (2012) defined as a paradigm-shattering event. In the United States, T/K-12 education has been through decades of redesign initiatives (Loescher, 2018) that have established a model in drift. What I have noted over the last several months is that we have moved from model drift to model crisis. A silver lining for education would be if we can take lessons learned in the crisis and apply them to a model revolution that would lead to a full paradigm change. 

Figure 2. Kuhn cycle of a paradigm change.

A Theoretical Framework. While much of the focus has been on educational systems and educators, the primary responsible groups that have been impacted have been students and parents. With so much change across the social ecosystem my purpose here is to try to frame this posting around our response for students. So, what has happened to our students and parents? To situate this change and how it might support new paradigms, I have chosen two theories as frames of reference for our consideration and then introduce the response strategy through the lens of digital abstraction. 

Impacts to the ecological systems for learning. Bronfenbrenner’s (1977; 1994) Ecological Systems Theory (EST) is a psychological-based systems theory of human development (Loescher, 2018). In EST there are various systems and interactions that surround the individual that are supported by chronosystem goals (significant life events) and have a defining feature of proximal process. Proximal process relates both to how close or far the environments are that one works in and the types of influence that this has over a student’s development. 

Figure 3. Nested diagram of the five EST environmental systems.

Rather than go into depth on EST, what I want to focus on here is that many aspects of a student’s proximal process of schooling have been inverted at the microsystem and mesosystem levels. Previously the educator and school had been the in-person support provider with parents/guardians in a secondary role. With distance learning, this relationship has been reversed. The parent/guardian is the primary support provider with the educator and the institution having been distanced as has their expertise for in-person learning. For our students, this also relates to all aspects of schools including critical social interactions, daily routines, and normalized milestone systems goals such as ceremonies, grade level transitions, promotions, and additional culturally normed rites of passage. 

What happens to our students’ community of practice? This may lead me to a second consideration from theory. This comes from Wenger’s (1999) Communities of Practice (CoP). Within our school and classroom structures our students, of all ages, form their own CoP based upon their social interactions at the schools. In the absence of the daily presences of these CoP, and in consideration of the change of proximal process, students no longer have a CoP in which to immediately interact. This is a disruption that should be considered as to how a student and the family might go about constructing a new practice for learning at a time when social distancing has become the norm. Educators and schools hold a primary responsibility to acknowledge this disruption and must engage in supporting the development of new CoP.  

Digital abstraction as a response strategy. The philosophical ideals of abstraction have been extended to the notion of digital abstraction (Berardi, 2012; Lazzarato, 2011). The concept of digital abstraction moves the ideals of the valorization of physical labor to that of the digital fields whereas cognitive labor and functioning is abstracted across time and space through technology. This is not just a philosophical intellectual exercise, but we have noticed this phenomenon for the last two decades as we have moved into 24-hour cognitive work cycles that span the globe. We do this through synchronous and asynchronous platforms that abstract time and space through technological platforms. This may allow us to virtually participate in meetings and contribute to cognitive workflows taking place in Japan, Italy, South Africa, and Australia within the span of a few hours or minutes. 

However, these concepts have been limited within T/K-12 public education which is not accustomed to them. Digital abstraction is more than just online or conference meeting structures. It is the distortion of space and time across a digital ecosystem. Schools and educators are accustomed to fixed structures and timetables whereas digital abstraction moves beyond rigid structures into a continuous cycle where those interacting within the ecosystem can often do so on their time, terms, and conditions. Furthermore, schools and educators must address that online systems are not equally accessible, and that vulnerable populations are now, more so than ever, at risk of an increasing digital divide.

Problem of Practice.  In my previous article, I presented that the overarching problem of practice facing many school systems is that they are undergoing mass organizational changes in culture, structures, and professional practice. Historically T/K-12 schools and educators have gravitated towards risk-averse organizational cultures. Through this crisis, they have found themselves enveloped in a situation where they are risk immersed. This has changed our positionality from seeking out best practice to seeking out emergent practice. 

For students and parents/guardians the problem of practices is the proximal process for learning has been digitally abstracted, socially distanced, disrupted their daily routines, and left them without an established community of practice. The use of digital abstraction has become a primary strategy for schools and educators where the internet is available to address the changes in proximal process and to support new CoP. 

In our school system, we are not seeking to recreate the classroom that was. Rather, we are seeking to create a student social-emotional-learning experience through an aggregate of supports and services. In this way, we are also developing expertise and practice that can be of service in advancing learning, pedagogy, and school practice outside of the scope of this pandemic crisis response. Utilizing the previous discussed dynamic framework to support rapid change (see Figure 4), here I will explore some of our supports and structures for students. 

Figure 4. Overview of a dynamic framework for rapid change. 

Communication structures must be heightened. Classrooms and schools are complex social systems where communications occur in a myriad of forms. Communications between adults and students are not limited to written and verbal interactions. As humans, how we sit, our posture, facial expressions, and hand motion all are communication mechanisms that people rely upon to understand each other more readily beyond the use of words. Therefore, classroom and school communications with students cannot simply be replicated through a digitally abstracted system.

Rather than try to replicate these systems, we have focused on trying to put a variety of communication strategies in place that allow for students to interact with educators and each other. While others have moved towards depersonalized systems that utilize standardized online videos or content, our school system has taken a different approach. We have found that the need for the presence of educators that are known to students and families are required more in these environments. It is this personal connection that allows for school culture around learning and support to continue.  

Consider the following communication practices with students: 

  • Synchronous and asynchronous communications structures must be available for students that meet their technological modalities;
  • Stories and books can be read by known adults to younger students and posted online for ease of access;
  • Rather than continuous large group instruction online, small group instruction in scheduled rapid succession can provide supports and a more personalized learning experience;
  • Office hours where students can work with educators for additional supports and interventions;
  • Increased feedback loop cycles for assignments through chat rooms, comments on sheets, and peer interactive feedback;
  • Meeting and discussion boards about social-emotional topics;
  • Telephone call check-ins;
  • Visits to students’ homes on important or culturally significant days where they can see others from a safe distance. 

Diminish risk aversion through support systems. For students, the primary mechanism to risk-aversion is negative feedback, feelings of inadequacy, and receiving poor grades. While other school systems have abandoned grades, we have kept grading systems in place so that we measure student learning and progress. However, how we grade has changed as has what we grade. Within a system undergoing this level of dynamic change, we have put a renewed emphasis on grades as being outcome and progress measures for learning rather than accountability driven systems. 

In Hargreaves’s work (2009) he stated that when developing educational systems for faculty and staff there must be “responsibility before accountability” (p. 37). In this way, while it is right to look at all types of educational measures for student performance, I would argue that there must be measures of engagement before there can be a valid evaluation of student learning. In this way, we move beyond what has happened to how it has happened and focus our support accordingly. By this, I mean that if first we focus on student engagement, we may find a variety of social-technological or psychological barriers that we must address before they can learn. By focusing on addressing these issues, we can diminish risk aversion and move students more readily through this way of learning.

Consider the following support systems and practices that may reduce risk aversion:

  • A focus should be on engagement metrics to be sure that students are able to access the learning platforms and ways of being through digital abstraction;
  • Within a student information system, configure the grade books not to reveal student grades until they have reached a level of proficiency;
  • Rather than using negative or deficit grading systems (-3 of 10) use positive systems (+7 of 10) so students can measure growth in resubmissions;
  • Develop growth metrics to share with students so they can feel positive progress towards goals;
  • Assignments can have flexible dates for submission;
  • There need not be a single submission of an assignment, rather students can be supported to learn through their mistakes by engaging in a resubmission process;
  • Support of play and game-based curricular activities to diminish risk aversion and promote interactions with other students during a time of isolation.

Reorganize all school resources to confront the new workflow for learning. There is no use in keeping the resources of the classroom or learning institution locked in the schools. Resources should be appropriately distributed to students and families as those are now the centers for learning. Instructional technology, learning materials, food, games, supplies, and even furniture will not benefit students if it remains locked inside of classrooms and schools. As with all resourcing, the distribution of school resources must be conducted on an equity/needs basis as students do not all have equal environments to learn at home. 

The following are a few strategies and standards to consider when looking at resource distribution:

  • Keep a focus on equity-driven resourcing;
  • All instructional technology should be distributed on a needs basis;
  • Computers must be for each student, not each home;
  • Internet access must be a right in this configuration and there must be options for families to access it including through support services through the school on how to get new accounts;
  • Food distribution for families in need must continue and consider that those needs may be higher now than before requiring a school-based foodbank;
  • If students do not have access to an area in their home to comfortably work, school resources should be distributed to accommodate those students and families with adequate furniture or materials so that learning can more comfortably occur;
  • In a dynamic environment, constant checks on students and families should occur as their situations may change requiring a reconsideration of the distribution of resources.

Develop and implement emotional supports appropriate to the situation. It has become a popular saying during this health care crisis that “we are all in this together.” While we may be all in this together, we all experience it differently. Social inequities, that are present in school life, are amplified in crisis situations. Therefore, emotional support for our students and families must have a predominant role in what we do as a school community. As Maslow (1999) argued, there are fundamental needs that must be met. 

The following are areas of emotions supports that may advance student well-being and engagement:

  • Proactive community outreach teams to ensure that families fundamental needs are being met;
  • A school-based and personalized social-emotional curriculum that is prioritized as part of all ongoing curricular activities and instruction;
  • Advisory structures where students have access to educators to discuss non-curricular items and establish CoP within digitally abstracted learning spaces;
  • Regular access to trusted educators and school officials for reassurance and supports;
  • Access to crisis counselors, family counseling, and psychological support providers for students of all ages;
  • School-sponsored online social activities to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness to temper the normal feelings to seeking out in-person interactions with other students that would create an escalated risk of viral transmissions; 
  • Remember that students that have had previous problems at home are now confined there without the option of seeking out the school building and the adults in it as a safe space and/or resource. These students require additional monitoring, support services, and interventions in conjunction with appropriate authorities and agencies.

Final thoughts. While we rapidly develop systems to meet the challenges at hand, we need to remember that there will be implications as we undergo a paradigm-shattering series of events. Even now, we can see that this pandemic is teaching each of us that there are new ways to serve our learning communities. We cannot forget that in any educational system design we must have a clear focus on equitable redistribution of resources to support our team, students, and families. We have an ethical obligation and moral imperative to support our learning communities now while keeping a keen eye on the lessons we learn in this crisis to address what is next. If we remain vigilant in our efforts and document our lessons learned, we will increase the likelihood that through this pandemic that there is a silver lining for learning.

[Guest post by Dr. Shawn T. Loescher, Chief Executive Officer, Urban Discovery Schools]

Annotations / Citations

  • Berardi, F. (2012). The uprising: On poetry and finance. (trans. Semiotext(e)). Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32(7), 513-531.
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development. Readings on the Development of Children, 2, 37-43.
  • Hargreaves, A. (2009). The fourth way of change: Towards an age of inspiration and sustainability. In A. Hargreaves and M. Fullan (eds) Change Wars, pp. 11-43. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
  • Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions (4th ed.). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Lazzarato, M. (2011). The making of the indebted man (trans. Semiotext(e)). Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
  • Loescher, S. T. (2018). Hope as strategy: The effectiveness of an innovation of the mind. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University.
  • Maslow, A. H. (1999). Towards a psychology of being (3rd ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

About the author. Shawn T. Loescher, Ed.D., is an active practitioner with over 25 years of experience, both domestically and abroad, in educational innovation and school system redesign. He currently serves as a Chief Executive Officer of an inner-city school system in California. In 2019, Dr. Loescher was named one of 16 worldwide recipients of the TED-Ed Innovative Educators award. He earned his doctorate from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University with a focus on leadership, innovation, theory, and policy. Dr. Loescher is an American Educational Research Association (AERA) awarded scholarly practitioner in the field of action research and sciences. He is a sought-after keynote speaker, guest lecturer, TED Talk speaker, consultant, and think tank participant. More information about Dr. Loescher can be found at | | |