Keeping Learning Going with Dr. Benjamin Heuston

What’s it going to take to move learning forward, and ensure students are up to speed?

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

As a leader in educational technology over the last two decades, Edward “Benjamin” Heuston continues the legacy started by his father Dusty. Benjamin is an active speaker in educational settings and is also a member of several boards and associations, including the SIIA Education Board, the Society for Scientific Study of Reading, and the International Golden Key Honour Society, as well as a mentor for Utah Entrepreneurship Challenge. Benjamin holds two bachelor’s and a master’s, and he earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Brigham Young University. In this interview, we discuss the current pandemic and its impact on schools and learning, as well as what’s just ahead for students.

Let’s start with a topic I’ve heard mention of lately and that has some timeliness, what is ‘summer learning loss’ and how is the current pandemic playing into that?

Summer learning loss is a common topic when I speak with Superintendents. It’s the toll that being away from school can take on a student’s learning. On average, teachers spend four to six weeks reteaching material at the beginning of the school year to address what children have forgotten over the summer. COVID-19 has made this much worse, turning it from a “summer slide” into a “COVID cliff.” Instead of three months of school closure, we’re now looking at more like six months. This is going to make it very challenging for schools as children return to school.

“The worst thing we could do is promise the moon and then fall deeply short. Our best strategy is to be open and honest about the specific ways that we can help…”

What can parents do to fight this and help their children? 

Experts will tell you when it comes to parenting, always remember the three R’s:

  • Relationship—give your children one-on-one time. Children need to feel supported and understood.
  • Routine—a regular sleep pattern and structure are key to child development. This time is not a sprint, but a marathon for children.
  • Resilience—Failure is necessary for learning. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with your child; they will learn to overcome disappointment and hard things through your example. Also, it’s important to take care of yourself and celebrate small victories.

 

What resources does your organization have to help educators and parents? 

As a national educational nonprofit, we have developed a number of parent resources. The first is our website waterford.org/resources. In addition to academic topics, we have helpful tips for how to handle tricky topics like social distancing and COVID. Families can also find early educational videos on our YouTube page. And finally, for fun and educational things you can do with your child, you can follow us on our Instagram page where we have DIY projects that are easy to do and will fill the time in an educational way.

Any examples of hybrid learning done right and really making a difference for students and families?

While we don’t have a lot of examples of hybrid learning yet (schools were open, then closed), there’s reason to be optimistic that some powerful models are going to emerge from the crisis. One reason for that optimism is that we have seen effective in-home options (like Waterford Upstart) that provide continuity of learning even when classroom availability is limited or sporadic.

We are living in interesting times. From your perspective, what is the current state of education (at least as of late July, 2020!), and what is technology’s role in that?

The current state of education is that it’s hurting, and the coming year is not going to be a lot better. Part of the reason for that is that education is, at best, a third priority for us as a country, behind both the economy and safety/health. That doesn’t mean that this year is going to be an all-out wash for children—after all, children are always learning, wherever they are and whatever they’re doing—but it would be unreasonable to assume that academically our children are going to learn as much as they would in a normal, non-pandemic year.

What do you see as we look ahead to the coming school year? What’s your general take, and what approach might be a workable one? 

The equity issue is going to be one of the most important issues to solve for this year. Some schools are going to be open, some closed. Some children will be able to attend, some will not. So, from an equity standpoint what we need to focus on is providing all children with quality options in the home—a place where they are all certain to be. This is a major shift away from the classroom-first approach that we have had in the past, but it’s vital that we get this right. All children need to have their own device and access to a robust internet connection, period. That won’t guarantee quality, consistent learning, but not having it almost assuredly prevents quality learning this coming year.

Any tips for “keeping learning going,” regardless of whether it is in-person or at home, or some combination? (What might school leaders keep in mind, and what might educators and parents need to know?)

I like the notion of “keeping learning going.” That’s precisely the objective. While it sounds modest, the reality is that we need some quality learning taking place each day, and that’s probably about all we’ll be able to expect. Trying to fully recreate the school experience in the home is doomed to failure, as is expecting children to spend endless amounts of time on Zoom listening to teachers. Better to shift to more targeted, briefer periods of instruction followed by independent work (reading, writing, etc.).

Any general advice to other edtech-type companies or organizations during these times?

My advice to edtech companies is to not fall into the trap of overpromising and underdelivering. The reality is that NAEP scores haven’t been improving across our country despite billions being poured into technology and other initiatives. If we collectively couldn’t solve our limited problems last year, why would we suddenly think that we could do better during a crisis? The worst thing we could do is promise the moon and then fall deeply short. Our best strategy is to be open and honest about the specific ways that we can help—including about the other parts/pieces we need to be successful (sufficient teacher training, support, etc.)—and trust that when parents, teachers, and schools see us deliver, they will continue to leverage our solutions in the “new normal” future.

Anything else?

This is really an opportunity to rediscover the role of parents in education. It is not the responsibility of public schools to see that our country’s children are educated—it’s the right and responsibility of the parents. If it weren’t this way then we’d require all children to attend public school, but we don’t; parents choose the best educational path for their children, and we are being uniquely reminded of that during the pandemic. My hope is that we will engage more intimately and effectively with parents this year and build a stronger, more effective partnership with them that will last long past the time the pandemic is gone.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

Coming soon: KEEPING LEARNING GOING: A Guide for Educators & Parents. To sponsor this guide or provide input, email Victor.

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