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Friday, July 31, 2020

Learning Pods: Types, Design, Teaching and Assessment Strategies, Standards, Motivation

“Learning pods” are springing up around the country in response to the perceived inadequacies of distance learning during the pandemic.  Parents, subject matter experts, learning content providers, and assessment specialists are joining forces in order to assure the best and safest possible educational solutions that align with their individual State standards. 

There are different types of “learning pods” or “micro schools.”

Interview with Susan Nash, Ph.D. regarding Learning Pods and opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way.

Outdoor school with one rotating parent

At least five families get together with their children and they meet outdoors. in backyards or in parks  They try to team with students in the same school and the same grade.  So, there may be five families, with children ranging from 2nd to 6th grade.  The parents take turns, and each parent commits to one day per week.  It reminds me of Cub Scouts or Blue Birds.  The great advantages are the low cost (each parent volunteers), the fact it’s outdoors (which works in California, but perhaps not in Vermont). The downsides are the lack of subject matter expertise on the part of the parent, and the fact that everything will have to be done with books. I do not see where the parents will be able to deliver the actual lessons or course content in an engaging way.  If each student has a telephone or tablet with earbuds, that could work, assuming there is connectivity and a good data plan for streaming.


Here’s an example of a group in San Diego that is planning the outdoor pod approach:


Neighborhood homeschooling pods

It’s not quite clear if the parents rotate or if they  arrange for one or two parents to make sure that the homeschool-based micro school is working. The difference between this and the outdoor school is that the course content and materials could be from a homeschool group, which means that they are not tied to the local school district. Parents are opting for neighborhood homeschooling in the case of feeling nervous about sending the child back to school for face-to-face instruction.


Some districts are giving students an option, which means that teachers are going to be either teaching face to face or online, either of which could lead to a bit of teacher burnout.


There are concerns about education equity, as this new article points out:


Tutor-led homeschooling

Higher income families are arranging for learning pods that are taught by private tutors who are generally teachers who have taught for private schools. They use standard materials that align with State standards, but supplement with subject matter experts. There is a focus on higher-level tech skills and the parents are investing not only in the instructors, but also in computers, equipment, and enrichment activities.  New companies are springing up and tutoring services are modifying their offerings in order to meet these new needs.


Tutoring for at-risk students paid for by the school districts or grants

Some school districts have a budget for tutors to help at-risk students.  The students could be in hybrid learning settings, or in a situation where they could come to an outdoor area in the school for a few hours to supplement their distance education.


Content Aligned to Standards

It is critical to make sure that the instructional materials and the instructional strategy will make sure the students advance and meet learning goals and competencies.


Each state has standards and learning objectives, along with a test that students must pass.


Here’s an example of Oklahoma’s Academic Standards:


The instructional content that the learning pod uses should align with the standards. The sources of the instructional material could be the school district itself, a homeschooling program, or content developed specifically for the purpose.  It is always a good idea to supplement the content with real-world applications and practice in order to help the students engage in active learning.

There are several ways to obtain access to high-quality content that align to grade levels and State academic standards.  During times of COVID-19, the schools that ordinarily offer special instruction and materials for students with special needs, are often not able to offer them.  Here is another place where Learning Pods can come to the rescue by using materials that have been prepared to accommodate students with cognitive difficulties, attention deficit issues, mobility issues, sight and hearing challenges, autism, and more. 

One of the best locations to find a wide away of standards-aligned materials and resources for students with special needs is Twinkl

Twinkl's materials include a wide array of instructional materials, assessments, activities, and even books that can be either downloaded or even delivered as a printed book. In addition to resources for young learners that align with standard curricula, there are also interesting and engaging materials for arts and crafts, religious studies, and learning English. 

Preparing to Teach in a Learning Pod

Parents and enthusiastic subject matter experts may find themselves ill-equipped to provide positive learning experiences for their students. They have the best intentions, but find themselves feeling frustrated when the students do not make the kind of progress they expect.  There is also the looming specter of high-stakes testing at the end of the term. If the learning pod leader has not taken into account the need for a good instructional strategy which includes effective scaffolding, the consequences for the student could be nothing short of catastrophic.


1.  Identify the subject matter you will teach. For example, it might be Science.

2.  Download the State Standards and study them.

3.  Assemble your course materials and make sure they align with the State Standards

4.  Start a spreadsheet that aligns each State Standard with the instructional material that you have.

5.   Identify gaps, and create course content.

6.  Make sure that the sequence is in ascending order.

7.  Review the assessments and make sure that there are the following:

    a. practice exercises that provide the right answer
    b.  good alignment with the State Standards
    c.  “chunked” in knowledge blocks that are sufficiently granular to be easily mastered
    d.  appropriate sequence so that the lessons build on each other and tie to the end
    e.  a Final Exam that aligns with the course objectives and the instructional content (including the practice reviews, quizzes, and activities)


Common errors of the well-meaning Learning Pod teacher

There are a number of errors that occur in instruction. In some cases, it does not matter because the real-world consequences of not learning how to knit well, teach a dog to sit, or paint a sunset are not too serious.  However, the failure to read, write, do math, and think critically and creatively, will seriously harm a child’s future.


1.  Failure to cover the material in a way that is comprehended by the students.

2.  Lack of student engagement

3.  Lack of collaborative learning

4.  Focus on the “fun” content to the exclusion of the fundamentals

5.  Lack of application for the real world – putting the knowledge to work

6.  Lack of practice with the quizzes and exams

7.  Failure to understand how children and adults learn


Learning Pods as a Massive Pandemic Experiment

It is possible that learning pods will emerge as a highly effective method for engaging students and revitalizing education by having more parents, learning pod instructors, and stakeholders who feel a renewed passion for education.  In theory, learning pods are adaptive and adaptable for specific needs, and in that way, could be effective in the way that other forms are not. 


Learning pods could supplement our existing teaching strategies in bold, new ways, and create a generation of learners who directly connect learning to exciting futures. The key to success is to make sure that the poor and at-risk are included in learning pods, and that they are anchored to high achievement goals. Learning pods, if done well, could even help bring about education equity and avoid what Jonathan Kozol described in the now classic Savage Inequalities. Published in 1991, Kozol’s analysis of an educational system with structural inequality rings truer than ever, 30 years later. Learning pods could be part of a solution.

More information and Resources? Contact E-Learning Corgi!

E-Learning Corgi has a repository of materials that you can use in your Learning Pod. Do you need a bit of help getting started, or do you need a STEM subject matter expert as a tutor, either via distance or face to face? 

Contact E-Learning Corgi via email - susan at beyondutopia dot com. 





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