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As COVID-19 continues to disrupt instruction in our K-12 schools, knowing and supporting the whole student is vital to each student’s success. An experienced education leader and scholar offers four ways to help you get to know your students.

One thing the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear is the need for educators to know more about who their students are, both in and out of school. Before the pandemic, educators’ knowledge of students has primarily been based on academic measures such as test scores and grades, their behavior, and teacher anecdotal information. What is less often known is who students are outside of school. Information of this sort has been limited to basic demographic data and whatever observations teachers and administrators may glean from interactions with a student, parent, or caregiver. School data systems aren’t designed to aggregate and analyze this information over time in the same way they are designed to support academic data. As a result, educators rarely have a comprehensive portrait of the whole student that can be used to provide greater support when circumstances demand it. 

The Gap in Supporting the Whole Student

The pandemic and its attendant disruption of education have starkly illustrated the gap in educator knowledge about students’ behavior and circumstances outside of school. It has become clear that educators need to know a great deal more about who their students are to engage them and help them remain connected to school during periods when classroom-based instruction is disrupted.  

Early evidence on how well home learning worked during spring 2020 is decidedly mixed. In almost all cases, however, the evidence suggests schools had a difficult time keeping large proportions of students engaged in learning. What is most distressing is that the students most likely not to participate were those who could least afford to have their education interrupted. The reasons for student lack of engagement in home learning are complex and multiple, with lack of access to technology near the top of the list along with the nature of the rapid transition to learning at home. 

Learning Through Disruption

Nevertheless, getting all students to stay engaged in schooling during periods of disruption requires knowing more about who students are. And on another level, knowing more about students, particularly those in greatest need of support, is always a good thing. As many have said, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. How can educators use the lessons from the disruptions of spring 2020 to build systems that enable them to learn more about students and support them better, both during times of regular instruction and especially during periods of disruption?

What will schools need to know to keep students with the greatest need engaged if another disruption of instruction occurs? What can be done now to be better prepared to support specific students who are likely to fall through the cracks if home learning becomes necessary again on a large scale?  How should schools prepare for scheduling variations that cause students to be physically present less frequently than all day, every day? How can educators use this period of challenge to reshape schooling permanently so that more is known about who students are and what it takes to get them engaged?

Instead of simply focusing all the attention on what a student knows, it is as important or more important to know who students are. Do their family circumstances affect how they learn? What do they do with their time outside of school? What are their interests? Do they have clear goals they are trying to achieve? How do they learn best, alone or in groups? And how can educators use what they learn about who students are to organize learning to serve each student best?  

Four Ways to Get To Know the Whole Student

Student Self-reports

One of the best and largely underutilized means to learn about who students are is to ask them. Self-reported information can provide substantial insight at low cost and moderate effort. The current emphasis on social-emotional learning has given rise to numerous instruments that educators can use. A good source of information on these instruments can be found at the District Resource Center of CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Intellispark® contains an instrument, Insightfull™, that yields data on student readiness for college and careers along with their perceptions of how engaged in and connected to school they are and how they spend their time outside of school during the week.

Student Goal-setting

A second way to learn more about students is to ask them what their goals are and to help them develop goals if they don’t have any clearly defined. Goal setting is a simple, efficient way to motivate students and learn more about them. Students can be asked to set short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. If this information is captured and tracked over time, it’s possible to gauge student motivation and engagement by how well they achieve their goals or how they adjust them. Cumulative information on student goals can also help in the identification of effective forms of instruction and curriculum that align with student interests and aspirations.

Career Exploration

A third way, particularly for secondary school students, is to encourage exploration of a range of careers. This does not imply that students select a career, only that they explore options and think about what types of careers align with who they are. Many databases and free services exist to help facilitate the process including the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network (O*NET). For each occupation, O*NET describes what is required to be successful in the occupation, including necessary knowledge and skills; abilities, interests, and values; type and level of training and licensing required plus necessary work experience; physical, social, and organizational aspects; and employment outlook and compensation. O*NET also contains My Next Move, a resource designed to help students figure out what they want to do, be, or become.

Parent/Caregiver Perceptions

A final additional category for learning about students is the observations and insights of parents or caregivers. Parents or caregivers may see their children or charges in a way educators frequently do not. They are aware of strengths, fears, interests, ambitions, preferences, and idiosyncrasies that teachers would not always be able to see. Understanding more about how children behave at home, how they spend their time, and what kind of human beings they are can be illuminating and provide insights on how to engage them in school and enhance their achievement and success.

An example of a widely used instrument that can be helpful in learning about how parents/caregivers are thinking is the California School Parent Survey. Its focus is primarily on parent perceptions of the school program as a whole, how well the school meets their children’s or charges’ needs, their perception of problems at the school, how concerned the school is about their input and their children’s or charges’ success, how involved they have been at the school, and how well the school has communicated with the family. This instrument does not capture the full range of parents’/caregivers’ perceptions of who students are, but it can be supplemented with additional items that gather more information about student interests and behaviors at home.

Adjusting to the New Normal

A return to normalcy anytime soon remains aspirational. Educators are going to have to cope with disruptions to instruction for some period of time and on a scale to which they are not accustomed. In this environment, it will be imperative to know more about the whole student to support them effectively. Educators will need data systems that provide insights necessary to prescribe strategies and interventions for all students who are struggling in the “new normal” of schooling during a pandemic.

Elements of this blog post are excerpted or adapted from: Conley, D. (2018). The Promise and Practice of Next Generation Assessment. Harvard Education Press.

David Conley

Dr. David Conley is a national thought leader in several areas including college and career readiness, student ownership of learning, systems of assessment, and new models of educational accountability. He has conducted numerous research studies on what it takes for students to be ready to succeed in college and careers, and he writes extensively on this topic. Most recently, he studied assessment and accountability systems, specifically those using new techniques and multiple measures. His most recent book, The Promise and Practice of Next Generation Assessment, was published in July, 2018 by Harvard Education Press.