The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Distance Learning in a Pandemic

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Distance Learning in a Pandemic

Today’s conversation focuses on the current state of distance learning and its effects on students. Adam Man, Head of Forman School, a prep school in Connecticut for high-school students who learn differently, joins Ned to talk about how his students are adapting and offers advice for those who are struggling, regardless of whether or not they have ADHD.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Forman School in Litchfield, Connecticut.

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Distraction is created by Sounds Great Media. Our producer is Sarah Guertin (@sarahguertin) and our recording engineer/editor is Pat Keogh.

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A transcript of this episode can be found below.


Adam Man:

I think there’s very few students who say, “You know what? I’d like to sit all day passively, shift gears among subjects, kind of every 45 to 50 minutes, take in exactly what the teacher’s telling me and be able to give it back to them exactly the way they want”. I mean, I look at that and think, “I don’t know who that was designed for. I don’t know who that student is.” But that’s somehow who we’ve imagined what our educational system should be.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Hello, welcome to Distraction. I’m your host, Dr. Ned Hallowell, and thank you so much for joining me. If you have a school aged child or a teenager, by now you are very familiar with the concept of distance learning. The pandemic has certainly seen to that. But students with learning differences like ADHD or dyslexia can have extra challenges making the leap to learning online or learning from home.

Today, my guest can offer some help. Adam Man, a wonderful man, indeed an educator par excellence, is the head of the Forman School in Litchfield, Connecticut, a school that I’ve visited a few times and a really wonderful institution. It’s a traditional college prep boarding and day school dedicated to students who learn differently, i.e. really smart creative kids. Adam’s students are now learning from home. He joins me today to talk about how things are going. So Adam Man, welcome to Distraction.

Adam Man:

Thank you, Ned. It is a pleasure to be here. I’m a big fan, so I’m thrilled to be with you.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Well, we’re thrilled to have you, that’s for sure. And how the world has changed, huh?

Adam Man:

Oh, very much so. Who would have thought just a couple of months ago that we would, such a dramatic change in all of education would occur. It is astounding.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Right. How are your kids handling it?

Adam Man:

I think like most kids. There are the challenges. I think for our students, just the sudden momentous change that took place is startling. I mean, the students left on spring break thinking they’ll be back in a couple of weeks and before they know it, we’re saying, “I’m sorry, you can’t come back. We’re going to need to work with you remotely for the remainder of the year.” And I think it’s especially challenging for our seniors because, I mean, all of them looking forward to all the traditions that we have throughout the spring and then obviously graduation and that’s just not going to happen. And I think that probably has been the greatest challenge for our students going forward, in that particular piece.

Adam Man:

I’m very impressed with the way our faculty responded and how quickly they moved and the amount of individual attention that they’re giving our students as they work remotely. I’m very, very proud of because I think that’s a key part of what we do. We know that this is not the ideal setting for a student with ADHD to be cooped up all day, in their house, with their siblings and their parents and not be able to go out, not have the routines and structures of school as well as the social interaction, the chance to run around outside and play sports, all those kinds of things. I think that makes it really hard for students, in general, not just for students with ADHD.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Yeah. And what tips might you have for kids who are facing a June with no graduation ceremony or, probably more importantly, kids who are every single day trying to learn online but finding it’s pretty difficult.

Adam Man:

Sure. I would say, first is you think about, I know that you have said this as well to families, to students is routines and structures are good things. And I’m not talking about a military march and step routine and structure, but rather predictability, right?

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Yes.

Adam Man:

I know what today looks like. I know what tomorrow is going to look like. I know what my routine will be. Those things are really healthy and valuable and all those students, teenagers, want to push those boundaries all the time. That’s kind of in their DNA, that they’re hard wired at this age to do it. And our job is to push back, right? To say, “Oh no, there are structures and routines for a reason.” And absolutely you’re going to have to be flexible, certainly in this time with those, but it is really important for kids to know, “There is a predictable pattern of what my day is going to look like. There are structures and things that I can count on.” That is really key for kids at this point who just feel like everything has gone south.

Adam Man:

But going back to your first point about seniors and missing these traditions and my hope is, certainly, they’re at schools that are thinking about ways to recognize and honor their seniors throughout the spring and that their graduation may not be the one that they’re hoping for all in person, et cetera. But I would also hope that they’re planning on connecting with those students, with those teachers that were important to them at some future date to celebrate their experience. That knowing that there will be a future date where they will be able to be in person and they will be able to connect both with their peers, but also with those teachers that were important in their lives.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

And what can’t be taken away from them is their experience.

Adam Man:

Yeah.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Maybe the day to celebrate that experience won’t happen as planned, but the experience itself, which after all is what’s being celebrated, is immutable and emblazoned in their memories forever.

Adam Man:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Couldn’t agree with you more.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

How about the actual act of learning online, of using Zoom or whatever platform you’re using? Have you learned anything about that, that we can pass along to other students or parents?

Adam Man:

Yeah, I mean I think Zoom is a careful balance, right? And online learning is a careful balance, in terms of between that synchronous in-person learning, which is important. Being able to talk to a teacher live, be able to ask questions, have a teacher respond in the moment, those are all important things. But sitting there all day in front of a computer is also incredibly challenging, especially with students who have ADHD, who are, there’s energy and focus, et cetera, and that forum is not ideal. So that really finding a way to break up your day, to be able to get out, to be able to move, to be able to get away from the computer, but also find times that you’re going to be able to connect and get perhaps some individualized or personalized support is going to be really important.

Adam Man:

As we looked at that at Forman, we try to balance our days between time when kids are in a Zoom class with the teacher and their peers, times when they can work independently and hopefully not all of that independent work is on a computer, but other formats that allow them to not be sitting passively in front of a computer. And then also, really importantly, time for them to be able to connect with that teacher in some one-on-one fashion that is going to allow it to be a bit more individualized and personalized. And Forman realized, part of what we do is really the ability to pay attention to each individual student’s needs and it’s really hard to do that in a Zoom forum. You’ve got to find ways to be able to do that more in a one-on-one fashion so that you’re really paying attention to where the student is, what they’re doing, for students to be able to express, “This is what’s working for me, this is what I’m confused about, this is what I’m not working about.” and be able to adjust.

Adam Man:

From a school, we can create a schedule, create a program that looks like that. If you’re at a school that you would say that’s not really what it is, try to find ways to be able to break up your day, try to find ways where you’re interjecting activity, not just sitting the whole time in front of a computer and then have ways to reach out to people who can help you. And I think for some of our students, their parents are in that role. I think for many of our parents what they would say, “I could do that for so long and I’ve got my job to do, or I don’t remember anything about Algebra 2 and I’m not that helpful.” Or just the natural frustration that happens with your parent also sometimes being your teacher.

I mean, I think that’s one of the things that we would say we learned a lot about it at Forman is that we can play a role that parents often can’t play, right. Where we can tell a student, you need to do this or you need to stop doing this and we don’t have all the baggage of being their parent, right? Or we have more of that neutrality.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Yes. You don’t have the power play or the nag factor getting in the way.

Adam Man:

Oh gosh, no. No child is going to say to me, “Remember that time when I was six and you left me behind.” We don’t have that, right?

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Right.

Adam Man:

I mean, your best interest is in my heart, but there is no baggage between us. We are on a level playing field.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Yeah. Tell us a little bit about who was Forman for.

Adam Man:

Sure. So Forman School was founded in 1930 by John Forman. And at the time, very little was known about learning differences, but he had the sense of he wanted to create a school for what he described as bright students who just weren’t reaching their potential. And John was a smart, smart man because he surrounded him with people who knew a lot more than he did. So one of the earliest advisers he brought on was Dr. Samuel Orton, who would create the Orton-Gillingham method. They were really surrounded by people who knew a lot and were thinking a lot about how people learn differently and that’s really what Forman is. We’re a school for students who are bright students, about a quarter of our kids are actually gifted intellectually, who being in a conventional school setting, in a traditional school setting, is not the right place. They need a place that’s more innovative, that’s more forward thinking, that’s more individualized to who they are. And as a result of that experience, it’s getting them ready for college. 100% of our students go on to university. They go on to lead lives in all kinds of careers.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

100%? I got to pause there. 100% go on to college.

Adam Man:

100%, 100%, absolutely. And go on and fill every different type of career field you could imagine.

And for us, it’s the sense of the students who come here, we’re saying to them, “We want to help you get to know yourself, who you are as a learner. What do you do well because there are probably things you do fantastically well and those are going to be the things that are going to take you the rest of your life. That’s going to be supporting your journey. There are things you don’t do well, like everyone. And so we need to help you figure out what those are. Help you build up your toolbox so those things don’t hold you back. Help you learn to be self confident, help you to learn how to advocate for what you need.” Because that’s the key. I mean, Ned, you know the statistics of how many students who qualified for some type of support or accommodation in high school, go off to college and never even ask for it.

They never even go by the office to say, “You know what, I need might need extended time or I might need the notes for this lecture.” They don’t use it in college and that is a recipe for disaster. And so, we need our students to realize, “You’ve got a lot you’re bringing to this conversation. You’ve got a lot you’re bringing to the table. But there are things, like all of us, we don’t do well and you need to be okay about being able to go forward and say, ‘This is what I’m going to need to be successful. And if I have these things, you’re not going to be able to hold me back.'”

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

And you really understand different learners. You really see the strength in it.

Adam Man:

Oh gosh, yes. I mean, absolutely. I mean, that’s the wonderful thing. I think if you look at what happens in most high schools across the globe, they really are tailored for a very small sliver of what would be adolescents out there, right? I mean, I think there’s very few students who say, “You know what? I’d like to sit all day passively, shift gears among subjects, kind of every 45 to 50 minutes, take in exactly what the teacher’s telling me and be able to give it back to them exactly the way they want.” I mean, I look at that and think, “I don’t know who that was designed for. I don’t know who that student is, but that’s somehow who we’ve imagined what our educational system should be.”

Forman is really looking at it and saying, “We know our kids are incredibly talented and they do amazing things here. They’re going to do amazing things later.” We have an incredible alumni body who has done amazing things. So it’s really tapping into each student’s strengths and really supporting them, letting them go to the nth degree in that era. But also helping them understand, “All right, here are things we can help you be better at. And here’s things that we can help you so that they don’t become hindrances for all the things that you are going to accomplish.”

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

It’s a wonderful school. And you have day as well as boarding, right?

Adam Man:

We do, absolutely.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Yeah. And what grades again?

Adam Man:

High school. So grades nine through 12.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Nine through 12, wonderful. It’s just one of the absolute best of its kind. And if you have one of those gifted different learners who have ADHD and dyslexia like me, consider Forman, a fantastic, fantastic school. Adam Man, head of Forman. Thank you so much for coming on Distraction.

Adam Man:

Thank you, Ned. I really appreciate it. It’s been terrific and we hope to see you again here when we’re not in quarantine.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Yes, I hope to come up. Please invite me and I’ll be there.

Adam Man:

Sounds great. Thank you.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Okay, well, that will do it for us today. If you’d like to learn more about the Forman School, and I hope you will, go to Formanschool.org. And remember to connect with us, share your thoughts, questions, and show ideas by emailing us at [email protected]. We love hearing from you. We often devote entire shows to your questions, your comments, and certainly we create shows around the ideas you send us. So please, we’re growing and building community. We would love to hear from you.

Dr. Ned Hallowell:

Distraction is created by Sounds Great Media. Our recording engineer and editor is the illustrious and incredibly literate, Pat Keogh. And our producer is the constantly creative, always coming up with new ideas, Sarah Guertin. I’m Dr. Ned Hallowell and thank you so very, very much for joining me.

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