NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – The move to district-wide remote instruction in New Brunswick schools has necessitated a shift away from traditional ways of learning takes place.

In virtual classrooms, that model has by in large been replaced by one that stresses problem-based learning where critical thinking is key and the ability to work in a group dynamic is a must.

“That’s the real world now,” said Superintendent of Schools Aubrey Johnson. “A lot of these companies, when they build a part, you have part of a team in China. You have another in another part in Asia. You have another part in the United States. They all have to work virtually to solve a problem and build a part. We’re trying to actually encourage that through problem-based learning, inquiry by design.

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“We have really moved away from that top-down. I think what we’re learning now is how to use the tools, how to use the Google Meets, how to have two Google Meets open at the same time. That’s the newness of it.”

With students just a few days into their new school year, Johnson says “things are going great.” That’s true in part because the district better understands how new technology can help create new and better ways of learning.

It’s one advantage the district has compared with last March when Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order ordering schools to close buildings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before anyone ever uttered the words “social distancing” or “transfer rate,” however, Johnson said the district was unwittingly gearing up for a day when schools would be closed.

Johnson said he began to assemble a stockpile of Chromebooks to give out to students three or four years ago. When the pandemic hit the state last March, New Brunswick was able to distribute the laptop computers to the majority of its more than 10,000 students.

Johnson said the district purchased Chromebooks over the summer to distribute to its pre-K students.

The district spent a lot of time over the summer helping teachers train on how to operate in a cyber classroom. They were also encouraged to explore the possibilities with the new computers and the new programs.

“We encouraged everyone to take risks, don’t be scared,” Johnson said. “This is new, but keep our students in the forefront. They’re also learning this as well. So, I think just coming from that approach and coming into the summer, I think it was more of a comfort level and ensuring that comfort level was at the right place where people didn’t feel intimidated or people didn’t feel threatened. ‘If I do this, am I going to get a bad observation?’ That was never part of our conversations. It was more about the comfort level.”

Johnson said the district implemented a system where some of teachers who struggled with the new technology observe the more tech-savvy ones run their classrooms.

One revelation came last spring, when teachers began to realize that sometimes it’s best to let the students who have been weaned on this technology lead the way in this new type of learning.

“We realized it was best to let some of the students take control of the class because students really understand technology and know it more so than us and giving them the leverage now to use this tool for us to learn how to better support them,” he said.

Johnson said the administrators, teachers and students cannot take all the credit to the great start of the school year. He said the community – parents, residents, city officials – have stepped in to see how they can help.

“Every time I’m speaking with someone, it’s not about a complaint or anything of that nature. It’s, ‘OK, what’s the next step? How can we do better? How can I support you? What resources do you need?’” Johnson said. “When you have those kind of dynamics going on in the community, it filters into the schools.”