If you’re an educator, parent or politician, it’s been hard to avoid the discussions, opinions and the like about how schools should open this year. This uncertainty is far from over as school and district leaders continue to struggle with what to do — full remote instruction, hybrid mix of in-person with remote, full in-person, home schooling, unschooling, pandemic pods, etc.
Recently, I read a post by education historian Diane Ravitch summarizing the writing of Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education. Burris spoke forcefully in support of reopening the schools in New York City with full in-person instruction and cited several studies that reported the ineffectiveness of remote learning. The studies cited by Burris reported the loss of learning in terms of school days — i.e. in one study (issued in 2015 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University) students participating in remote learning lost the equivalent of 180 days of instruction in math and 72 days of instruction in reading. In a 2019 study of Pennsylvania online schools, students in such schools lost the equivalent of 106 days of reading instruction and 118 days in math. Our love of metrics and analytics has apparently carried over to such fascinating calculations.
While the conversion of remote learning to days of lost instruction is a fascinating exercise, it begs bigger questions: Is this what the education of our children has become after nearly three decades of school reform? Why are we locked into a system of schooling that was designed over 120 years ago?
David Brooks, in his book “The Social Animal,” argues that “modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties … Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet far and away the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. We have built a system of education based on the primacy of the rational mind while ignoring the importance of our emotional/social development.”
The present offers us lessons for the future. While a graduate student, I was in a class in which a fellow student asked a particularly inane question. The professor stood silently for a few moments and then said, “Son, I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.” Our present isn’t working so well right now. Few would suggest that the future will work better.
Russell Ackoff, professor emeritus of management science at the Wharton School, is perhaps best known for this quote: “There is an important difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. Doing things right is about efficiency. Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.”
By virtually all measures, we continue to validate Ackoff’s assertion. While our conversations have been about effectiveness, our actions have been about efficiency — too often at the expense of effectiveness.
Lots of change, little progress
Pre COVID-19 reform efforts (No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Every Student Succeeds Act) determined the way we experience school. But after 30 years of such reform efforts, our test scores remain flat, the opportunity gap has widened, and reported incidents of pre-adolescent and adolescent mental health issues have spiked dramatically.
That’s not a present that’s working. COVID-related modifications to schooling have caused stress among parents, teachers and students beyond anything we have seen in our lifetimes. Many are wondering if school will ever be the same. And that is the opening for the first Big Question: Should it?
As we plan for what the future of post-COVID-19 education for our children should look like, we have the opportunity to ask, “what is the right thing?” What is needed is a thorough examination of the purpose, focus and structure of our schools. The COVID-19 experience is telling us to examine the very notion of schools and schooling.
We’re partway there. This year we were given a free pass on testing. We have kids learning at home. We have kids in virtual classrooms. We have kids in mixed-age learning pods organized by parents. We have kids attending school two to three days per week or maybe not at all.
Big Question #1
What should be the purpose of school?
The American dream is dead. The story that we grew up with — you work hard, do well in school, go to college, graduate, get a good job, have a secure retirement — is dead. What if the current system of schooling continues to prepare students for higher education which is beyond the financial reach of an increasing number of students? What if the current system of schooling continues to prepare our students for jobs that no longer exist? Do we need our current system of schooling to prepare our children for the “gig economy”?
In reflecting on this new reality, Clark Aldrich in his book, “Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways To Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education,” suggests that the purpose of education revolves around three types of learning: learning how to learn, learning how to do, and learning how to be. What would such learning look like? Would it continue to require the construction and use of expensive, largely single-use buildings? In an age of growing internet connectivity, would learning opportunities be limited by ZIP code or even state boundaries? Could demonstrations of learning extend beyond the walls of the school and recognition beyond the award of seat time credit?
Big Question #2
What do we know about learning?
Everyone is born to learn. Personal and collective survival depends on learning. Four of my grandchildren are under 10 years old. They are learning sponges. From the earliest days, they were curious, exploratory, and constantly making connections. They each were, and continue to be, different. In school they have been grouped not by interest, not by readiness, but, as Sir Ken Robinson noted, by their date of manufacture. They returned to school this year on a hybrid schedule. Caring and dedicated teachers have been doing their best to engage students who, depending on the day, may be in school or at home.
Last week, our first grader, working at home that day, spent six hours on her tablet. While it was clear that the teacher was trying to do hybrid learning right, it was clearly not the right thing.
Big Question #3
Is getting back to normal the best we can do?
The normal that is on pause right now is a culture of separateness. We live in an age of separation. We are separated from one another. We are separated from our institutions. We are separated from our planet. In school we have organized learning into separate silos — 45 minutes for math, 45 minutes for social studies, 45 minutes for English, etc. The length may vary. The separation does not.
What if the way to a future that works involved an exploration of connections and relationships rather than the acquisition of knowledge in discrete content domains? What would happen if we educated for wisdom rather than for information? What if we focused not only on learning about our world but also on learning how to make our world better? What would experiences for learning look like if they didn’t always take place in a school building?
Last year many of us had front-row seats as we witnessed the dedication of teachers throughout the country who, with less than one day’s notice, did their best to bring learning to the students in their classes. This year we are watching much of what we’ve known as school be turned upside down in a matter of months.
Once again, we are seeing our teachers try to help our children navigate a constantly changing landscape. What better time to say “thank you” and what better time to craft a future for our kids and communities that works?