Oh no! Not “what if” again.


Gary Larson, The FarSide Gallery

As I wrote recently in a blog piece, Covid-19 demands a number of responses.  First among these is the expression of our admiration and gratitude to all of those folks whose selfless and often heroic efforts seek to help us survive what just a few months ago was unthinkable.  Not too far down on that list are the nation’s educators who in the space of a few short weeks (often much less) have been able to provide our kids and their families with food, emotional support and, for many, brand new ways of experiencing education.

In addition to being thankful and, as we reflect on the many stories and the growing list of resources available to bring school to our kids and their families, I see another possible response.  What if the disruption in the normal schooling routine presents us with a challenge and an opportunity?

Not too long ago, a Gallup poll revealed that as kids move through our system of schooling, there is a precipitous drop in their engagement in the process… a drop from approximately 80% engagement in 4th grade to less that 40% by 11thgrade.  Equally, and perhaps even more alarming, is the data that show that our kids are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

As I’ve been reflecting on these frightening statistics, I recalled a parenting response I used to hear as a kid.  Responding to one of my youthful misdeeds, my mother would suggest (often quite forcefully) … “Go to your room. Sit there and think about what you’ve done.” Might not this time of Covid-19 be calling us to so the same? What have we done?  How did we get here?  Is this where we want to be? What really matters?  What if our kids have needs that we are not meeting in our current culture and in our schools?

How did we get here?

In 1893, the National Education Association convened a group primarily composed of educators to deal with a divide in opinion about the purpose of education, which until that time, had been structured around two forms of schooling.  One was the continuation of what was considered a classical education and served primarily the wealthy, and a second form which was primarily vocational or life skill based.  The conclusion and recommendation of the group, known as the Committee of Ten, was that there should be more options and that schooling should be organized into eight years of elementary schooling and four years of high school.  Beyond that structural recommendation, the group also recommended the subjects which should be taught and in what sequence.  Most people today are surprised to learn that the organization of our system of schools and what the core learning should were determined in 1893 and have changed very little for more than a hundred years.

Russell Ackoff, in his lifetime a highly regarded political economist, offered the following: ”There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.  Trying to do things right is about efficiency.  Doing the right thing is about effectiveness.  Trying the do the wrong thing “righter” actually makes things “wronger.”

On a deep level many of us are recognizing that we have spent far too much time working on the wrong thing in our schools.  We have spent the past thirty years on a quest for greater academic achievement… achievement as envisioned by the Committee of Ten… achievement defined as standards of learning which continue to focus our attention of isolated subjects, on large scale standardized assessments, and on the false gods of efficiency and accountability.   We have spent years now and have subjected kids and their teachers to efforts to do the wrong things right.

  • What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff? (Think Kodachrome, Paul Simon)
  • What if the way we have “done school” has been contributing to both the loss of curiosity and engagement among our kids (and sometimes our teachers) and the increase in reported cases of stress, anxiety and depression?
  • What if much of the work we are creating now is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what is the right thing? What if the tragedy of Covid-19 is presenting us with the time to question the difference between schooling and learning?What if we have inadvertently demanded that parents re-create schooling in their homes?
  • What would this time of homeschooling look like if we focused on home learning enabling learning beyond the overloaded curriculum that has become a part of our children’s schooling experience?
  • What if we thought of school not as a journey with an end (graduation) but as a time when we learn how to become learners? What would the important things or skills be that we would need to become successful lifelong learners?
  • What if all the stuff that we learned in school and all the stuff that we’ve packed into the curriculum is really not the right stuff? (Think Paul Simon again)
  • What if much of the work we are creating is a living example of trying to do things right rather than taking the time to determine what the right thing is?

This is the challenge of the pandemic and education.  We have to provide our kids with the best learning opportunities that we can create while they are home.  But we have to recognize that this is a temporary fix at best.  We have to do more.  Our kids, disengaged and emotionally hurting, need us to do more.  We are called to do more.  We have to create a space in each of our schools and districts where creative educators can think about what learning should and shouldn’t look like when we return to our buildings.  Why wouldn’t we use this time when schools are not in session to find the time and create small teams to explore if the right thing is to return to school as we’ve known it?

As we try, as we will inevitably do, to build a new future and adapt to the “new normal” which will evolve as the tragedy of Covid-19 morphs into the next phase of our lives,  can we remember that life begins again when we consider the possibility that there may be a different way?  Surely we can consider that the Committee of Ten, no matter how brilliant they were, did not predict the learning needs of our time.  This is a time that begs us to ask ourselves “What matters?” Could we try to ask that about learning?

Be well

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