One thing that the combination of retirement and a pandemic does is provide lots of reading/thinking time. Every once in a while, this combination results in a “flash of the blindingly obvious”. This morning was one of those times.
If you’re an educator, parent or politician it’s been hard to avoid the discussions, opinions, etc. about what to do with schools when confronted with the traditional time of school opening. This morning I was reading a post by Diane Ravitch in which she summarized a post by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. Burris, in speaking strongly in support of the reopening of schools in New York City, cites several studies that report on the effectiveness of remote learning. The studies cited by Burris report the loss of learning in terms of school days lost – i.e., in one study (CREDO, 2015) student learning in math was the equivalent of receiving 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days in reading. In a 2019 study of Pennsylvania online schools, students in such “schools” lost the equivalent of 106 days of learning in reading and 118 days in math.
I know we love metrics and place great faith in their usefulness, but WTF? What kind of days were lost? Were they days with a great teacher, a mediocre teacher… maybe days when there was a long-term substitute in the class? But more important than the accuracy of days lost… Is this what education of our children has become after nearly three decades of school reform? Is this what our world needs … a world that is struggling to accept the reality of climate change, a world struggling to determine whose lives really matter, a world struggling to determine what an acceptable number of student/teacher deaths is to justify reopening schools, a world struggling with dramatic spikes in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and suicide? Why are we locked into a system of schooling that was designed over 120 years ago?
Wait! What? Are you suggesting that we need to change the purpose, focus and structure of our schools… maybe even change the very notions of schools and schooling? That’s exactly what I’m suggesting. We’re part way there. Right now we have gotten a “free pass” on testing. Right now 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 2-3 days per week or, maybe not at all. Is getting “back to normal” the best we can do?… not because normal was so great but because it was familiar?
A while back I shared a story about a fellow student in one of my graduate classes who upon hearing about an assignment that the professor had given, asked the man if the material would be on a test. The professor paused, looked thoughtfully at the student and then said softly, “Son, I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.” Our future isn’t working. Whether our future is as described by Charles Eisenstein – The More Beautiful…] – the continued commitment to a story that no longer works for too many – i.e., the continuation of an Age of Separation — or as described by Umair Haque … a continuation of the reliance on self-interest, the continued absence of relationships and the continued abuse of life/life forms that we feel are inferior to ours, there is one common theme… it isn’t working for too many of us or for our planet.
What if the way to a future that “works” involved an exploration of connectedness rather than the acquisition of knowledge in discrete and separate 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? If the Committee of Ten (1893) were reconvened today to once again revisit the purpose and organization of Schooling, and if they found truth in the words of Charles and Umair, what experiences might they suggest for our kids? If the pandemic is actually a portal to a new kind of learning experience, a new structure for what has been “schooling”, what might we be doing?
What would experiences for learning look like? Would they always take place in a school building? Would learning continue to be delivered from the heads of teachers or the pages of textbooks to the heads of students? We have watched much, if not all, of what we’ve known as school be turned upside down in a matter of months. What if this is the best chance we’ve had in our lifetimes to move from separation to connectedness?
Last year we witnessed the courage of teachers throughout the country who elected to speak up about the learning conditions too many states and communities had inflicted on their parents, teachers and students. They spoke up on issues of class size, access to mental health services, compensation. They got attention. They made a difference.
Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan theologian and biblical scholar suggests that we have two stages of our lives. In the first of these we spend our time defining our identity and, not infrequently, defending it. But there is a second stage to living. It’s the exploration of who and how we can be… who and how we can “become”. Rohr suggests that, too frequently, we become mired in Stage One, missing the opportunity to learn, to connect, to become. These stages exist not only for individuals but for institutions, societies and nations as well.
Daily we are experiencing in real time the reality that staying in Stage One and defending what our schools have become isn’t working for too many students and their teachers.
Shouldn’t we at least try?
Coming next time…What can I do?