Intro… This is the introduction to a series of posts. These posts have been developed in response to a number of conversations that have occurred during the past year and will deal with where we are and where we are going – i.e., direction and our need to assess where we are going to go both now and in a post-COVID environment.
As regular followers will have noticed, posts during the pandemic time have focused to some extent on how to manage the challenges of various forms of schooling that have emerged as temporary solutions to a situation beyond our experience. The major focus continues to be the opportunity presented by this turning upside down of our schooling experiences to rethink learning and the role we can play in this process.
The story shared below describes the experiences of a child in our current iteration of schooling. The choice of words here (“schooling”) is deliberate. The vast majority of the experiences being provided to our children right now are still designed to resemble as closely as possible the experiences that our children have had in schools. Initially, this was understandable as, for many, the changes were made literally overnight. As almost a year has now past, we are still struggling to reopen our school and to return the experiences of kids and educators to some semblance of “normal”. Making changes during this time has been akin to trying to change a tire on a moving car.
Spoiler alert: Previously posted pieces as well as those in progress have as their foundation the recognition that prior to COVID disruptions our system of schooling was due for an update. Designed to respond to the needs of the industrial revolution more than a hundred years ago, our educators and our children participate in a system that no longer meets the needs of our times, our children and our society. This series continues an exploration of ways in which we might encourage and support efforts to move education beyond the misguided reform efforts of the past 30+ years.
PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS…
“This message was typed by a nine-year-old child, over and over again. In capitals and with relentless economy. An unmistakable SOS.”
This is the opening line from an essay, “The Home School Curriculum”, that appeared this week in Lockdown Sceptics, a British site where the focus seems to be captured by the site name. Where was the child and what was happening to her? She was at home. In her Geography class. On Microsoft Teams.
Her plea was captured in another article that appeared in the socially conservative British blog, The Conservative Woman. It it the author outlined what a day at school is now like for a nine-year-old boy called Simon. I’ve reproduced a large portion of the article in this post.
Recently, we had the opportuity to host 3 of our granddaughters who were in a remote learning week with a loss of home internet service. They were with us for 4 days. They each had what I’ll call “Simon moments”… moments of disconnect, moments of quiet rebellion, moments of confusion and moments of deep involvement.
“The cruel reality of online ‘school’ in a 12th floor flat”
Simon begins his school day by sliding the couple of feet from his bed to his computer – so the Conservative Woman article begins. We are not told that he gets dressed. Nor even that he goes to the bathroom. He turns on the screen, watches a few YouTube videos, then logs on to Microsoft Teams and registers for his first class of the day by typing ‘Hi Miss’ into the chatbox.
Has Simon woken up yet? Has he looked out of his window? Has he spoken? Or has he moved seamlessly between a dream land and a virtual land without traversing any real land at all?
…Simon’s first lesson of the home-school day is Science. His teacher sends through a document, which the class is expected to download. It is a multiple-choice questionnaire, and they have 30 minutes to complete it. If the children need help, which most of them do, they must type a question into the chatbox. The teacher tries to answer as many questions as he can, but there is not much time and there are many technical difficulties. At the end of the 30 minutes, Simon has not received any answers to his chatbox queries and has guessed at four out of the 20 questions. Next week, he may be told whether his guesses were correct. Or not. Either way, it does not matter.
We make a mistake if we focus on what Simon has not learnt during his Science lesson. He has not learnt much about the make-up of plant cells – that is true, and inevitable. But he has learnt something, of far wider relevance. He has learnt that it does not matter. Whatever is being taught does not matter – how could it, plucked from an already abstract National Curriculum, suspended onto a slide that appears, out of nowhere and in no context, on a screen in your bedroom on the 12th floor. But Simon also learns that whether or not he understands what is being taught does not matter, and whether or not he completes the teacher’s task does not matter. None of it matters, which Simon learns quickly and well.
The lesson that things do not matter is not easily taught, especially not to a nine-year-old. Its demoralising effect goes against the native energy of youth. It must be carefully and doggedly instilled if it is to take. Simon’s Science lesson has been effective in instilling it.
Simon’s next class is Geography. There is a long time spent in waiting for everyone to log on. Some never do. Then there is more time spent in waiting for the teacher to solve problems with her technology. Finally, she manages to share a screen image of the Earth with its various layers – crust, mantle, core. The task is to name each layer. Simon waits for others to write their answers first, and copies them. Many of the children ask for help. The teacher mutes herself for everyone so that she can speak individually to one of them. The others wait in silence. Or type PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS, over and over again. By the time the teacher returns, the class is at an end.
Simon’s Geography lesson is the cruellest one of all, the most painful for the children to sit through. In the context of their general remoteness, from the world, from each other, even from themselves, their teacher’s switching off their audio-link gives them the experience of an even greater remoteness. Of the outer reaches of remoteness. Of an isolation within what is an already aching isolation. Simon and the other children are not just left alone in their Geography lesson. They are switched off. Shut out.
Simon’s Geography lesson teaches him little or nothing about the Earth’s layers. Of course it doesn’t – confined to the 12th floor, what can the Earth’s layers really mean to Simon? What it does teach him is his radical aloneness, via a practical experiment in the sudden and total severance of his last thin thread of human contact.
Lunch, for Simon, is a sandwich in front of the screen, watching clips of Premier League highlights.
Then it is time for P.E. Simon is sent a video of someone doing star-jumps. He is expected to copy them in his room. But there is no room in Simon’s room. His efforts to recreate a star are hindered by the nearness of his bed to his desk and of his desk to the door.
Next to Simon’s efforts to make like a star in a bedroom too cramped for his arms and legs to extend, the sublime skills of his favourite Premier League stars shine brighter and more tantalisingly than ever before. Vicarious physicality effortlessly carries the day.
Simon quickly abandons his P.E. class, but not before he has learnt its valuable lesson: the literal and leaden limits of the physical. Simon’s P.E. class teaches him to despise his body, with its physical limits, its non-sublimity. A lump of meat in a meat space. Apt for nothing at all.
The final lesson of Simon’s home-school day is Drama. Simon used to love Drama, the article tells us. He used to enjoy doing acting exercises with his friends. Now, he is sent scenes from the National Theatre, which he does not understand at all. He watches funny videos of his own choosing instead.
Simon’s Drama class should be cancelled; you cannot do acting exercises with your friends on Microsoft Teams. But it is not cancelled. Instead, something is substituted for the collaborative inventiveness that Simon has so enjoyed about Drama: a heavy dose of the National Theatre, utterly uninteresting to Simon and his classmates, and inevitably leading them to turn on something more entertaining.
And the lesson of Simon’s home-school Drama class is thereby imparted: imaginative collaboration is exchangeable with personal entertainment; active creativity, replaceable by passive consumption. How long will Simon’s enthusiasm for acting exercises survive this lesson in lazy amusement?
And so ends Simon’s home-school day…
Dr Sinead Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.
Simon is frightened. When you read his story you can almost feel his fright. You don’t have to live “across the pond” to be a frightened child today. Trauma surrounds us. We know that trauma greatly affects the learning of adults and children alike. We know that our kids are being shuffled in and out of school. They’re hearing about parents of friends, their teachers, maybe their own parents being stricken with COVID. They’re reading or hearing about rising death tolls. They wonder if they’re “spreaders”… If they might make their mom or dad sick. And we continue to measure their learning and describe it with traditional testing and grading practices. We have the hubris to use terms like “learning loss”.
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to have spent almost 30 years as a classroom teacher. In that time I’ve seen countless examples of teachers who made great sacrifices in their work with children. Too frequently, they were under-resourced, too frequently blamed for student performance scores far more influenced by our continued reluctance to deal with poverty than by the limitations or commitment of their teachers and, more recently, vilified for their concerns for their own health and safety.
Our kids are not problems to be solved! They are young, vulnerable and learning how to make sense of the world… learning about their place in that world. It is our calling to help our children learn “how to be” in their world. Now, perhaps more than any time in our lifetimes, it is critical that we provide those most deeply involved in the process of learning, our teachers and our learners with the voice necessary to ensure that we carefully (as in “full of care”) evaluate the experiences of our children so that we can identify and act on the things that we should start doing immediately, the things that we should continue doing and the things we must stop doing immediately. Do you wonder what the kids would put on such a list?
- Measure the Wrong Things and you’ll get the Wrong Behaviors – the unintended consequences of grades and assessments
- What if opportunities were not limited by Zip Code – What does Jeff Bezos have to teach us about learning
- The Development of the American Idiot – when self-interest trumps social investment
- Learning Loss – Let’s create a bogus problem and then sell “fixes”