What if we chose different metrics? What if we wanted to graduate people who knew how to listen to the news, and listen to politicians, and could come to reasoned understandings? What if we wanted to graduate people who were empathetic enough to wear masks right now in order to protect their communities? What if we wanted to graduate people who could understand the statistics of today and who really understand what ‘flattening a curve’ means?
What if we wanted to graduate people who would not assign stereotyped roles to women, or men, or Black Americans, or Asian Americans, or immigrants? What if we wanted to graduate people who actually knew the difference between bacteria and viruses? What if we wanted to graduate people who knew without question that the murder of Ahmaud Arbery was wrong and criminal? What if we wanted to graduate people who knew how to communicate their experiences and feelings right now, whether in words — spoken or written — in song, in dance, in art, via video, and could do that in ways that increased human knowledge and empathy?
What if we wanted to graduate people who understood what consent to sexual activity really means? What if we wanted to graduate people who didn’t have white supremacy in their hearts? What if we wanted to graduate people who would never abuse their children? What if we wanted to graduate people curious enough to be hunting for the next medical breakthrough? What if we wanted to graduate people who could lead in a crisis — and lead well?
If that was what we, as a society, wanted, how might school look different than it did on February 29 2020?
You, of course, are free to add to this list of “What do we want our children to be” characteristics, and people are sure to argue over a few, but if this was our “Portrait of a Graduate, “Profile of a Graduate,” or your redefinition of student success, you likely would not get there with an 8-period day, or a block schedule. You wouldn’t get there by separating children by age, or by so-called “academic measurements,” or through separated subjects, or even with classrooms. You know you wouldn’t. But think about this, is doing “OK’ in chemistry, English 9, World History, and Algebra so much more important than the list above, that we should organize our school around age-based-grades and content areas instead of societal skills?
Is the content we teach now really that much more important?
“Today, conversations are happening in states that explore how to build education systems that prepare young people for success in postsecondary education, the workforce, and civil society. A new definition of success is crucial to drive system improvements that are built around students’ needs — including instructional shifts, systems of assessments, expanded pathways and better learning environments connected to communities and to the real world.” — iNACOL Issue Brief
We are faced with something ‘sort of’ unprecedented. Can schools re-open in August or September? And if they can, what might that look like?
In 2012 Pam Moran and I toured a large number of schools in Ireland, from a large primary school in the Dublin suburbs with many immigrants and English Language Learners, to a girl’s high school in Thurles, to a Gaelscoil (Irish speaking) just meters from the Atlantic in County Kerry. In one of the beautiful multiage primary schools we visited, Pam asked a teacher and a parent similar questions.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to teach here if the whole class was 8-years-old?” she asked the teacher. “I don’t understand,” the teacher answered, “if everyone here was eight, how would anyone learn to be nine?”
“Do you think your son might move ahead faster,” Pam asked a mother visiting, “if this was a whole class of 8-year-olds?” “Then how would he learn to care for the wee ones?” the mother replied.
When we speak or work with schools we use this story to describe the challenge of trying to answer, “What do we want our children to be?” Because we both doubt, that if we asked those questions in a random 1,000 American schools, we’d get many answers like these.
How does an 8-year-old learn to be nine, and a happy, inspired, nine? How does that boy learn to be an adolescent? How does that adolescent learn to be an adult? and an adult who lives good answers to the societal needs we embrace?
How does an 8-year-old learn to care for 5-year-olds? How does that 8-year-old become a role model, an aspirational peer for kids younger than him from now through his becoming an adult?
“When I asked whom he talked to during that time, he shrugged. If he had told his friends he was “hung up” on a girl, “they’d be like, ‘Stop being a bitch.’ ” Rob looked glum. The only person with whom he had been able to drop his guard was his girlfriend, but that was no longer an option. “— Peggy Orenstein on Toxic Masculinity in American Schools.
Last week I wrote about what we are learning from this pandemic. And if we’re paying attention we’re learning a great deal, but the how question stands tall. How do we get from where we were on February 29th, and from where we are right now, to where we want, where we need to be?
We can begin with the most basic: Is it possible to keep children safe from a deadly virus? Is it possible to stop student-to-household transmission?
Those questions, running through the minds of administrators and teachers right now are not trivial. Indeed they are existential. When I ask “Why would students come to your school if they didn’t have to?” well, we are getting the answer clearly. Kids want school because that’s where their friends are, because that’s where supportive adults are, because they miss, drama, sports, music, the robotic clubs — all the things that create human society. I have not heard many children lament the loss of algebra instruction, or reading The Great Gatsby, or chemistry lectures.
If schools become little more than cells of isolation where content is dumped in — even temporarily — why would any child come? But if schools are little more than disease-spreading centers, what parent would send their children?
Two threats from one event. Is re-opening schools before it is safe a form of medical malpractice? Is re-opening the same “school” we closed in March educational malpractice?
So, let’s get past that “trivia.” First, imagine attempting to enforce social distancing with kids… any kids. A kindergarten? A middle school? A high school? OK, now imagine doing that even if you cut every class size in half (and doing that with fewer teachers because Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham want us to “pause" in helping states and localities)?
Imagine enforcing 6 foot distancing at a school’s doorways? On school busses? As kids walk to school? Just doing that in a classroom without making everyone miserable?
But that is not the biggest existential threat.
The world has spun in very different directions since we last brought children together in our schools. No, I do not see the bleak post-apocalyptic future embraced by some executives from huge banks to Twitter where everyone works and learns while locked in their homes.
I do know that the children we last saw in March are not coming back. Kids are always different, not just after summers off, but after every break, even after a single night.
So, what if we chose those different metrics, which are, I have to tell you, the fondest wishes of virtually every schools superintendent I’ve ever met? What might school look like?
Maybe we become drop-in learning laboratories. Kids come in, maybe at first, two afternoons a week and talk with teachers and learn through playing in labs, chemistry labs and hip hop music labs, video labs, virtual reality labs, art labs, writing labs… labs created to encourage collaborative learning and cooperation.
What if the computers kids took home were really their’s to personalize and build supports for themselves? What if our priority right now was universal broadband and actual computers, not locked down Chromebooks? What if there was good virtual interaction between older kids and younger kids? After all, if you believe you’ve taught your 16-year-olds content, can’t any of them teach fifth grade math? (If we don’t think our 16-year-olds have learned content, then obviously there’s no reason to return to our previous practices.)
What if our days remained fairly flexible? If food was served all day both at schools and at remote sites? What if our structure was built around passion projects with content pushed in to that? What if our schools were constructed with an understanding of brain science?
Mostly, what if we stop asking, “Who Wins?” and say, “all means all.”
“I go to a school that puts a big emphasis on collaborative learning; approximately 80 percent of our work is done in teacher-assigned groups of three to five students. This forces students who want to complete their assignments into the position of having to discipline peers who won’t behave and coax reluctant group members into contributing.”
No one likes publicly challenging a middle school kid, but there’s an Op-Ed from The New York Times that illustrates where we are… and this 13-year-old has figured out half the problem, “The fact that I am learning so much better away from the classroom shows that something is wrong with our system,” she writes, “Two weeks ago, my school began experimenting with live video teaching on Google Meet. Unfortunately, the same teachers who struggle to manage students in the classroom also struggle online.”
“Students unable or unwilling to control themselves steal valuable class time,” she continues, “often preventing their classmates from being prepared for tests and assessments. I have taken tests that included entire topics we never mastered, either because we were not able to get through the lesson or we couldn’t sufficiently focus.”
Check and check, I might say, but go back, read her piece, or just look at that first quote: “This forces students who want to complete their assignments into the position of having to discipline peers who won’t behave and coax reluctant group members into contributing.” Here she is documenting all the other things that neither her classmates nor herself are not learning. They put, “a big emphasis on collaborative learning,” but emphasis or not, even this ‘best kid’ hasn’t learned it. What her school has taught her is, first, that she’s superior to her fellow students, and second, that she doesn’t want to go to school either. She’s finding isolated screen time far more engaging than learning together. So, how are we failing her?
No, I am not suggesting change is easy. It is not. It is hard work. It is messy. It makes us crazy. The easiest thing any of us can do, student,teacher, administrator, is to not change, to not learn, to not adapt, to simply maintain the status quo.” But maybe that shouldn’t be what education is about.
What do you want our children to be? Then what do we have to give our kids, allow our kids, inspire our kids, to get there? School won’t be what you left when you come back. So we might as well make it something much better.
- Ira Socol