As educators, parents, and students have scrambled over the past couple of months to figure out how to move school online quickly and at scale, I can’t help but be reminded of a pivotal scene in the movie Apollo 13. After having to abandon their trip to the moon due to an explosion, the three astronauts suddenly find themselves struggling for oxygen in their emergency home in a lunar module designed to support only two people. Faced with quickly rising carbon dioxide levels, engineers in Houston dealing with this totally unexpected crisis suddenly have to design a makeshift air filter using only materials that the astronauts can access and assemble in space. As the mission commander says, “I suggest you gentleman figure out how to put a square peg in a round hole…rapidly.”
That’s in essence is what schools around the world have been trying to do these past weeks thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, the very rapid transition from school buildings and classrooms to Zoom rooms and Google Docs over a period of just days has posed what may be the most complex problem-solving moment ever in education. As UC Berkeley historian Elena Conis said in a recent article in The Atlantic, “There is no precedent for a life-interrupting disaster of this scale in America’s current educational and professional structures.”
Thirty days or so in, the outcomes are mixed. Some schools where students have laptops and bandwidth have weathered the shift fairly well. Others where many students have little or no technology or access have been forced to close up shop for the rest of the year citing the unfairness of being able to meet some but not all of their students’ needs. Some have tried to totally replicate school online, complete with time schedules and having students wear their school uniforms to virtual “class.” Others have taken a more student-centered approach, relaxing curriculum standards and even eliminating grading. For most, school is “open” online, but it’s a far cry from the school that was open down the block.
To hear traditional and social media tell it, the “transformation” of schools is now finally, definitely, without a doubt, unquestionably, most certainly on the horizon. The crisis, experts say, will lay waste to much of “school” as we know it. Education will become more equitable, more “blended” with technology, more responsive to the needs of children facing an increasingly complex, uncertain future. With millions of parents gaining a new appreciation for the work of educators, teachers will be paid more, and they’ll gain more agency over what is taught and how. We’ll have an improved “new normal” when schools eventually do reopen in communities around the world.
Color me skeptical.
I don’t doubt that some things will change, but I wonder how much of that change will be truly “transformative.” Our collective, shared experience of school has deep roots. Change of any type feels especially risky when it has to do with our children. And as much as the Coronavirus has created a profound disruption to the system, I’m unconvinced that it will fundamentally shift the deep-seated power relationships among administrators, teachers, parents, students, policy makers, and curriculum and technology vendors in ways that will allow for a significant alteration to the fundamental day to day story of school.
If we are truly serious about real change in education, our conversations have to go much deeper than a focus on new technologies or tweaked teaching practices. If we sincerely want to create a better, “new normal” for kids in schools once this crisis is over, one that truly transforms the experience in ways that are urgently required to help them navigate what lies ahead, we need to start by embracing the “old normal” of learning first.
The irony is that schools were not built for learning. Research shows that very little of what kids “learn” in a curricular sense is remembered for the long term, nor is it relevant to or applicable in their daily lives. It’s an unpleasant truth that makes us uncomfortable. But it is a truth. Just look at the many recent blog posts and Tweets from semi-embarrassed parents-turned-teachers lamenting how little they actually remember from high school that they can help their kids with. Learning in school simply isn’t like learning in real life.
A Learning Moment
Take the current crisis as an example. Aside from being a moment of huge disruption for all of us, this may be the most profound moment of deep professional learning that any of us have ever experienced regardless if we’re in health care, business, politics, service, or any other industry you can name. Educators in particular are literally learning their way through the crisis, day to day, hour to hour, and the conditions required for powerful learning are obviously present: a deep engagement in meaningful, real-world problem solving that is driven by questions, is intensely collaborative, is challenging in productive ways, and isn’t constrained by a linear, dated “curriculum” that dictates what comes next. No one is doing this for a grade; we’re doing this for a goal, namely to try to serve our students as best we can under exceedingly difficult circumstances.
Those conditions and others like them are and always have been how all humans learn best. And all humans know it. Learning is as natural as breathing when there is a real purpose behind it and when we have the freedom to learn on our own terms, when we’re not confined and coerced by external systems and traditions. Yet, we humans seem to forget that when it comes to the experience our kids have in school. In school, we seem to think learning happens only when it’s age-grouped and graded, or when it’s chunked into time blocks and subjects and meets some predetermined outcomes. Students have “learned” it seems only when they have consumed a mandated bucket of information or content and been tested to make sure they consumed it adequately.
In other words, in schools, we seem to think learning happens when it doesn’t look like real life. Common sense and personal experience tells us otherwise.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that kids shouldn’t be in community schools, in classrooms with caring, supportive adults who can push them to create and connect and change the world in powerful ways that they might not realize on their own. And I’m also not saying that there aren’t important things for students to learn in school. No question, the future will require people who are expert communicators, who have a global lens through which to live their lives, who are expert “crap detectors,” and, most importantly, who are agile, motivated, powerful learners who have the skills, literacies, and dispositions to find and solve real problems with others on an ongoing basis. It will demand people who can learn just in time, not just in case. In that regard, schools have a huge role to play in the developing mastery in all of our children and communities no matter what the post-pandemic world looks like.
But as we have been making difficult choices in these weeks about schools and education as we transition online, we’ve been reminded of those things that we value most: relationships, community, the curiosity of kids, and the power of real learning. And we’ve been surfacing other things that are simply not as important. Grades have been suspended in many schools. College entrance exams have been cancelled or modified. Many states aren’t giving standardized tests. Schools are cutting curriculum and pulling back on homework. At a moment when we have record numbers of students feeling stressed, anxious, and depressed, those choices suggest a real opportunity to ask some difficult questions about what we truly want schools to be in the future. As in which of those things remain important, and which will we choose to put on our “To (Un)Do Lists”?
In moving schools online in the face of this crisis, most seem to have learned how to put that metaphoric square peg in a round hole. That’s not a bad thing, but as with the astronauts, it’s just life support, a way to survive this momentary disaster. But the discussions we have and the decisions we make when the dust finally settles from the Coronavirus disruption will determine whether or not our schools and our students will just survive this moment or whether they will actually thrive in the future. For the best chance at the latter, those discussions and decisions need to be held through the lens of how powerful learning actually happens in each of us in the real world, not how we have long tried to force learning to happen in this thing we call school.