Pandemic Insight: Addressing Inequity in Education.

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

There are many takeaways from the impact COVID-19 is having on education. One thing we are likely to remember is the challenge of teaching and learning in a stressful home environment. The challenges we are now facing are similar to what some students have always had to face when completing assigned tasks at home. What can schools learn from this experience that can positively shape school policies moving forward? The following are a few points for leaders in education to discuss as they plan the return to schools.

The first point is to recognize the value of academic work at home. Schools expecting students to complete tasks at home - with support - are often rating a student’s access and quality of that support more than a student’s academic proficiency. Tasks sent home to be completed without support are comparable to a low-point quiz but in a potentially high-stress environment. Now more than ever, we know that stress in the home is not something students can always control nor is it something schools can monitor or predict. Students do benefit from opportunities to learn outside of the school environment and schools would benefit from providing all students such opportunities. However, schools that assign and rate the quality (or even the completion) of those opportunities are penalizing students without at-home support and resources. Those who are concerned that students won’t take advantage of at-home opportunities without rating or points will want to seriously reflect with their colleagues on the next two points.

The second point is to recognize how educators have been using stress to engage memory and learning in ways that educators cannot monitor and support outside of a school environment. An example of stress in learning is how schools develop routines and procedures for safety and order. Schools activate safety-related concerns to instill habits of behavior which keep students safe in an emergency within that school environment. Another example is how educators often use games and other activities that activate stress in ways that promote social and academic learning in a classroom environment. Conflicts do arise when the stress of accepting, internalizing, and responding to a new concept or idea becomes overwhelming. What is important for schools to recognize is that classroom and school environments may be training these habits of learning exclusively for those school environments and, without external motivation like points and percentages, learning may not be a priority outside of that environment. This is important because how a school’s environment uses stress to facilitate student learning may or may not be preparing students for learning outside of that environment. Now that we are seeing students unbound from their schools and classrooms, loosely connected through distance learning platforms (or packets), it would serve schools well to reflect on how COVID-19 has changed the environment for learning, impacting each student and their families differently, and how schools may want to shift their use of stress for learning in the future.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, school leaders should reflect on the stress involved in completing at-home assignments. By using fear of losing points-based rewards, students are learning to complete tasks only when being personally rewarded to do so. Relying solely on extrinsic rewards to promote motivation for something we want students to enjoy is actively replacing that joy of learning with a joy of receiving a reward. When educators claim that students will not learn unless rewarded, that belief, that expectation for behavior, is being reflected in the policies and practices of schools and classrooms. Think about the adults that love their job and why they do not improve the quality of their work because of an increase in salary. The salary is simply a minimum need to meet other obligations unrelated to their happiness at work. Telling ourselves that students will not enjoy learning without receiving payment is creating an environment of stress that is teaching students to learn for the reward. Our students are in the most formative period of their entire lives and the philosophy we instill through the policies and practices our schools put in place will impact communities for generations. Breaking this cycle will be challenging, but if we all remember that learning is change and that change can be difficult, we can prepare a return to schools that allows our philosophy to guide our policy in ways that positively address inequity in schools.

This message is important for parents, educators, administrators, as well as policymakers and politicians. Please consider sharing and expanding on the importance of equity of education through the policies, practices, and beliefs of our schools leaders. The image below may provide some further insight into how schools may want to adjust their policies to support their own philosophy toward learning.

April 8, 2020

Greg Mullen

Exploring the Core LLC