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Op Ed: How California Can Turn the Revolutionary Tide of Education with Self-Directed Learning

by Greg Mullen

March 18, 2020

REDONDO BEACH - This week, Governor Newsom made headlines when he said California schools may not reopen this school year due to concerns over the novel coronavirus. He cited the use of distance and online learning, explaining how the State is “diving deep into curating curricula, curating the capacity to deliver what we’re promoting, which is homeschooling your children.” Parents and teachers are now having to prepare for a three-month, not three-week, approach to educating their children outside of, or perhaps adjacent to, the traditional school model.

Californians are now having to reflect on how our children have been taught to learn. The traditional school model we as adults experienced is still largely in place and that model is now being tested. Has that model prepared students to learn in an environment other than the classroom, without the glaring eye of the teacher or the promise of institutional consequence? Will students continue to learn if not in a classroom setting and, more importantly, how prepared will they be when they return to that traditional school model in the Fall?

Right now, educators in primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools are shifting their traditional instruction models to a distance and online format. Unfortunately, because we are products of that traditional school system, these new formats are largely foreign to us as teachers and parents and, consequently, to our youth. Distance and online learning requires unique demands such as self-management, awareness of social support systems, and a community that sees education as a solution for more than just our own personal success. This is vastly different from the traditional school approach that places autocratic authority over student learning, scheduling what and how students learn on a time-based schedule rather than a growth and proficiency-based schedule.

We are about to see the impact of that traditional model as students eventually return to classrooms in the Fall. We need to see a shift in our education system that incorporates the development of self-directed learning for the benefit of our students as well as our parents, teachers, and communities. Let this begin by recognizing what it means to instill in students a self-directed approach to learning.

Academic retention has long been the impetus for measuring academic success. Let how students learn be the driving force in education. Let mathematics be known as more than formula memorization - dedicate this discipline to logic, reasoning, and argument for the application of formulas. Let language be seen as more than fluency and five-paragraph essays - dedicate this discipline to cultural literacy and interpretive expression of art and literature. Let science be seen as more than science projects and vocabulary - it must become an exploration of rational explanation, philosophy, and an understanding of local and global causes and effects.

Amid this health and safety crisis, we must not react only to what students need in this moment but respond to how we are preparing students to be self-directed now and in the future. We must recognize the need for education to serve both the current and future needs of students, colleges, and employers. Let us see education for what it must become, not as it has always been. Use the time now to redesign and reshape our education system as a catalyst for societal change that corrects for the lessons we are learning in this moment.

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