Updated: Mar 26, 2020
This message goes out to all of the parents, teachers, district officials and politicians whose schools have been closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus has done a lot of damage to countries around the world, socially and economically. It has also struck our own country's education system as schools are closing their classroom doors, many shifting to an online format or offering weekly homework pick-up at school sites. This raises the question: what happens to learning when you take school away? Is there a way to learn outside of the traditional school structure? I believe there is, but it is important we not dismiss what the school structure does provide for students. Aside from issues such as cost, availability, and the actual content instruction, there are three particularly powerful elements to consider:
- Services. Schools have come to provide a wide range of services for students including transportation, food, afterschool programs, and special education services. For specific communities where parents both work long hours, these are necessary services for the general well-being of their children. For public as well as private schools, these have become invaluable to a community whose businesses and community programs have shaped their hours and employee accommodations accordingly. Families have learned to rely on schools for food services. Parents have learned to rely on schools for boarding their children in a safe learning environment during work hours. Communities and afterschool programs are designed specifically to utilize school structures and provide safe environments for students to play and learn during afternoon and evening work hours. The entire structure of many communities have become largely reliant on the services provided by schools. - Structure and Accountability. Parents and guardians send their children to a school with the understanding that their children will be kept safe and returned to parents and guardians at the end of the day. While calls home about student behavior (both positive and negative) are part of the school experience, the observation and accountability of student behavior is also a service provided by schools. Over the past many generations, schools have become the place parents expect children to learn not only about reading and math but also about discipline, following directions, and wanting their children to be good for the teacher. These kinds of expectations have become part of a school's structure on which families rely. - Extracurricular Opportunities. Both public and private schools have various arts and athletics programs. Having a large amount of students all in one place increases the variety of shared interests and likelihood of an athletics or arts program be started and maintained. The planning and resources necessary for such programs to exist also benefits from pooled resources of all students and families who either participate or spectate in such programs. This is yet another element that schools provide on which communities have come to rely. In bringing up what happens to learning when you take school away, it's important we do not dismiss these elements that greatly impact communities and the well-being of students who benefit from the consistency provided by a school structure.
However . . .
When you shift the conversation from the impact on communities and focus more on the impact on student learning, you quickly come to recognize specific school norms and traditions that have impacted the learning process in ways that should be addressed. For example, it is common for people to talk about *what* schools are teaching, *how* they are teaching, and, most importantly, the environment in which they are teaching children. These elements have always been points of contention between a community and its schools. It's even more important now that we consider the impact of school on student learning as we think about how our children are handling the sudden shift in how they are being expected to learn. How prepared are students to learn without the structure and community of the school. This is important as we consider the dropout rates of not just high schools but also community colleges and first-year university students. As communities work to provide their children an education outside of the school structure, let us consider the following three elements of school that we may want to address as families see first-hand what their students have learned about learning. - Discipline Policies. Every teacher has a different perspective toward how discipline is to be addressed in their classroom. A child that enters one classroom learns in an environment where discipline is handled a little bit differently than their other grade level teachers. Teacher credentialing, hiring, and professional development does not explicitly address social and economic policy perspective. This means a child can have a minimum of thirteen teachers (from Kindergarten through High School) that each hold a different opinion about how discipline is to be handled. Subtle changes can make a difference to a child when you have one classroom with a democratic student-led approach and another with a more autocratic teacher-led philosophy. This can have serious effects on the development of a child's beliefs and worldview toward discipline and authority. This kind of roll of the dice when it comes to assigning students to teachers is one element that must be considered as parents are now seeing their children learn outside of the school structure. - Homework, Tests, and Grades. In a classroom setting, teachers have different approaches to how students learn best. This includes not only the amount and style of instruction but also the amount and influence homework and tests have on a student's grade. Some teachers assign points to homework, some don't assign any. Some design tests based on custom lectures, some rely exclusively on a pre-packaged curriculum and its assessment resources with little to no adjustment. Whether by choice or school policy, these differences not only impact a student's grade but also students' opinions toward their own capacity for learning. Through these experiences with conflicting philosophies, children can conflate what is important to their learning - completing tasks versus mastery of content. This element is part of a larger conversation as teachers often shape their classroom in favor of task completion not out of preference but because of wider state and district policies. Overcrowded classrooms, bureaucratic oversight procedures, personal and extracurricular responsibilities, and state and district pressure for tracking growth on student assignments and tests - these are all part of a systemic issue that can be addressed at the local level which can in turn impact state-level concerns. Sadly, all of this leaves students to either take the responsibility for learning in the environments they are assigned - or not. It is important this element of structural expectations be considered as we see students learn outside of their traditional school structure, especially as we see some students struggle without that structure yet simultaneously find others discovering more successful means for directing their own education. - Curriculum and Instruction. As teachers shift their assignments from in-class instruction to a homework-focused distance learning format, the traditional structure for student learning is being challenged. The most common approaches to classroom instruction typically share a philosophy of I do, We do, You do with this general pattern or structure (e.g. the lesson plan): (1) Engage students with initial introduction activity or video. (2) Explicitly instruct material to be learned. (3) Model/Guide students in completing a specific activity. (4) Monitor independent student work with small group attention. (5) Close the lesson with student feedback on what was learned (e.g. exit ticket). This start-and-stop approach to learning supports the strict scheduling of a school day and has, for many students, proven to be a relatively successful approach based on testing results from schools that have mastered this model (with many other factors to be considered, on of which is the rate of poverty within a community and its schools) due particularly to its consistency of clear rules and expectations. However, with teachers now being asked to create distance learning opportunities for students, concerns are sky-rocketing over whether students are actually going to learn. It seems the game of learning students have mastered, now no longer under the watchful eye of a teacher, have raised concerns about how students will know when they should or should not be learning anything at all? How will students cope with a home environment not suited for their particular learning needs? How will students adopt a different learning environment or adapt to one that is constantly changing? Addressing this element of a school's structure allows us to pause and reflect on whether our students are learning *how* to learn or whether they (as well as us as adults who are largely products of this structure) have been conditioned to finish tasks in order to receive a score upon which we'll be handed a new assignment, repeated ad nauseum until we finally earn enough points to be handed our diploma. Humans crave structure, but too often our autonomy and initiative is trained out of us for sake of maintaining an environment suitable for structured instruction. The idea of a school housing one or two dozen students in a room is not faulty and the positive impact such a school structure can have on a community has proven to be beneficial - even vital. The challenge is not in deciding whether school is right or wrong; rather it is in how students are taught not only *what* to learn but *how* to learn that must be addressed. How can we ensure all students are academically prepared for career or college while also ensure all students are socially and emotionally prepared for managing their own responsibilities outside of a school structure? The answer is in preparing students for exactly what they'll need to be able to do outside of that structure. The focus of school must see the following changes that specifically address what we expect from students in any learning environment: (1) Know to celebrate things you've learned without ignoring the things you haven't. (2) Know how to set goals and track progress academically, socially, and personally. (3) Know where and how to find and use various types of resources. (4) Know how and why you learn certain things better with different strategies. (5) Know how to produce and present mastery of new learning in various contexts. This is a self-directed approach to learning and it can be adapted to a school or home setting, but there are policies and practices that will need to change.
As our country hunkers down to minimize the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, I implore parents, teachers, district officials and politicians to reflect on what school has become, what schools are providing, and what we want school to be for our future generations. Let us share in this conversation about the changes we want and need in our schools and prepare for a strengthened return to our school structure come Fall. March 25, 2020 Greg Mullen Exploring the Core LLC www.ExploringTheCore.com