Blending Models and Technology: How Might We Do Education Better?
“Mommy, I haven’t learned a thing during this entire time. I am so bored.” These were the honest and heartfelt words of my 12-year-old daughter after three weeks of distance learning. As both a parent and a seasoned educator, I was beyond guilt- ridden. What did I do wrong?
Upon further reflection, I realized this was the raw confession of a child who was feeling frustrated about her education (and her extracurricular life) being reduced to Zoom meetings and about her lack of agency in her own learning. In the safety and comfort of our living room, she was communicating to me that she’d been given little time to be creative. She hadn’t been asked to reflect on this moment in history, nor had she been asked to construct her own knowledge and understandings based on the events unfolding around her.
Her school, where I worked for more than 16 years as faculty and middle school dean, is a progressive school known for creating lifelong learners and creative problem-solvers who strive to find power in their own voices and to become agents of positive change. When the COVID-19 crisis led us to quarantine at home, I was sure we’d find ways to preserve pedagogic innovation and the love of learning that had always existed in our school community. However there are challenges to blending a progressive model of learning and the most current educational technology—even in the most progressive schools.
So many questions have come to mind as I think about my experience as both a parent and as an educator during this unprecedented time of remote teaching and learning. How might we reimagine the essence of learning during this pandemic? How might we do education better? How could we make learning online and living through a pandemic more authentic? Most important, how might we preserve our own well-being and that of our families while also contributing to the social-emotional health of our students and their families?
A Rally Cry for Reimagination
What I observed of my twins’ experiences with online learning was that the message they were receiving was not about authentic learning; but rather competition, productivity, efficiency, and outcomes. I was transported to the past, to the industrial model of education that I grew up with––a model of education that offered very little interpersonal connection and authentic learning. A model in which education was reduced to test scores and grades, and learning was a lucky byproduct for those who were privileged enough to be able to question authority.
I’m reminded of this model when I think about and reflect on my daughter’s experience and how schools have been trying to adapt education during this unprecedented crisis. Each week, my daughter was given a packed schedule of Zoom meetings and corresponding assignments. After spending hours in front of the computer, she appeared irritable, exhausted, and uninspired. Teachers rewarded her for showing up and giving the right answer on myriad games that were meant to demonstrate her retention of facts. Little time was devoted to the discussion of the global pandemic, and even less time was devoted to an integration of SEL with an exploration of the inequities associated with the pandemic. Assignments were removed from the daily reality that we were living. It became abundantly clear to me that we cannot replace the beauty and magic of today’s brick-and-mortar classroom. So let's stop trying. Let’s imagine something new. Something extraordinary. Something transformative. I’ve been reflecting on some questions that might help guide such a reimagination.
How might we reimagine the essence of what we are doing during this moment in history? Reflecting on my own family’s experience, there seemed to be significant pressure to adhere to a factory model of education that had been imposed by well-meaning administrators and state boards of education. As an educator, I recognized it immediately. In an effort to avoid falling behind, my daughters’ progressive school immediately embraced Zoom meetings as the best way to continue what was happening in the classroom. Seemingly overnight, teachers and students were being asked to carry on as usual, ignoring the opportunities for transformative learning that no doubt would have transpired by simply trusting in the creativity of the teachers and students. As a parent, I suddenly had the primary responsibility for teaching topics that were unfamiliar to me—in addition to completing my own work. It was not the best use of anyone's time.
How might we use this time to tap into something unique and creative in our children? How might we use this time to fill in gaps in our own knowledge of family history, struggles, and triumphs? How might we use this time to document our own understanding of what is happening? How might we better understand our responsibilities to one another?
I’d like to throw all of the computers in my home out the window. We do not need them to connect in an authentic way. How can we reimagine our dependence on Zoom, Google, and task completion as a substitute for authentic learning? How can we take the pressure off of ourselves and one another and just … be? What might we learn about ourselves and one another in the process?
What would it look like if we asked our children to pause and think? During their spring break, without the pressure of their strict remote learning schedule, my twins chose to compose songs to reflect the times. They choreographed dances that communicated their own interpretations of social distancing. As emerging poets, spoken word artists, storytellers, and visual artists, they created art to articulate their understanding of this shared moment in history. As future activists, athletes, scientists, engineers, and actors, they explored ways to document what is happening within themselves, their home, their community, their country, and the world.
Might it be possible to ask all children to step outside—onto their front stoop or into their backyard with eyes closed? What do they notice? What do they hear? What do they feel? Might they just be inspired? What could happen if we trusted their inner genius?
How might we use this time to interview our families and friends to create material that captures this shared moment in history? Fear, anxiety, and future uncertainty are not unique to us. How might we connect what is happening to us with what our ancestors went through? How would this information inform the works that we create? How might we identify user needs and develop prototypes for addressing the challenges that exist in our health care systems? How might we make social distancing something that is effective? How might we use our language skills to develop global messages that bring people of all language and cultural backgrounds together? How might we invent a sport that maintains social distancing and still allows for authentic connection with others? Could we use this time to explore a new language, learn about other cultures, and incorporate these revelations and understandings into our future creations? Could we? Must we?
What if we used this time to write, create, and heal? What would be lost if we stepped away from computers? How much more would be gained? How might we make this moment in time truly memorable for our children and for ourselves? How might we make this a time that they will remember—a time of deep connection and awakening? How might we make this experience one that is truly interdisciplinary and that leaves us with a stockpile of memories and documented learning that transcends our wildest dreams?
I have seen magic in the classroom, and I have witnessed the genius of children who are inspired. My adolescent students happily sang, danced, recited poetry, traveled, investigated social justice issues, and became passionate leaders. They were given the time and space to create. To explore. To be. They were given parameters and were responsible for articulating their understanding and were held accountable for the process of learning. Their parents were partners, rather than drill sergeants responsible for forcing their children to sit in front of a computer screen for six hours a day.
We can do better.