55 million children are not in school (Edweek). This staggering number has caused disruption to our economic system and caused society to raise a lot of questions about what schooling should look like. I, like most educators, have worried about students who don’t aren’t safe in their own home, who don’t have access to the time it will take to engage in learning, who don’t have wifi connections that will support the videos I make, who might be trying to help younger siblings do their school packets, or who are helping families make ends meet in tough economic times. I have stressed about the inequities that are in our national school system.
I have had these worries, but then I remembered the goal that I had set for myself when I went back to the classroom in 2018: To teach my students how to learn.
THESE are the questions that I, and every educator at every level of our system in our nation, should be asking ourselves right now: Do our students know HOW to learn? What if they are learning, but our content isn’t relevant to them? Am I willing to let go of what is comfortable for the sake of real learning?
Do students know how to learn?
“What are we doing today?” was the question asked by one of my sophomore world history students, I will call him “Sam”, when the school year began and nearly every day the first month of school. I’m sure he had been asking this question to every teacher for years. By the second month of the school year, he finally started to figure out that he already knew the answer to this question because his class was completely Project Based and our goal every day is to work towards solving our problem. By the time we left school on March 13, he was rarely asking about what had to be done because he knew that it was up to him and his group’s goals for the day.
Sam is fairly typical of high school students I have encountered. Students expect to come to class, be directed through a learning activity by the teacher, and then repeat this process 6-7 times during the day. Then they get done with school for the day and go do whatever they really want to do.
What have we done, or not done, in the past (insert number of years they have been in school) to engage them in learning that is meaningful and authentic so that they have the skills they need to complete coursework without our watchful eyes?
For the class that Sam is in, I have provided digital structures throughout the course, even though I also have visible ones posted throughout my classroom, that help with daily task management and pacing the work of their project. I have used online quizzes and utilized tools like Adobe Spark, Flipgrid, Screencastify, and have trained them to be organized and maximize Google Docs to help with project management. I have emphasized personal responsibility, built in the norm that they contact their team when they miss a day of class, and pushed the cultivation of knowledge onto them as I have guided them through the process. Yet, for many of these students, what happened the past seven months in my classroom was an anomaly for their experience in school as a whole. Which makes me wonder, “Was all my effort for naught?” I ask this question because of this quote I frequently used in my basketball coaching days: “In times of crisis one will not rise to the occasion, but, rather, will revert to their prior training.” What is their prior training? What habits and learning skills have they acquired over their years in school that they will fall back on now?
What if they are learning, but our content isn’t relevant to them?
Students are learning right now, without me, without teachers. Being thrust into their homes 24/7 without access to the social structures we have all come to depend on is a learning experience for sure. Have we sought to capitalize on this and help them navigate all the experiences, emotions and opportunities that are before them? How DOES our content relate to their reality? This is a great time to try out project based learning, inquiry learning, or phenomena learning models. It is also a good time to just have students journal, video blog, or develop their own demonstration of learning. Maybe we, as educators, take this time to look for how our content actually relates to what is happening in the world today so that we can be better equipped to help students see those connections and create deeper learning experiences for them.
Am I willing to let go of what is comfortable for the sake of real learning?
If we want to see a society where people enjoy learning and pursue knowledge, then our system should embrace learning, not content acquisition. Our schools should mimic the learning that students do outside of the building. Multi-disciplinary demonstrations of learning is how we live, work and learn outside of the school building. This should be our goal going forward and we will likely need to get uncomfortable to do this. Educators will have to work together to create a curriculum that helps students connect content across disciplines and engages students in the work of the world.
I hope that we’ve trained our students well, and I hope that they have the tools to overcome obstacles and learn. In the coming months, I think all of us will have an excellent chance to revisit what our system is actually preparing students for.
Will Sam know how to learn and be able to continue unraveling the story of the history of the world with me from the virtual setting as I offer him choices in demonstrating learning and connect content to our reality, or will he revert to “what are we going to do today?” and wait for someone to come hold his hand through the journey? If it is the latter, then I’m pretty sure that journey ended the last day I saw him in the classroom.
Two organizations I work with frequently that provide help in shifting systems to become more authentic are:
CraftED Curriculum https://craftedcurriculum.com/
Magnify Learning https://www.magnifylearningin.org/
Also, Check out https://deeperlearning4all.org and their work in creating such experiences in our schools.
Edweek. Map: Coronavirus and School Closures. https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-coronavirus-and-school-closures.html Accessed March 30, 2020.