Today’s colossal interruption in class as usual has inspired teachers around the country to boldly speak out about changes they want to see in education. They’re urging drastic measures to solve problems magnified during this time of COVID-19-related closures — before things get swept under the rug again.
Making innovation a new normal for teaching
The degree of innovation educators have witnessed among peers during the past two months has raised hopes for the possibility of a new and improved normal.
“COVID-19 has torn down the barriers that long hindered schools from trying new things and threw open the window allowing them to observe the effects of changes in real-time,” says Casey M. Bethel, who serves as the K-12 science, STEM and computer science coordinator for 35 schools in Douglasville, Georgia.
“Teachers are experimenting with and perfecting new models of blended instruction — effectively combining digital resources with face-to-face time (even if by Zoom) to keep students engaged and learning.”
Yet since all this innovation we’re seeing is born of necessity, Jay Wamsted, a math teacher in southwest Atlanta, warns in Education Post that it won’t automatically continue when the rest of the system goes back into place. “Right now educators are innovating at a rapid clip, but without intentionality that will end when we return to the school building.”
As educators explore how to engage kids to learn what they need to be successful — during distance learning and projecting onto their return to the classroom — what teachers are coming up with isn’t necessarily what was happening pre-pandemic.
Chicago elementary school teacher Sara Urben relates in Chicago Unheard that soon after school closures she, like other teachers, was creating meaningful remote learning experiences and allowing student work to be more independent, self-paced and open ended. That was until it became clear that schools weren’t reopening any time soon.
“Now, I’m starting to feel a familiar pressure — the same old breadth-over-depth pressure that can make schools a soul-sucking place for both students and teachers alike,” she says. “Rather than using these extraordinary times to do what we know deep down is best for students, in some instances, we are replicating what is already broken in education. This is a chance to break from that.”
Cutting fat from the curriculum and revamping assessment
Balancing student benefit with standards is an ongoing challenge. Since students will inevitably be off-target with standards when they return to school, Wamsted argues that it’s an ideal time for educators to closely examine the standards they’re following and cut fat from the curriculum.
“Let’s collectively reimagine subject knowledge and ensure these concepts are reflected in our curriculum and assessments,” he says. “We owe students at least that.”
Saddened by the overshadowing of deep and meaningful learning by an overemphasis on grades, Urben encourages an exploration of how more progressive approaches to assessment might positively impact students’ attitudes toward school and learning — including those “who for years have been made to feel inferior by letter grades.”
Bethel points to schools and entire school systems which have elected to celebrate progress and honesty in lieu of grades this term, and wonders whether this may have any effect on future grading practices.
“Sure, grades provide accountability, but many of us are embracing the realization we have avoided — that grades are not a significant motivating factor for many students.”
Upgrading an educational model that leaves students behind
Revamping the nation’s educational system so it serves a greater portion of the population is also a prominent discussion. Even during the best of times, a significant percentage of students fall through the cracks and get left behind due to the traditional factory-style model of our nation’s educational system, reports Caprice Young, national superintendent of Learn4Life, a nonprofit charter school network.
“Let’s look at this as a helpful interruption to inadequate policies and practices that have gone largely unchallenged. We now have a chance to change policies that have long been harmful to disadvantaged students and their families. We have needed changes in education for a long time, and leaders must address them while there is a genuine sense of urgency,” says Young.
In addition to an urgent call to close the digital divide, Young also advocates for recognizing the traumatic conditions many students are living under and responding through a trauma-informed approach as well as investing in building maintenance and cleanliness in urban public schools.
As Bethel puts it, “The risk of getting it wrong has prohibited many from tinkering with the traditional [education] model.”
For John Falk, executive director of the Institute for Learning Innovation, tinkering entails designing a more distributed and nimble public education system. Based on 20 years of research into the effectiveness of non-school learning resources such as museums, libraries and zoos, the proposed system would involve a much broader and more diverse range of educational institutions and learning resources.
“What the coronavirus pandemic has not caused, but has definitely helped to reveal, is a crisis in education,” says Falk. “This educational crisis will not go away once the virus disappears unless we decide to seriously discuss radical new solutions for supporting the public’s lifelong learning.”
By articulating and publishing their calls to action, these educators have taken the first bold steps necessary to shape a new reality for our nation’s schools and entire educational system post-COVID-19.
“In times of uncertainty, it’s human nature to fall back on what we know,” says Urben. “However, these uncertain times are also times of tremendous possibility — a time to experiment, innovate, reflect and build schools that reflect our values and are driven by what we know in our hearts to be true about children and learning.”