Hit the Brakes: Rethink Learning + Learning Environments
“Can you just pull over for a minute?!” Have you ever been on a road trip and gotten to a point where you weren’t sure if you were going in the right direction? You are speeding along, and things start to look different, strange, not what you expected or, they become familiar because you passed this way an hour ago. We are at a point where we need to pull over for a minute to figure out where we are going.
As the scar of COVID-19 starts to heal, I hear talk of going back to where we started from. Get all the teachers and students back in the classroom the way it used to be. Shouldn’t our expectation be that there is no going back to the past? We are where we are and we need to create our future state from here, not from where we started from. We are creative beings, let’s utilize that creativity to create new ideas of what a school looks like.
Specifically related to school, shouldn’t schools as we know them now, be something that we might not quite recognize, something unfamiliar and yes, something that may be a bit uncomfortable? Virtual or in-person “school” shouldn’t be the debate, rather it should be how to provide a learning experience that addresses all students’ and teachers’ needs, abilities and aspirations.
Should we expect to experience school differently as students and staff return? Should students expect freedom, flexibility and individual control of their learning as they have experienced over the past many months of virtual learning? An example of virtual learning that can be applied to in person learning is independent study for students and the teacher is available at certain times for students to ask questions; some have called this the virtual “genius bar.”
Some argue (and I agree) that ‘Good teachers do more than just present content; they are constantly questioning, listening, and reacting to their students.’ (Remote learning: why hasn't it worked before and what can we do to change that? - Daisy Christodoulou). There are a wide variety of diverse needs that have not been addressed virtually. Let’s re-examine how we are doing these in school to ensure that they are inclusive. There should be spaces in schools that support all learners. It’s discussed, but how does your school and staff actually live it?
Shouldn’t teachers expect flexibility in their work environment, how they work with students and when they engage with students? COVID-19 has shown a blinding spotlight on our educational system, some of what we have seen is exceptional while others would rather have stayed in the shadows.
It seems that as we move to having students back in a physical school building, we have forgotten the good things that came out of COVID-19. This winter, in Wisconsin, some K-12 schools were closed due to snowstorms, it’s called a snow day. I had thought with virtual learning, snow days would no longer be needed as learning and teaching can happen anytime, anywhere. Why do we have snow days when we can engage students where they are and teachers can teach where they are? There are no concerns with buses traveling in hazardous conditions and no concerns of teachers not being able to navigate roads getting to school.
I recently saw a Kansas City teacher take her kids on virtual field trips as she went to sites around her City and State while broadcasting live to her students. Let’s not fall back into the previous way of doing things, let’s learn from what has worked and implement those as permanent change.
Let this be the time we actually move education in a different direction from the past physical infrastructure to a more flexible student directed way of learning. Let’s not enclose our children and teachers in those 900 sq ft boxes again. Just imagine the possibilities if innovation in education was the expectation. Eliminate the use of the word “classroom.” We all know that learning doesn’t happen in a box. Think of it more as learning spaces, learning suites or learning centers. I’m sure you can come up something that applies to your specific needs.
Students and teachers should maintain the freedoms they have experienced for more than a year now. Why do we have to have students end what they are doing because a bell rings? If a student is engaged in creative and productive learning, why do we force that to end by the sound of a bell? We should be embracing the student’s excitement and enthusiasm to learn and let those experiences continue; the opposite should also be true. Should we be offering more flexibility outside the walls of the classroom and specifically program outdoor spaces? Take a moment to review the American Institute of Architects (AIA) article Reopening America: Strategies for Safer Schools. If a student is “not feeling it” then let that student focus on what they are ready for.
COVID-19 has shown us that we are flexible and malleable creatures. We have adapted to new ways of learning and teaching; some good, some not so good. Our focus should be keeping the good and incorporate it into the lexicon of learning. I know that the above seems utopian and I do understand that there are challenges related to providing all students with the resources they need to be successful. These too have solutions. We are creatures of habit and we find comfort in the routine and familiarity. It’s time to get uncomfortable and feel a bit disoriented so we can refocus our efforts. So, can we please pull over for a minute to verify where we are going?