Since the turn of the century, educators have been encouraged to integrate what were called 21st century skills, so-called “soft” skills such creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and citizenship that were needed to help students learn to thrive in the contemporary world. In a complex world, being able to ask the right questions, examine the underlying systems, and apply creative and critical thinking is the way to find solutions.
Well, a pandemic that closed school buildings (NOT schools if you equate school with learning) certainly revealed complexity especially in terms of how interwoven those buildings were to so much more than just schooling. And, in addressing the complexity, it seems to me that officials have chosen to ask only one question: “How do we get kids back into school buildings?” And asking only one question immediately limits the critical thinking that can lead to creative and equitable solutions.
The other problem with asking only that question is that it conflates school buildings with schooling and assumes that the best and really only way for students to learn is face to face in one location with children of the same age. It’s the model we’ve known, it’s the model around which most of our research is done, and, perhaps most importantly, the model around which we have built lots of systems including extracurricular activities, child care and meal distribution.
The buildings play essential roles in the community beyond schooling. But, and here’s the place where I think we are missing the opportunity to ask deeper questions, the buildings are not essential for schooling, at least for everyone in the one-size-fits-all way we’ve always done it. This narrow focus limits the opportunities for innovative solutions, the kinds of solutions that could meet the needs of all families and children in ways that we haven’t thought of before.
In her book Real Change, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg tells the story of a research study designed to see if people who practiced mindfulness were more compassionate to others. It was simple: a waiting room with three chairs, two actors glued to their phones, and a participant. The participant takes the last chair. The third actor enters, walking with crutches, obviously in pain. While it would be nice to think everyone would give up the chairs, they didn’t. But the mindfulness practitioners had a higher percentage of those who yielded their chair to a fellow human being in pain. While Sharon recognized the need for these personal acts of kindness, she also calls for a wider view:
It can also be helpful to recognize the value of thinking in terms of systems change even as we might be focused on acts of personal goodness. We rely on analysis and conscious reflection to make that distinction. When I heard of DeSteno’s experiment, it made me think in terms of systems. I wondered, for example, if anyone questioned how the people running the lab were allocating resources if they were putting so few chairs in the waiting room? (p. 180)
Right now, we have the opportunity to look deeper and think in terms of real system change in education. We have the chance to ask more than just one question. Here are the ones I’ve been thinking about:
- Who is benefitting from virtual learning?
- Who might benefit from virtual learning if we had better resources including broadband in every home or easily accessible community-based child care?
- How can we take some of the individual solutions that arose in the past year such as learning pods and integrate them in an equitable system?
Most importantly, how can we make sure that the voices of those clamoring to return do not drown out the voices of those who are not eager to get back in the buildings–teachers, parents, and students alike–because they do not trust the current system to care enough about them to keep them and their families safe?
We must go beyond communicating empty-sounding reassurances about CDC guidelines and open ourselves and the system in order to collaborate with all stakeholders on creative solutions that could finally REALLY customize and personalize schooling for every kid in a way we never considered before the buildings closed.