September 17, 2020

The Great Education Shift: School Is Out. Learning Is In.

Brady Cook
Students crossing a canyon supported by a hand holding a book

Help me out, reader. When you think about your own K-12 experience, what were your happiest and most memorable moments? I think about the time I laughed so hard during lunch that milk spilled out of my nose and how I learned that no matter how weak your moves were on the dance floor, if you just got out there, the girls thought you were John Travolta. I remember staring up at the crowd in awe on Friday nights in the fall when it seemed like the entire town shared a heartbeat. I remember Show and Tell, solar system projects, paper mache volcanoes, birthday snacks, recess, and the feeling of victory when a substitute teacher rolled a ginormous TV/VCR combination into the classroom. I miss school, and you do too.

Just thinking about your school experience has the ability to extract acute imagery from the depths of your soul. You can smell Dissection Day. You can taste that square piece of pizza or the soggy garlic bread from your school lunch. You can feel your heart jump in your chest as you remember entering the building on the first day and walking out of that building on the last day. Whether you loved it, hated it, or felt every emotion in-between, school left an indelible stamp on your childhood and adolescence, and you still carry that with you.

The raw and emotional connection to the school experience has made a furious resurgence during the summer of 2020. It feels like we’ve achieved peace with mid-March through June of 2020 being the appetizer, while the upcoming 2020-2021 school-year is the highly anticipated main course. The spring narrative of “Teachers are heroes” has morphed into “My kid needs to be back in school!”  

Let it out, frustrated parents. Scream it. Shout it. Educators hear you. The COVID-19 pandemic forced parents and guardians to take on additional scholastic and supervisory responsibilities, and that additional weight wore you down. You had a couple of summer months to decompress, but you can feel the weight of responsibility creeping up on you again, especially if you’ve heard the words “virtual learning” in your particular district.  Your anger is justified. At the core, your angst is not directed at educators. You’re distressed because the virus wreaked havoc on your routine and the potential for your child to miss out on Friday night lights, hallway high-fives, dances, assemblies, recess,  hands-on experiments, group work, cupcakes to celebrate a birthday, field trips, and laughing so hard at lunch with their friends that milk spilled out their nose.  

Parents didn’t sign up to carry the additional weight of responsibility tied to policing virtual learning, but educators didn’t sign up for a profession that has had the joy sucked out of it by a global pandemic. We are united in our heartbreak for our students. Parents and educators are “fixers,” but none of us can fix this until schools can operate safely. Once you acknowledge that your feelings of sadness and frustration are tied to the mourning of the school experience, we can get to the business of healing and moving forward.  

“School” as we know it has been compromised, but “learning” has not. COVID has been devastating in many ways, but it was the catalyst schools needed. The traditional structure of school worked well in an agrarian society that depended on school-aged children to assist with chores and harvests. It continued to work well when students were reliant on teachers for information and direct instruction, when the workforce demanded compliant, classically educated (reading/writing/arithmetic) employees. Technology changed society dramatically in the late 20th century, but the structure of school barely changed. In August of 2020, we are still conducting school as if students need to get home to milk the cows, tend the fields, and spend summers reaping the harvest.  

Part of achieving peace with the “new normal” is acknowledging that we need to revolutionize how students are being educated. The affinity for traditional school is so deeply ingrained in generations of Americans that progressive efforts by educators are often met with criticism and rejection. Criticism such as: “Kids these days don’t even know how to read an analog clock. They can’t write in cursive. They can’t spell. They don’t know how to look information up in a book.” Today’s generation of students grew up in the digital, spell-check, internet-information era. A device that they don’t leave home without has the ability to answer questions and calculate solutions that previous generations spent entire school careers learning.  

We need to prepare today’s students for the world they’re entering, not the one we entered. Students have unlimited access to information, so our job is to teach them what to do with it. Employers have been emphatic in asserting that today’s graduates are entering the workforce lacking the skills necessary to be successful. A big reason why is that workplaces have embraced change, adapted, and modernized...while schools have not.  

Employers want motivated, creative, skilled, collaborative, coachable, problem-solvers that show up on time, work hard, and finish tasks. In order for schools to produce those kinds of graduates, we need permission to adapt. Our current federally mandated system dictates that the school experience is geared toward competence on standardized testing that measures information that’s irrelevant to the world our students are entering. In short, schools cannot produce what employers crave because we are stifled by a system that demands compliance and outdated practice.

That gets me back to August of 2020. What many see as an educational setback, I see as an opportunity. For the first time ever, schools have been granted the autonomy to conduct school in a different way. Educators, we’ve been waiting for this! The loss of the school experience is devastating and something that will never again be taken for granted, but we have been given permission to adapt, create, and revolutionize.

The glass isn’t half-full; the glass is overflowing! It’s time to abandon the fallacy that learning needs to follow a regimented schedule. It’s time to engage students so deeply that the parent’s role doesn’t extend beyond monitoring the experience. Take risks. Flip the lessons so that students have access to instruction 24/7 and can re-engage until they’ve achieved mastery of the content. Connect with students in a medium they’re comfortable with. Prioritize relationships. Develop lessons around choice, and pique student interest.

If we’re doing right by our students and their future places of employment, we’re delivering the content, but we’re putting the responsibility of follow-through and immersion on them. Challenge them. Force them to be creative, motivated, and self- directed. Facilitate, but don’t dominate tasks. Let them fail, then let them try again. Encourage critical thinking and problem-solving, and remember—if they can Google the answer to a question, it wasn’t a very good question.

Educators joined the profession to do what’s best for kids. How we’ve traditionally been forced—yes, forced—to function is not what’s best for the students, families, and communities we serve. Now we have the opportunity to change the game. If we get this right, education will never look the same again, and our students and their future employers will benefit. Educators need your trust and support. “School” may not look the same, but learning might never look better.

Read more from Brady Cook.