This Is The Time

The spread of the Coronavirus is one of the most challenging things to happen to us as a society in a few generations, but it very well could turn out to be the best thing to happen to education in 100 years. While that’s a very difficult idea to process at the moment, looking ahead this could be a true turning point in education.

If you look back at education over the past 20, 30 or even 50 years there doesn’t seem to be any substantive shifts in the overall structures of learning, however, significant pressures on the system have become apparent: the pressures and ineffectiveness of standardized testing, the lack of relevance and boredom of students, the constraints of time, systemic inequities that negatively impact marginalized populations.  All of these things are being exposed today and recognized as major problems with our system. We’re constantly looking for examples that buck these trends and trying desperately in many cases to change education en mass. While to the greater public this is a relatively new discussion, I’ve been on this journey my whole life.

My life in education has been built around two main ideas: Technology and Joy. These two themes have been tied together in my mind for the past 30 years and during the current crisis, as we consider the role of learning in our lives, I would argue that these concepts are more important than ever.

This is the time to explore the advantages and disadvantages of learning online. As schools scramble to shift to online learning, what I’m seeing is a shift to a focus on online teaching. School systems are looking for ways to replicate the simplest and most basic level of education that is centred around sheer content delivery. I don’t intend to chastise anyone for this approach, but it reflects a rather a limited view of both technology and education; it’s a futile attempt to uphold pre-existing structures of teaching and learning. Online learning, while in existence for decades, is a brand new practice for the majority of classroom teachers. I would venture to guess that far fewer than half of all teachers have dabbled in creating any kind of online or even blended learning environment. There are many unique affordances with learning online but indeed we will recognize the downsides.

When I first began teaching online over 13 years ago, I remember someone using the apt analogy of playing a game of polo to describe the difference between teaching in a classroom and teaching online. As the metaphor goes, it would be like telling an expert polo player the game is the same, but instead of playing on a horse, they’ll be playing water polo. No big deal right? Obviously you can see that while the rules are similar, a completely different set of skills is required.

I think it’s important to also be very clear about the language we use to describe what’s happening now. This article clearly shows the difference between online learning and what we are currently doing now which is Emergency Remote Teaching. To that end, it’s important not to be tempted to evaluate and compare what will happen over the next few weeks and months to what’s been happening for years in higher education and K-12 with regard to courses and other blended experiences. It is not the same.

This is the time to understand the power of technology. When I think back to where technology stood 20 years ago, there was the prevailing attitude that it was a “nice but not necessary” thing for most schools. However, I was immersed in seeing its possibilities and the new potential to think about learning differently, always led by the question, “What is it that we can do with technology now, that we couldn’t otherwise accomplish before?” For me, it was never about the cool gadget or innovation for innovation’s sake. I truly wanted to see technology used to make us more human, not less. While most people don’t need convincing that technology has indeed potential, I’m not sure it’s fully accepted as the powerful tool it can be. Many districts still don’t provide educators with laptops and many also have been slow to define and support blended online learning. Today they are recognizing the gaps in their teachers around the comforts of learning and teaching online.

This is the time to foster community. When I was first asked to teach an online course, I remember being asked by a student two months before the start of class, “Can you send me all the assignments ahead of time?”. They believed online courses should be more or less like the old correspondence courses, where the work was totally independent of others and you could complete all the work the minute the course officially opened. Even at the time, I knew I didn’t want that to be my experience with my students. I wanted the idea of community and human connection to be fostered and seen as essential to the learning.

This is the time to explore joyful learning. The concept of joy remains central to the human experience and indeed is at the heart of the learning experience. Right now, more than ever, our children need to be calmed, reassured and encouraged to pursue learning as a joyful act. Teachers now need to play an integral role in this, more than ever before. While joy seems like a big ask in the current world, teachers are going to play a huge role in the social and emotional learning of children. I’m not talking about severe mental health or other diagnosed issues, but simply the well-being of their kids. Learning might be a distraction, as blasphemous as that sounds. Finding delight together will be an important way we can give each other hope and maintain the meaningful human connection that we had prior to this or perhaps a connection we’ll develop now.

This is the time to begin to address issues of equity. As our schools, states, provinces piece together some semblance of a plan to continue education, there is a great opportunity to do things differently. First and foremost we have to acknowledge the vast differences and inequities that exist. While equity has been a hot topic in recent times, we will see it at an even greater degree now. Obviously, access is an issue but even when it comes to families that have access, the one or two laptops at home are being used by Mom and Dad. Moreso than access is understanding the myriad of home environments and other needs that are out of our control. Experts fear child abuse may increase at this time. That’s scary stuff but we need to be aware this may be something we face. For all the negatives about compliance and uniformity, schools at least in part attempted to be an equalizer. No matter your status or background the premise was that all students were equal. I won’t argue this was flawed in many ways but today trying to teach students from there homes exposes the vast differences and equities that exist more than ever. There is no perfect solution here. But at the very least making meaningful connections with children and parents. is the most equitable thing we can do. We’re also seeing the myriad of responses of parents around what schools should be doing. Everything from “get started now” to “back off and give us space”. Pleasing everyone will be impossible and tensions are higher now than ever. Districts are treading carefully to address the range of wants and needs along with their own capacity to support this. Leaders have a very difficult job here. They need our support and so do teachers and parents and kids. We’re in this together and this is the one thing we all have in common. We won’t solve all the equity issues but getting more time to reflect will help us come face to face with the realities many of our students face every day. It’s a great time to see how much we’re alike as well as how much we’re different.

This is the time to give up control and embrace personal learning. Teachers have control of their students as they did while having 30 children in the same room. The range of support and access alone is complicated and overwhelming, let alone addressing the differences in students’ abilities and readiness to learn. So now, more than ever is the time to double down on individual and personal learning and toss the curriculum out the window. That’s not to suggest curriculum is the enemy or necessarily a problem but it does tend to rely on resources and also constraints and affordances of a classroom setting. Teachers have a hard enough time doing their current job without adequate resources and asking them to pivot to online spaces while delivering a curriculum modelled in a completely different learning environment is both nearly criminal and missing the opportunity at this moment to do something great. I love asking teachers this question, “If you were told that you didn’t have a curriculum, what would you teach?” Today this is not a hypothetical question, but rather, their new reality.

However, before we venture to restructure the learning process, we need to consider our relationships with students. If you are missing your students, it’s likely you have great relationships with them. They miss you too. At a minimum, finding ways to reach out – call, text, facetime – just to make sure they’re okay is job 1. If you don’t feel like you developed that kind of relationship with your students, now is the time to start building one – there has never been a better time! At this point, you should follow this idea:

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Let your students lead. When they are ready, this is the perfect time to let them follow their passions and interests. As the learning expert, you can be there to guide, support, encourage and question. I’ve long practiced self-assessment in my courses and there is no better time than to use this strategy. Whether you want to dive deeper into portfolios or even the idea of going gradeless, you may never have a better time to do so.

This is the time to rethink assessment. As mentioned, I’ve built my career in education around 2 themes and now is the time to understand and explore the intersection of technology and joy; to allow students to see more clearly than ever that learning is a human disposition, one that should not be directed by duty but rather by joy. As an educator, you have the gift of being able to watch your students pursue ideas and skills that interest them with no pressure to grade it. If it fails, it fails. You don’t have to know anything about project-based, or problem-based learning, you just have to be a caring adult who wants the best for children. I also recognize that some jurisdictions may still require traditional grading practices but at the same time, many are backing off on expectations. In either case, we can certainly add more reflective and self-assessment to our practice. I’ve had push back in the past saying reflection is time-consuming but that’s no longer an excuse. Helping our students and ourselves think deeply about their learning might never be easier than now.

This is the time to extend grace. This is virgin territory for everyone. Students, parents, teachers and leaders are all at zero when it comes to figuring this out. Mistakes will be made by everyone. Give people grace. Give students grace when they don’t know how or just don’t want to learn. Give parents grace when they can’t figure out how to support their kids or get frustrated. Give teachers grace as they try and navigate what an online classroom is supposed to be. Give leaders grace as they try and make the right decisions.

This is the time to prioritize well-being over all else. Perhaps this goes without saying and again I believe this is something that should be the case with or without a crisis but our message has to be loud and clear and ongoing: we care about you as a human first, learner second. As mentioned in the conversation about equity, we will have many students and families who need to know they are loved and cared for. You cannot ever say this too much. That said, well-being may include those opportunities to learn and perhaps be distracted from the day to day challenge of survival. It will be tempting for some and challenging to bypass this messaging or soften it because of your prior commitments to academic success. If that’s your culture, it needs to be tempered or modified at the very least.

I believe so strongly in this moment as an opportunity to change how we do school, that I believe it’s my duty to offer support to any schools and districts looking to seriously consider this as a great opportunity to reform practice. Having taught and developed online learning for that past 13 years, building community with thousands of educators, I know I can help you as an educator, school or district work through this transition. Specifically, I would love to support your teachers in:

  • Using simple tools to connect. (you don’t need a fully online classroom management system to teach and learn online)
  • Meeting students where they are. Essentially create IEPs.
  • Designing and co-creating learning experiences
  • Building community with your classrooms
  • Using self-assessment and gradeless approaches

If you’re interested or know someone who is, please send me a message and I’d love to continue this conversation: If you’re a district or school leader, I’m happy to create a specific proposal for you.

Above all, be safe my friends and colleagues, do what you can, and most of all take care of the human side of your children and students by bringing even just a modicum of joy into their lives – it’s needed now more than ever.