Thursday, June 11, 2020

No One Has Fallen Behind

Seattle's schools closed due to the coronavirus on February 27, which means the kids have been out of school for 15 weeks. Yes, there have been valiant efforts at online schooling, but neither the teachers with whom I've spoken, nor, more importantly, the kids think it amounts to much. They're going through the motions because that's what's expected of them, but when I recently asked a group of teenagers how it was going they all agreed that they were "learning about half as much." And these are "good students." They all told stories about how some of their classmates weren't even trying, doing things like turning off their cameras and renaming themselves on Zoom as "Reconnecting . . ." Of course, kids have ways of tuning out even without remote learning, but I think most agree that from an academic point of view, this sort of schooling falls into the category of "better than nothing . . . but just barely."

Of course, this is all just from the "academic point of view," meaning that if you measure success by the pace at which the kids are marching through material that a committee of adults has determined they need to be marched through, then the children are falling behind. "Months Behind" screams a recent headline in the New York Times. "New research suggests that by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year's worth of academic gains."

First of all, allow me to respond with a resounding, "No duh!" If you close a factory for 15 weeks, it doesn't take a researcher to "suggest" that they will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had not closed for 15 weeks. As I read scare mongering articles like this, it makes me sad for the kids who are now, when they return to school, going to be expected to learn the diddly-o-dandy out of that committee's material at double speed because heaven forbid they fall behind an entirely arbitrary schedule of memorizing trivia, formulae, and "foundational concepts." So what if they memorize these things 15 weeks later than they otherwise would have? Or 30 weeks later? Or a year later? What does falling behind even mean? How hard can it be to adjust your schedule to accommodate the kids where they are through no fault of their own rather than where you've arbitrarily decided they ought to be?

These are the same arguments used by those who bemoan the famous "summer slide." Many, in the name of this kind of rote academic learning, use these arguments to make a case for year-round schooling. But let me ask them something: if the kids forget your trivia, formulae, and foundational concepts in just a few weeks, did they really even learn it at all? Are you suggesting that they are unlearning? Are you suggesting that you sent them home brimming to the top with learning and now, because you've not had the chance to continually refill them, then test them, then grade them, they are getting stupider in your absence? It's crazy, of course. What the "summer slide" proves is that they never properly learned it in the first place, but rather memorized your material long enough to pass your test.

Real learning doesn't just disappear, because real learning is based on actual thinking. Real learning is always constructed by the one doing the learning. The goal of real learning may or may not be reflected in a grade or a test score because it doesn't involve "right" and "wrong" answers, but rather, as Eleanor Duckworth puts it, "the having of wonderful ideas." That doesn't happen on a schedule. Critical thinking, creative thinking, having ideas, using one's brain as something more than a storage room for test answers, is the evidence of an educated mind. Those kids who've renamed themselves "Reconnecting . . ." are definitely not "learning" what the teacher is teaching, but that doesn't mean they aren't learning. Indeed, I would argue that they are likely learning at least as much as the kids who dutifully sit in front of their screens for the allotted time. I don't have to see what they are doing. I don't need data to prove it to me. I know they are learning because they have opted to occupy their brains with something that interests them more than what the teacher is teaching.

"But they're just playing video games!" True. Some are. Others are picking up books. Others are making things with their hands. Others are creating art. Others are spending their time outside. And many are connecting with their friends via screens that aren't being monitored by their teachers.

And that's actually the only real reason we need to get our schools open. Not so that kids can return to the miserable academic chase after "right" and "wrong" answers, but because children need one another. Young children, in particular, need to be physically present with their friends, to touch them, to hug them, to wrestle with them, to bicker and agree and invite. "Let's pretend . . ." And they need their teachers, not because they will drill them in phonics, but because they love them. I'm not at all concerned about what the New York Times calls "falling behind." But I am concerned about the children for whom school was their safe place, their place to be cared for and fed and listened to. Those who have difficult home lives are the ones who need our schools to re-open the most.

Some parents have spent the past 15 weeks trying to do homeschool, striving to re-create the classroom in their homes. I pity their kids because they are getting the worst aspects of schooling without the best. Some families, I'm guessing have given it a go, maybe attempting to designate certain hours of the day as "school time," for instance, but by now I'm sure the rigor has faded. Some have relied entirely upon the online classroom hours, leaving their kids to their own devices for the rest of the day. And some have just let it slide, giving their children this opportunity to pursue real learning by following their interests, thinking their thoughts, and having their wonderful ideas. Everyone is doing the best they can: parents, teachers, and kids. No one has fallen behind. For all its challenges and misery, this pandemic has been a real learning opportunity for everyone -- a once in a lifetime, transformative opportunity to experience the world in new ways, for both better and worse.

And what we have learned, and what we are continuing to learn, means that there is no returning to normal. No one has fallen behind. We just aren't wasting our time on the material that a committee of adults has set before us. What we are doing, is living this life, thinking, and learning. As the great John Dewey wrote, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." And it's impossible to fall behind.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. We're working to find our distributor for Australia and New Zealand. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

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