Tuesday, November 17, 2020

How to Begin Fighting a Viral Pandemic With Viral Learning

First there is denial, then anger, then comes the bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That is the progression of grief. Most of us who have made our careers in early childhood education are somewhere along this path right now, a journey that began abruptly in March as the reality of the pandemic finally caused us to take action.

I know this has been true for me. At first, I welcomed the closures as an accidental holiday, but as it dragged on I found myself angry: at the virus, at my government, at suggestions that we would be plopping young children in front of computer screens. I then spent time casting about for middle ground that I could live with, writing posts here and making videos with suggestions and ideas for how we could continue giving children hands-on, face-to-face opportunities while somehow keeping them safe. I didn't identify the depression when I was in the midst of it, but rather, as is often the case, only after the "black dog" began to release its fangs. 

What's left is acceptance. 

Yesterday, my good friend John Yiannoudis wrote a long piece about acceptance on his Facebook page (John wrote in Greek and here I've taken the liberty of smoothing out the automatic translation):

We can sit and mourn over the spilled milk, but we can also ride the wave of changes, experimenting for a new condition that will fit the world of the 21st Century, and beyond . . . Let us not forget that a child born in 2015 will one day be 35 years old. He won't even remember what the world was like, just as I was born in 1969 and don't remember the world without an electric fridge . . . If we adults continue to mourn the evil that has found us for much longer, the children will first look on sadly and feel sorry as well, but then they will get bored and hate us very quickly.

I had to sit with this for some time and I came to realize that without putting it into words, I've actually been sitting with this for months now. I'm thrilled for my colleagues in New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, and other island nations who have, for now, managed to more or less dodge the plague, and we have a lot to learn from what they have done, but most of us will be living with this for at least another year. That's a lifetime when it comes to young children.

John rightly points out that education and educators tend to be rather resistant to change, reminding us that the basic structure of academic schooling hasn't changed for over 250 years. And that those of us who have strived to buck that essential conservatism by embracing "freedom, equality, and hands-on democratic education" are faced with the added dilemma that there is no current technology that can replace essential "physical activities and face-to-face child and teacher interaction." 

So what do we do? I don't know. No one does, but I've had the privilege of spending the better part of the past two decades hanging out with creative geniuses engaged in freedom, equality, and hands-on democratic education. These geniuses would not begin by sitting down as a committee to discuss and debate. They would start by experimenting. They would not wait for some authority to suggest the brilliant idea. No, they would start by just farting around with whatever was available to them, be it new technology or old. A lot of things would get broken in the process and there would be many, many failures, but eventually one of them would figure something out and show it to someone else. Then, together, they would continue to fart around, breaking more things and learning from their failures. Eventually, there would be more breakthroughs and those too they would share with one another until their discoveries went viral. That's right, they would fight a viral pandemic with viral learning

It starts with all of us accepting that the world is moving on. This evil that has found us has only accelerated many changes that were probably inevitable. If we are going to serve our youngest citizens, it starts with those in authority, those administrators, boards, and committees to finally admit that they don't know what to do, because no one does, and set classroom educators free to experiment, break things, and fail; to explore, to work together, and, yes, to re-introduce joy. Each classroom, however we come to define that, must be a laboratory, a place of discovery, of collaboration, a venue for farting around. We cannot allow ourselves to remain mired in the muck of memorized trivia and internalized routines, but rather engage in the viral process of creating the future. 

And central to that is to let the children lead, because, in the end it is their education, their future, not ours.

As John writes:

After all, let's not forget that those who turn liability into opportunity are the ones who succeed. And while right now we all feel the world around us as a huge liability, now is the moment to look for the new holy grail of education!

The sooner we arrive at acceptance, the sooner we can get started, each in our own bubble at first, then sharing what we've learned. It can begin today, with you and the children in your life.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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