October 29, 2020

Planning for the Best-Case Scenario

You know what school leaders need right about now? More unsolicited advice. With few exceptions, I have restrained myself from adding to the oh so clever pile of pandemic tips and tricks circulating on the Internet. Since educators are reacting to an unforeseen crisis with continuous challenges and no end in sight, survival requires one to deal in worst case scenarios. Schools bear the brunt of economic adversity, but rarely profit from periods of prosperity. Educational institutions may be slow to change, but they are quick to react.

If cooler heads are to prevail and you wish to come out of the pandemic stronger [insert your favorite cliché], I humbly suggest that school communities begin to plan for the best-case scenario. Here are five realities schools need to ponder, embrace, and address with intentionality and vision.

Any educational experience online needs to combine synchronous and asynchronous elements

Teachers should not be lecturing from bell-to-bell in physical classrooms, nor should they be “presenting” to passive audiences (students) online. “Virtual” courses can be more collaborative, deliberate, and creative than face-to-face encounters where talking-in-class is disruptive. Chatting online during class is not disruptive, tends to be more work related, and often stimulates participation by students who may be prone to hiding in traditional classrooms. The online environment offers the time to engage in substantive projects unencumbered by the constraints of the traditional school timetable.

To teach effectively online, there needs to be a mix of asynchronous and synchronous experiences. This caters to a diversity of learning styles, teaching styles, and content. The online environment affords attentive educators the ability to employ a plurality of pedagogical strategies. I would personally recommend embracing a “less is more” approach and use online teaching as an opportunity to invite students to embrace a variety of learning adventures and share experiences, rather than as a vehicle for content delivery. 

Online education is an opportunity to realize the rhetorical slogan that “everyone is a teacher.” Students should meet together online to collaborate, share resources related to the class, provide feedback on each other’s work, and reduce the load of teachers. Classes and schedules can be more flexible. Students might be able to move freely between “sections” of the same course, or even lurk in other classes. Online education, if done well, can be more progressive and democratic than traditional classroom-based instruction.

Network-based communication platforms are not a rationale for more meetings

I am concerned by the amount of time colleagues are spending in online meetings with colleagues and administrators since the COVID-19 crisis began. Refrain from the temptation of using conferencing systems for unnecessary meetings. Do not use the fact that you cannot physically see teachers as justification for more report writing and bookkeeping. The fatigue teachers are experiencing online is real and adversely affects students.

Schools need to begin sustained conversations answering the question, “Why do the kids show up?”

I have long told educators that while I do not have a crystal ball, I am confident that in the future, schools will not enjoy the monopoly on children’s time that you currently enjoy. Stated differently, “Kids in the very near future will not spend as much time in school as they do today.” The way I know that my prediction is 110% correct is that every politician on earth says the exact opposite. “We need a longer school day and school year,” they proclaim.

That stance is on the wrong side of history. During the agrarian age, kids stayed home with their families. When parents went off to work, kids went off to school. The pandemic has allowed parents to realize that things need not be as they seem. They may already work from home, full or part-time. During the pandemic, parents accepted a large responsibility for educating their own children. If for no other reason than tiring of dragging a teenager out of bed before sunrise to schlep to a school they don’t love, parents will recognize in the very near future that 7-10 hours per day at school, 180 days/year, just doesn’t make sense.

That is why school communities need to take seriously the question, “Why do kids show up at our school?” It certainly is not to read Chapter 3, take a quiz, or suffer “Silent Lunch.” Educators need to come to grips with questions of “How do we gain the greatest benefit from being co-located in the same physical space at the same time?” “What can students learn and do without direct instruction via TV, the Internet, with community members, or with peers?” “Which content from our morbidly obese curriculum can be eliminated once and for all?” “Do we need to have a standardized timetable or group children by similar levels of incompetence?” “Can schools and students have more flexible schedules?” “Are there new subjects we should offer?” “How can we teach critical knowledge domains that only require ten days of instruction in a semester-based school?” “Why can’t students work at their own pace?”

When you honestly engage in this process of critical reflection, you may find that the future viability of schooling, and indeed your school, is paradoxically rooted in the activities and disciplines routinely devalued in the current system. Band, studio art, lab-based science, drama, field trips, and sustained collaborative projects in which students make something are the sorts of learning experiences that justify school. You might also remember that school exists to democratize access to high quality experiences, especially of the sort that may only exist in a school.

Leave the Internet alone

One lesson of the pandemic is that the Internet kept working and working brilliantly. It did not need your clever IT personnel’s help or permission. Tens of millions of students and teachers around the world were able to teach, learn, and communicate effortlessly when freed from the heavy hand of school network policies and protocols. There is not a day that I work in a school, anywhere on earth, where I do not encounter a novel way in which the school’s IT department has interfered with an ability to work, teach, or learn, often without warning or justification. The list of ways in which IT personnel have concocted to disable school computers could fill a library. It is too often that the technology a school purchases works perfectly until the IT folks work their magic and turns a $1,200 computer into a $27 piece of sculpture. One hypothesis few ever consider when pondering why teachers don’t use computers, is that the computers at school may not work. That is not the fault of the technology, but of leadership.

I am not advocating for violating the law or putting children at risk. There are common-sense and inexpensive ways of achieving those objectives. I am asking that the paraprofessionals managing devices and school networks be relieved of their unilateral authority to impose absolute power over the teachers they serve. Their actions should only be to enhance and expand student agency, not curtail it. The default answer should switch from “no” to “yes.”

Think of it this way. When you remodel your kitchen, you do not wake up every morning forever to find the contractor making a cup of coffee. When they finish the plumbing, cabinets, flooring, and paint, they leave. Your school no longer employs full-time telephone operators, electricians, or furnace operators. You might rethink the value proposition in IT staff. 

The richest nation in the history of the world can afford a laptop and cello for every student!

The pedagogical pluralism, curricular flexibility, and limitless potential of distributed learning discussed above are only possible when every student has their own personal laptop with 24/7 Internet access. The issues related to attendance, participation, access, and equity being raised during this emergency bout of distributed learning are because adults have made a conscious decision to deprive children of modernity’s primary instrument for intellectual work, creativity, and communication.

The notion that every American child does not have a personal laptop in 2020 is as unconscionable as hospitals being short of masks and PPE. A personal computer is mission critical for learning forty years/two generations after microcomputers began entering your schools.

Fifty years ago, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon advocated for every child to have a computer they could program. Thirty years ago, I helped Australian colleagues implement 1:1 computing across the curriculum in countless schools. Twenty years ago the State of Maine provided a laptop for every 7th and 8th grader, preceded by Henrico, County Virginia. The Eastern Township School District of Quebec rolled out tens of thousands of student laptops around the same time. More than three million children in the developing world received laptops as part of the One Laptop Per Child initiative. Doctoral dissertations began being published in 1992 demonstrating the commonsense efficacy of 1:1 computing in schools. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the first New Orleans schools to reopen was an early “laptop school.” Their community was able to stay in contact as a result of every student being interconnected via their laptop and the Internet.

It has always been the case that you can provide every student with a personal laptop for use anytime anywhere, for 2-5% of their per-pupil spending. There is no rational justification for building walls between students and the world in which they live.

“Only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.”

– Papert, S. and C. Solomon (1971). Twenty Things to do with a computer. Artificial Intelligence Memo # 248. Cambridge, MA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Preparedness for the next crisis, interest in expanding educational opportunities, or demonstrating respect for children and the milieu in which they live requires an immediate embrace of 1:1 computing for everybody’s child.

Your Move

Today’s headlines (April 30, 2020) contemplate hundreds of thousands of school layoffs, states and districts are quickly becoming insolvent, and parents may be less than thrilled by the quality of digital worksheets their traumatized children have been served during this crisis. Today, every educator, particularly every school leader, has a choice to make as to whether they will scramble to reconstruct the system circa 2019 or offer a more humane, creative, modern, and progressive context for learning that prepares children for an uncertain future. If you have ever aspired to leave the campsite better than you found it, this is the time to step up.

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