A time like no other to learn

Clouds – Somewhere up there, 2021

It’s 11:00 pm on Sunday April, 18, 2021 and I have just finished indulging in a delightful cup of tea brewed with fresh sage.  I am fortunate to be able to do so in the comfort that surrounds me.  I am aware of this as I write below.

Tomorrow, schools in Ontario go back to online learning, and so, once again, I had cause, to reflect on the manner in which we are approaching learning in such an environment.  Once again, I considered the popular prevalence of a simplistic narrative that I have heard.  Let me explain.

This is a time that for many of us is like no other.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the current social unrest in many parts of the world have given the world plenty to talk about, and, subsequently, plenty of opportunity for us humans to begin to understand the world that exists. Yet what has sadly been apparent is a display of what poor understanding we have of that around us.  And such words and behaviours have prompted me to think of how we regard young people in our schools.  You cannot escape the fact that the people who are currently active in all aspects, good and bad, are at least, in part, a product of our schools, and of their practices.

The calls for action from various parts of the political or ethical spectrum: individual rights, suppression, solidarity, action, equality, protest, education, compassion and the like, are also a product of the ways we have grown up.  Our minds are not random, we learn how to be the way we are, and schools play a big part in this.

Schools do not exist in a vacuum, and they have huge purpose beyond the transmission of information.  So when we talk about how schools are, about how we act in them, and how they can be, we need to be very, very aware that schools play very clear socio-cultural roles and are both (a)  significant products of our societies and (b) anchors for the stability of our societies.  Mess around with the way schools are and you mess around with how society is.  Reshape society elsewise and you will reshape schools. This should be plainly obvious, yet it isn’t. Trained, qualified and literate people working in schools seem completely oblivious to the various roles that school actually play.  And yet, they are still preaching provincial, and other sods are listening.  And this matters.

One of the biggest issues that arose during the last remote schooling period was the question of what learning actually looks like.  The shift to online classes has raised significant questions about teaching and learning, and this has given plenty of room for people to offer a running stream of asinine and irresponsible drivel.  It has also provided us the forum to explore how much we actually do understand about teaching and learning, and how much we retell from the latest book (or its summary) we’ve read or from the workshop we have been to.

Over the years, for example, I have continued to hear, from various directions, the claim that teaching is not really that important.  I have continued to be told learning can happen independently of teachers.  Sure it can, but what sort of learning is happening?

Back in my teens, I was learning well, or so I thought.  In fact, due to lack of guidance, I was actually missing key opportunities, not activating the most efficient questions, and reinforcing errant neural connections.  My mistakes were not being picked up because I had no idea I was making them and my teacher didn’t actually bother to tell me. I am not talking about 2+2 here but rather of those things that require finesse, and choice, and perspective, and awareness.

Teaching is a craft that deals with the development of the human mind.  Perhaps the most important question a teacher might ask at any particular time is “what is happening in this child’s mind right now?”  And once the answer to that question becomes clear, the teacher, call her a cognitive coach, acts.  This requires constant and intense interaction, for one cannot see if one doesn’t look.  And the problem with online learning is the looking takes a very different form from what it does in the face-to-face world.

Such looking is critical at all times, yet even more so now, at a time of great upheaval, when it is oh so easy to pick a cause and state that we care.  If people, young and old, don’t take the time and energy, and don’t have the humility to genuinely look at systemic issues, then we run the real risk of actually masking the issues rather than clarifying them.  Directed change takes intention, and while showing solidarity or concern might allow for awareness to develop, it doesn’t guarantee it, and it doesn’t, as a natural progression, end in real, calculated, strategic action. Such action is a political act, and such acts take something beyond the gestural.

This all brings into focus the question of quality vs quantity of learning. We know that it is much more difficult to plan for and achieve higher order outcomes than for lower order ones. Learning how to assess critically and how to synthesize takes time, stating an uncritical opinion takes much less, and remembering the structure of a Bohr model even less than that. But time is limited, and quality is expensive.

This past year, many students around the world have been stuck at home behind computers trying to learn. They have been thrust into unfamiliar and challenging emotional environments, and subsequently have needed to be treated compassionately.  Lessening the volume of work, perhaps changing the nature of some of the work has pretty much been the call from all parts of the world. how this has been interpreted has troubled me, but can tell us something about our social myopia. Does less volume mean less breadth or less depth?

For those who believe that schools’ purpose is to transmit information from expert to novice, the lessening of volume is problematic because it threatens the amount of “stuff” someone “knows”. In such cases where we are time pressured (if our experience in time pressured bricks and mortar schools says anything) attention to higher order learning is pushed aside in favour of ‘covering what we can of the curriculum’ and, ironically in some cases, in pretty presentations. Higher order tasks get pushed aside in favor of learning the “things”.  This means that the important returns are not realised because we are not prepared to work for them.  

If, on the other hand, we believe that schools are the places where young people learn to look at the world and think critically, creatively, analytically, and synthetically, we would curb the expectation of breadth, and take the stimulus that exists now to maximally exploit the learning opportunities that currently exist.

Put simply, this is a time like no other to learn, because so much of what exists in the world is currently visible if we are willing to look and think a little. Because of the immediacy or the proximity of the events around us, we are involved. 

Unfortunately, I have seen, from my cloister, little emphasis on an approach that seeks to understand. The picture is saddening.  Despite our best intentions, we may actually be doing more harm than good, simply because we are not understanding how interrelated all of the pieces are, much less helping young people see this.

Let’s wake up.

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