Re-imagining school

Everyone had to do something different this semester. School wasn’t school-as-we-knew-it since the middle of March. Now school’s out. Or at least the school calendar has ended around here, I suppose there are a few weeks of difference across the state. But we are close enough to graduation for most folks to say that school is out for the summer. And speaking of something different, graduations across the land have taken on different forms, and even if they adhered to old models, those models had to be updated due to the pandemic.

Other than the presence of computers, a walk through a typical high school classroom in today’s world will look familiar. Schools haven’t changed much. The factory model is still alive and the machinery chugs along stamping out parts from 8:00 to 3:00 before the final bell. It’s a top-down system that views students as wards (in loco parentis) and not as clients.

I suspect most folks want to think about the upcoming fall semester as “back to normal.” And I suppose, if we get a handle on the virus, that could happen. There’d be football and dances and thirty kids stuffed into a poorly-ventilated classroom getting a lecture on economics. And kids failing algebra. You know, the usual stuff.

I think the COVID-19 crisis could be an opportunity to re-think schooling. Why does it have to be the same as before? I’m not an anarchist—I don’t want to tear things down. But it is pretty obvious that much of our school structure is obsolete and in need of serious up-dating.

This is the 21st century. We need creative, think-outside-the-box people. Herding kids like cattle and running them from room to room every 57 minutes is not conducive to creativity, that much I know! And too many bright young people are turned off by school and have a hard time finding a fit. They are square pegs in a sea of round holes and the system often fails them. In college, you design your own schedule and chose your own hours. Many college students have to work or have other responsibilities (much like many high-schoolers) and they can do that because they aren’t forced to be in the same damn seat at the same damn time every damn day.

Many parents have opted for homeschooling and charter schools because they allow more flexible schedules and more personalized learning. There’s no reason why all schools can’t do the same things. Clearly on-line learning is here to stay. Just as clearly it cannot replace in-person learning. But it can certainly complement it! Much of the ordinary BS of schooling (curricular materials, syllabuses, instructions, calendars, deadlines, blah-blah-blah) can be taken care of without actually attending. Imagine that! Much schoolwork can be done without being in a classroom. When kids come to class, they should do things they need to be in class for, not stuff they can do on their own.

In chemistry we had labs. Those are great times to get together and do something the school is uniquely equipped to do. And the discussion afterwards needs lots of time for give-and-take. You can’t do that as well over Zoom. You need the personal contact, especially with younger kids.

You can learn a lot of Spanish with workbooks and apps and all the things out there accessible to anyone. But having a real-life conversation with a fluent speaker, who can guide you towards your own mastery, that’s the kind of thing you get in a classroom.

I’m sure you can think of many other examples, those are just a few quick thoughts.

We have a chance to make schooling more open, more democratic, and more individualized. We can stick with the 19th-century institution we currently have, and do what we’ve always done which is tweak it a little here and there, or we can create something better. Don’t you think?

4 thoughts on “Re-imagining school

  1. Just got word that my BME5, Intro to Biotechnology course at UCSC will be remote next Fall quarter. I think that is GREAT! It is much easier for me to teach from my home office and it went pretty smoothly this past quarter (with a few road bumps). The students seemed to take to it well. I especially liked how they pitched in to help each other over chat. Yes, it is a new world. I would never have imagined myself teaching remotely. Now that it has been forced on me, I’ve gotta say, I like it!


  2. I agree – the thing I really missed the most with distance learning was our in-class discussions. It’s just not the same on Zoom. I would like to see changes to the bums in seats, herded-by-the-bell methodology currently in place. We could begin with more flexible schedules – I think that’s doable. Christian Birch and I used to talk about how we could do an outdoor school. What would my English class look like? Reading & story telling (like hot dogs) seem better when you’re out camping. I’ve been increasingly frustrated over the past several years with the students I don’t feel I’m serving very well. Maybe, since I’m retiring in December I can devote more time/energy to possible solutions/alternatives.


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