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The Pandemic Has Shown Us Where Real Learning Happens

Going forward, schools could be totally different. Time to ‘interrogate the old myths’ of education.

Nick Smith 3 Jun

Nick Smith is a veteran public school teacher who lives on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. You can find him on Twitter here.

The B.C. class of 2020 will be the first to graduate under an innovative new curriculum that has rolled out in front of them, one year at a time. The shift, from learning content to developing competencies, is massive, and at this point, mostly unrealized.

To me, the new curriculum feels like a visionary architectural plan handed to a crew trained in old methods and without new materials. Its authors knew that the required cultural shift would span a decade or more.


Unless there was a global emergency which cancelled all classes and forced everyone to question how we can educate our youth in a completely different way. That would speed things up. A lot.

Anyone who has ever had to move house knows that it’s best to use the opportunity to purge and declutter, taking only what is most valuable and necessary. Since going through one’s stuff takes effort, what often happens is that everything is packed up with the good intention to sort the pile on the other end.

What if the stars have aligned with the Education Ministry handing us a set of charter documents for the coming revolution that say that we don’t need to take our textbooks, classrooms, courses, grades or school timetables into the fall?

What if we invoke Marie Kondo here, pick up each one of these structures, then ask, “Does this bring me joy?”

What if we accept the gift of a few weeks in June to determine what will continue to serve us well and what we no longer need?

We could then thank the tests, the report cards, and so on, for serving their purposes, before tenderly placing each into the dustbin of history.

Recently I caught up with Rod Allen, a former assistant deputy B.C. minister of education who was one of the chief architects of the new curriculum. His advice for how to best use the few remaining weeks of the school year is to have students design what the fall will look like with the help of parents and teachers.

He suggested that it’s time to “interrogate the old myths” about education, such as the idea that all real learning takes place in a classroom, that students should progress based on their birthdates, that marks and credits are the only methods for motivating students, and that supervised written tests are the most valid means of assessment.

Allen reminded me that “there is a lot of good learning going on right now” for students who are helping around the house with gardening and cooking or working on projects. He said that we need to ask kids and parents what worked when schools were closed, and we need to ask them what they missed about school during that time.

We spoke about the potential second wave of COVID-19 that could hit later this year. He said that in the fall “students will need something more flexible, where they have more agency over their time and schedule.”

When I asked him what this might look like, he pointed me towards City-As-School in New York City, where students complete their high school requirements through a personalized mixture of class work, internships and portfolio-building.

He said that in this model, school serves as a kind of “base camp.” Students go into the real world to practise skills and then come back to school to learn more, get feedback from teachers, make plans, bounce ideas off their peers and, finally, celebrate their achievements.

In this system, teachers are mentors, coaches and “architects of rich experiences.” It’s the teacher’s job to help students relate their own experiences to curricular outcomes, he said.

Teachers can only do that when they know their students well. Allen said that in the past few months, teachers have been getting to know their students through phone calls and videoconferencing in ways that they hadn’t before. “Should we ignore that?” he asked.

So, when time at school is limited and precious, how should we use it? We know we shouldn’t use it for delivering content, whether that is reading a book, watching a video or listening to a lecture. We can do all of those more effectively online.

At a recent conference, Alec Couros from the University of Regina said, “We overestimate the value of access to information and underestimate the value of access to each other.”

Allen extends this when he says that schools are places for social and emotional connections. When in school, students and teachers should be spending their time engaging in dialogue with one another.

I know what always kept me going to school was seeing my friends, especially outside of class.

That I didn’t do well in school comes as a surprise to many who know me as a high school teacher for the past 27 years. As a youngster, as soon as I learned that I wasn’t required to excel but only pass, I grabbed that rule and used it like a staff to plod through, grade-by-grade.

Sometime in late elementary school, my class was given a standardized test. Knowing that it wouldn’t show up on any official report, I had nothing to lose in giving it my best. It turned out that getting the highest mark in the class, while being the lowest-achieving student, was not a wise move. My parents were called in and I was berated for not meeting my potential. I learned my lesson. Keep your head down and don’t attract attention.

Graduating from high school without post-secondary plans, I ended up going on Katimavik, a robust, Canadian institution in the mid ‘80s. Soon after meeting my ragtag group of representative Canadian youth in Lethbridge, Alta., I was assigned to a volunteer position at a nearby agricultural research station. Within a few weeks, I got a handle on measuring the chemical composition of soil samples so that I could be given instructions in the morning then left alone in the lab for the rest of the day.

On our next rotation in Vaudreuil, Que., I worked at a museum putting together exhibits. Since I was the only anglophone at the museum, I had to learn French in order to communicate and do my job. By design, four of my housemates were francophones and became handy teachers who never gave tests or assigned grades.

Earlier this year, my younger son found himself in a situation where he had finished his high school graduation requirements a semester early in order to take part in a carpentry program, which was cancelled at the last minute. Since we had heard that Katimavik, long dormant, was being revived, we looked into it as an option for his final semester. By early January, he was off to Moncton, N.B., to volunteer with refugees from North Africa.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, he had to return home in late March. While away, he had chosen a new educational path that will require him to take two extra high school courses online after he graduates. He was also offered a spot to resume Katimavik starting in mid-July. Given the choice of earning credentials or learning for its own sake, it was no contest. Katimavik it will be: Chemistry 11 and 12 will have to wait.

Rod Allen said to me, “When kids are doing work that matters, in community, and it has consequences in the real world, they tend to do spectacular.” He then asked rhetorically: “Do all kids need to be in a classroom all of the time? I don’t think so.”

It’s time to bring our students together to thank that classroom myth for serving its purpose, before it takes its final bow upon the stage and is heard no more.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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