We have a compelling opportunity, in the midst of two pandemics (public health and social justice), to make sure our public schools are better when they reopen than they were before. With that opportunity comes a litany of challenges. Among them, how do we keep kids and staff safe with recommended social distancing within structures that don’t offer much in the way of flexibility.
One solution to this dilemma is to think outside of the box. Literally, think outside of the box, as in physical boundaries. Let’s explore this a bit. After all, . . .
School is not necessarily a building. Rather, school is a place where learning occurs.
Quoting Albert Einstein - “I never teach my students: I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Now consider what he didn’t say. He didn’t mention laboratory equipment, technologies, text books, supporting materials, desks or white boards. He didn’t make any reference to cubicles with doors. Rather, he broadly states the need to “provide the conditions” for learning. Socrates also did some impressive teaching. He didn’t have a classroom or a formal setting. Instead, he taught as he and his students wandered the hills around Athens. Thinking outside of the box makes it simple to conclude that a place where learning occurs can be anywhere. In fact, it suggests that a place where learning occurs should be everywhere.
So, what if we were deliberate about moving instruction, moving learning, (at least some of it) beyond the confines of classrooms? What if the student’s community became their learning space? Could that ease some crowding and partially address the conundrum of social distancing due to our public health emergency? And, what if we tailored the curriculum to coincide with the issues that are significant to the students themselves, acting on the issues of the social justice pandemic. Could we address and satisfy learning targets and standards? Absolutely. Might student learning be more relevant to their interests and concerns? You bet. We can simultaneously accomplish both. Considering such a step holds the potential to significantly enhance the depth and quality of learning.
Let’s peek at some data reported by the Coalition for Community Schools, Community-Based Learning: Engaging Students for Success and Citizenship (2006). Here’s some of their cited data:
Ninety-five percent of students polled (ages thirteen to nineteen) said opportunities for more real world learning would improve their school experience.
Ninety-two percent of adults (including teachers) favored emphasizing real world learning in schools including work study, community service, and vocational courses.
Sixty-four percent of adults strongly advocated emphasizing real world learning. (Educational Testing Service)
Seventy percent of teachers strongly advocated emphasizing real world learning. (Educational Testing Service)
“Despite these facts, public schools have not pursued large scale efforts to bridge the gap between living and learning. While many schools reach out to community partners for resources, services, and support, far fewer take advantage of opportunities for students to learn outside the classroom walls—through participation in community life.”
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills suggests that not effectively pursuing efforts to bridge that gap between living and learning will have this result: “. . .the education system faces irrelevance.” They define literacy as “not just reading, writing, and computing skills, but knowing how to use knowledge and skills in the context of modern life.”
“How do students live?” That’s the first suggestion to be considered. Currently, they live and exist by what is available to them in their assigned zip code. There is little equity in that. It’s by understanding the second question, “how do they learn?” that we can begin leveling the playing field and assuring degrees of equity. If you are (were) a classroom teacher with 29 young souls seated before you, the answer has 29 variations. No two kids learn in the same way. That would be contrary to question one. More importantly, it emphasizes what we should be moving away from: a “one size fits all” approach, striving instead for one that suggests that the dots of how students live and how students learn can be connected. It’s uneven. It’s frequently wonky. In many situations it’s privileged. In other realities it’s marginalized. Overall, for all kids, it’s limiting. Understanding how students live and learn is paramount in understanding what will make their learning experiences relevant. Not knowing the answers to these two questions is a system failure.
Be reminded. This is an opportunity. One that we have but a single chance to get right.
If we were to take even some of our instructional activity beyond the confines of the classroom, we might want to consider community-based learning as a strategy worthy of consideration. The Glossary of School Reform defines it this way. “Community-based learning refers to a wide variety of instructional methods and programs that educators use to connect what is being taught in schools to their surrounding communities, including local institutions, history, literature, cultural heritage, and natural environments. Community-based learning is also motivated by the belief that all communities have intrinsic educational assets and resources that educators can use to enhance learning experiences for students.” Again, looking at the report from the Coalition for Community Schools, “ . . .community-based learning helps students acquire, practice, and apply subject matter knowledge and skills. At the same time, students develop the knowledge, skills, and attributes of effective citizenship by identifying and acting on issues and concerns that affect their own communities. When implemented thoughtfully, these strategies create a pedagogy of engagement. Students invest time and attention and expend real effort because their learning has meaning and purpose.”
Let’s read that last sentence again. “Students invest time and attention and expend real effort because their learning has meaning and purpose.”
I close with this final question. Isn’t an education rich in meaning and purpose what we strive for? After all, that’s the education kids (all kids) deserve.