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What Are We Learning?

Someone once said: “If you’re not learning, you’re not living.” Or, as I am prone to say, “If you’re not learning, you’re not paying attention.”

2020 has been a year that has forced us to pay attention to things we never imagined being exposed to. Simultaneously, we have been thrust into new ways of “living.” So, it follows that we must be learning a few things from our experiences. The question is “what?”

What are we learning?

We’ve learned, or at least have been reminded, that we are all connected and that we each bear both the privilege and the burden of responsibility for the welfare of others in our community.

We’re learning that catastrophic things can happen when people decide that the rules don’t apply to them and set off pursuing their personal agendas, ignoring the evidence of science and the pleas of officials.

We’re learning that when we put our metaphoric “shoulders to the wheel,” we can accomplish a lot. For instance, bringing effective vaccines to market in a matter of months, instead of years.

We’re learning that isolation is hard.

We’re learning how to get creative when it comes to safely celebrating secular and religious holidays.

We’ve learned that Zoom is both a proper noun and a verb.

We’ve learned that kids really need their schools. For a litany of reasons both social and academic, children benefit from the brilliant opportunity of a free and appropriate education. We know this because we can observe the academic decline among some students, and the overwhelming sense of loss from most, as they have been deprived of it. Please don’t get me wrong. Teachers, administrators, school districts and systems have been doing their best to engage their students in some semblance of meaningful learning. But, I hear from teachers that they are utterly exhausted from their efforts and that they genuinely miss the face-to-face interactions with their students. And, I think they all quietly know that distance learning is a poor and inadequate substitute for the rich interpersonal experience of a classroom.

I find myself equally concerned about what we are failing to learn about schools, schooling, instruction and learning. I’ve written many posts previously about this concern. To this point, I refer my readers to a series of articles I wrote in May and June of this year around the concept of “Re-Imagining Our Schools.” They are all archived on my website: My biggest worry is what we’ll see when it is deemed safe to return to classroom-based instruction. I fear that desks will be placed in rows, textbooks will again serve the role of primary reference, and we’ll resume the traditional routine of lectures and passive learning in teacher dominated classrooms. That would be a shame because it would indicate that we haven’t learned some important lessons about education during this imposed pause; lessons that are staring us in the face.

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Albert Einstein said that, and was he ever right. No one asked for the pandemic experience that would upend virtually every enterprise and activity for nine months and counting. We’ve had to make do and improvise. That has certainly been true in public eduction. With the flip of a switch, the school house doors slammed shut and learning was reassigned to a small screen poised on the kitchen table. It’s been a trying and difficult experience for many children and their families, and we’ll see that the overall success of this experiment will be uneven. It’s given us a lot to grouse and complain about, with good reason. It certainly qualifies as “the middle of difficulty.”

You’ll note that Einstein did not say that opportunity is guaranteed during challenging times. Rather, he suggested that there may be a chance of opportunity if we look for it, if we grasp it. So often, that’s how the sequences in life occur. When we’re in the midst of a storm, we miss out if we fail to ponder the circumstances and consider the lessons that may be imbedded within the situation. Public education leaders and practitioners have such an opportunity; an opportunity to take deliberate steps to improve instructional practices and the outcomes for kids. But, only if they have the will, the courage, to seize it.

As horrible as everything surrounding the pandemic has been, there is a tiny bright spot. Time. Time away from the pace of daily routines. Time to reflect. Time to scrutinize current practices and move toward improvement. Time to plan what school will look like when the doors reopen, to better assure an education that kids deserve, and require, to fulfill their potential and promise.

Time to learn.

What are we learning?

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