Time and Place
The pandemic has forced the school system to adapt to the “stay home” order. The system was unprepared for such a rapid change and it is certainly challenging a system that has been largely based upon ‘time’ and ‘place’. There is no playbook for teachers to follow. Parents are frustrated at a system that may have teachers doing their best but that may not be meeting the needs of their children or the desires of society. However, all does not have to be lost! I believe that every crisis brings opportunity. This crisis is no different. We have an opportunity to, using a Tom Peter’s term, “re-imagine” the system.
In our traditional, still industrial model, we required students to be in a specific place for a specified amount of time. Because of the pandemic both conditions have been removed and yet the government and their educational partners are assuring students they will be successful at the end of the traditional school year. Even the concept of the school “year” is based upon the old agricultural model when the young people were needed in the fields in the summer. If students can be successful in this pandemic, why do we continue to base the system so heavily on ‘time’ and ‘place’?
Tom Peter’s used the term ‘Re-imagine’ for a title of one of his books and recently Andrew Cuomo said New York needs to ‘re-imagine’ how things are done in the state so they emerge from the pandemic better than they were. Surely this would also be a good thing for the school system to do.
I had a teacher call me one Friday night during the closure at 10:30pm. This was an individual whom I had taught in a Masters’ program 15 years ago. I hadn’t heard from him in 3 or 4 years but he was so excited by a lesson he had taught online that day that he had to tell someone whom he thought might appreciate it. He was so inspired and an hour later we were still talking about new possibilities for delivering education when things return to the ‘new’ normal. This teacher is 54 years old, less than five years from retirement, and his enthusiasm was boundless. If he can be so excited, think of the kind of inspiration that could be ignited throughout the system.
Plato said: “necessity is the mother of invention.” The pandemic necessitated closing schools and petri dishes of creativity are springing up throughout the education system. Teachers, out of necessity, must find ways to connect with the students to assist them with their acquisition of knowledge and skills. At present the approaches are individual and random with varying degrees of success. The question is: how can we harness this creativity and then systematize it in a way that truly re-imagines the system so that students are receiving a better education than before. We are demonstrating that ‘time’ and ‘place’ do not need to be the fundamental pillars that freeze schooling into a past age. We have a golden opportunity to move into a renaissance of education---a new awakening that benefits all those involved as well as our society in general.
I think we always knew that school buildings were only one place that children learned. In fact, it is likely more learning takes place outside of school than ever did within it. My grandchildren learn amazing things in Grandma’s kitchen. Students who work part-time jobs learn so much in whatever role for which they are hired. Community sports and arts provide another learning experience for the children. So many resources exist that may provide alternatives to the school building. The pandemic has removed children from the traditional school building, it has made the teacher’s role move towards that of a guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage, and it has forced parents to be more intimately involved in their children’s learning. Children ARE LEARNING and they are not in a school building!
One of my grandchildren’s teacher sent each of her grade one students some seeds. Brilliant! This set into motion a series of learnings that will carry on until each plant bears fruit. Cody (my grandson) had to read the package. He had to think of where they would germinate best. Then his Dad had to help him build a little planter box and acquire some pots. Cody had to follow instructions to plant the seeds including learning the math of measuring depth and distance. Now, Cody is learning how to tend the garden, a whole new level of responsibility. He better understands the meaning of seasons and how food is produced. Cody has taken pictures of his “garden” and sent them to his teacher with a little note in French. (Did I mention he is in French immersion). Think of all the learning taking place without having to be in a building. No reason why a similar activity cannot be used at the secondary level to teach some of the concepts of biology such as photosynthesis and plant morphology.
The second underlying feature of our current system is ‘time’. In our current practice curriculum delivery is broken into specified time slots when we clearly know that students learn at different rates in different ways. But time is a good way to organize the day and the teachers’ assignments. Cody had no defined slot of time when he had to do his garden as such a lesson would have if it were in a classroom. He is a child who loves the outdoors and nature and does not like sitting for long periods of time (like lots of young boys), so this manner of learning was very well suited to him.
At the secondary level the bell often rings when particular students are totally immersed in a subject and yet they must simply abandon the topic and move to another room and another subject because ‘time’ is the primary factor in determining their application to a topic. The pandemic has removed the element of ‘time’ and for many students this has been a beneficial change. All educators know that children learn at different rates yet we fail to apply this knowledge to our methodology. Time to re-imagine!
Another area to re-imagine is the content of schooling. Again, in this pandemic, certain subjects are not covered by the kinds of assignments given online. For example, physical education as we know it in schools is not being delivered at home. However, when I was out on my morning walk, grandson Cody was out for a bike ride with his Dad. Cody was loving it and he told me he had already done his exercises. Grandpa looked surprised but he explained that each day he used You Tube to follow along in a children’s exercise class. Expertise brought right into his home! He also told me that he was getting his exercise doing a particular chore his parents had assigned each day of the week. So not only was this little guy getting exercise, but he was learning responsibility---a critical lesson for every child’s future. I believe Cody is getting better physical education than he would have in his time restricted activity class in school. I also walked by the house of a friend who has two daughters at the secondary level. One was in the driveway, with her tablet in front of her, doing fitness and basketball drills as demonstrated in the video. Her sister, a skilled soccer player, was doing dribbling and shooting drills in the front yard.
So, do we need formal physical education classes in schools? This is not to suggest that physical fitness should not be a strong component of every child’s education. After all, if we are to improve society’s health outcomes improved physical fitness must be a part of that. But if we re-imagined physical fitness does it have to be in our current schooling paradigm?
In this case, I would like to use myself as an example. I grew up in a small smelter town in British Columbia, known as the City of Champions, so you know sports was a big part of the community. Everyone participated in sports and those that could not afford the fee or equipment, the community covered. Unfortunately, I was not particularly athletic and a significant injury at the age of 14 resulted in my being restricted from any physical education classes in secondary school. However, I was keen on sports, so I joined the school curling club. This was the largest club in the school and yet only met on Saturday mornings at the local curling rink. I also used my paper route earnings to buy a used set of golf clubs and played on the local nine hole course. (Golf remains my passion and, as an aging retiree, I continue to play two or three times a week). I stayed fit without the classes because as an air cadet I had to follow the 5BX fitness plan at home. I took NO physical education classes in secondary school and my life has not suffered because of that.
So, let’s re-imagine this subject alone. The most important outcome of PE is to develop a desire for life-long fitness. The Ministry could identify appropriate You Tube videos for each grade from grade 5 to 12 enabling a student to undertake stretching and exercises each day. The student should then identify a cardio activity that they will do each day which could be anything from walking to running or ice hockey to swimming. A daily online log would be maintained and could be examined by an evaluator at any time. A confirming parent’s signature could be required daily on those children under the age of 14. High school sports such as soccer, football, volleyball, softball and baseball, rugby, grass hockey and swimming are typically duplicated in the community so why not turn this recreation over to the community. With school gyms freed, the community could take them over, as they do currently in the evenings, and offer recreational opportunities to the community for all ages throughout the entire day. This would be a particular benefit to the community in the winter months.
PE teachers, who all graduated with a second teaching major, are now freed up to reduce the class sizes in the academic areas as will be required by social distancing. Or, these individuals could be hired by the recreation commission to offer their programs thereby reducing costs in the school system. Thus, we have removed the foundation of ‘place’ that has frozen our ability to think of a youth’s physical development. In addition, we have not limited PE to a one hour class thereby removing the other foundational factor of ‘time’ which restricts our ability to ‘re-imagine’.
I am sure better minds than mine could ‘re-imagine’ instruction in the arts (music, drama and art) in a similar manner that used and infused the community arts scene. These areas should always be a part of a student’s learning as that is the way we create a cultured society. Students would be interacting with all age levels in their local community and gaining a true understanding of community. The ways these programs can be offered are only restricted by our inability to imagine!
Secondary schools could become a center that focused on academics and technology. The pandemic is going to require smaller classes to satisfy health requirements. This could mean such strategies as school shifts, partial daily attendance, alternate daily attendance, remote learning, teachers rather than students moving from class to class, or any combination thereof. We should be examining them all! BC schools in the past have operated on four-day weeks with one grade level in a secondary school not attending on one designated weekday. Research studies of these schools determined that test results improved or remained the same as when the students attended all five days. Clearly, we can remove specified ‘time’ as a constant for learning.
A suggestion has just arisen from the Weizmann Institute of Science. The model is based upon a combination of mathematics and epidemiology and is specifically designed for this pandemic. It is called the 4/10 model and is based upon four days of attendance followed by 10 days of lockdown. It can work both at the workplace to keep the economy functioning and the school to maintain some face to face education while protecting us from community spread. It would likely bring great comfort to those parents who are very anxious about their children returning to school. The model can be viewed here: http://www.weizmann.ac.il/WeizmannCompass/sections/video/a-science-based-exit-strategy-for-covid-19.
We have seen schools closed for at least two months and most teachers have done yeoman’s service in maintaining learning remotely. While the quality has certainly varied, we have proven that school does not have to be defined by ‘place’. What is needed is a more systematized and consistent approach so that quality is guaranteed. The Ministry could identify specified platforms and online resources that can be universally available. The province can ensure equity of access to connectivity and technology so students have the tools they need for teachers to deliver excellence to every student. The pandemic proved that remote learning can play a significant role in the ‘re-imagined’ learning. Let’s not just return to our old ways!!
While we are re-imagining, we should consider some additions to the curriculum as well. Create some ‘short’ courses that cover topics vital to every student in the system. They should be related to key life skills that we all need and begin at a young age. For example, a basic look at nutrition which might save on health spending. Perhaps a ‘how to’ on finances such as how to make a budget and how to save and invest. Another short course on ethics and integrity because students see too much corruption and cynicism in our current system. My grandson, Colin, aged 9, is like a sponge when he watches You Tube videos and most of the short courses could be covered by watching a list of these videos. For example here is an excellent example on nutrition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Orj7p3KQcyQ
Again, we have this opportunity to re-think, to improve and to create new ways for the new normal. Let’s not waste it. These are just a few of the areas we can re-imagine but the potential is limitless and NOW is the time. The current pandemic is disrupting every aspect of life. For those expecting to go back to “normal”, history proves this does not happen. Whatever the result following this experience, “normal” as we know it is gone forever. This is especially true for schools. We must improve the hygiene practices and habits of children. Social distancing will be with us for a significant period of time. This alone will require a new approach to scheduling and housing children, remembering part of what schools provide is a safe environment for children. Remote learning is being shown to work. Teachers must develop their skills in using technology and even the way we evaluate progress during this shutdown will illuminate future practice. We have a chance to evaluate what are the critical outcomes that a student must have and time to evaluate if some learnings can be done on the students own and in their own time.
This paper suggests ‘time’ and ‘place’ should not play the restrictive role they currently do in determining a student’s path to education. It also suggests the pandemic has provided some of the answers as teachers have been forced to experiment with alternate delivery methods. Let’s use this experience and this time to re-imagine ways of ensuring we come out of the pandemic with an improved system that better serves all students’ needs. My fear is that the examination will just be restricted to when students are in schools instead of planning and building a better model for the re-opening!! We can do better, we can initiate the creation of a whole new set of practices and curricular requirements. My grandchildren deserve no less!!
©July 10,2020. Dr. Doug Player