Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Coronavirus will change everything! (Spoiler: not really)

The past month has been one of upheaval for every aspect of our world.  As people have retreated into quarantine, businesses have closed, and life has moved online, everyone has tried to figure out how to remain positive, sane, and solvent for what is still an undetermined amount of time.  Education has been impacted along with everyone else, with the rapid popularity of Zoom and other video-conferencing tools allowing many classes to continue while teachers and students are confined to their homes.  Teachers at all levels of comfort with technology have figured out how to reconfigure their lessons, and administrators have been working with their faculties to figure out how to alter academic expectations and maintain a sense of normality and stability for their students.

As would be expected, there has also been a surfeit of articles and blogposts about how this is going to change education forever.  Often based on the tired complaint that our current system of education was designed during the industrial revolution and has not changed much since*, these writers posit that now that people have been shown that everyone can teach online, teachers will be forced by mass pressure to radically change their method of instruction.

*To my mind, this complaint is a lazy one.  It is generally stated that whole-class frontal instruction was created to help mass-produce students who all knew the same thing, and that such an approach should be thrown out because we have now discovered new and exciting and more effective ways to teach.  It ignores the fact that some of those new ways require more teachers and other resources, and thus cost more, as well as the fact that every generation has put forth its educational panaceas that do not always stick (open schools, anyone?).  On top of that, there are innovations from the industrial revolution which are still essentially with us, such as the assembly line, but have been tweaked and improved over time.  Whole class frontal teaching is not always the most effective approach for each individual student, but it can be very effective if done properly and with an appropriate mix of other instructional methodologies.

Leaving aside the fact that our schools today are a far cry from the schools of even thirty years ago in terms of instructional methodology, awareness of and sensitivity to the differing academic, social, and mental needs of students, and even curricular goals, what I think the past month has really shown is that online teaching may be a substitute for content delivery, but fails miserably in replacing school.  Even for content delivery, younger students (definitely below grade 6, and even for some at that age and older) often do not have the independence or the patience to sit in front of a screen and focus on a lesson for more than twenty minutes at a time, a few times per day.  Several high schools in my area initially tried replicating their 8-9 hours of instruction online and quickly retreated, realizing that there is only so much that students can handle virtually.  College professors who pontificate about the future of education being online should realize that they are working with twenty year-old students who take about 12 hours of class per week even when they are on campus, not ten year-olds who restlessly manage to complete 6 hours of schooling every day.

More important is the fact that attending school is not just about acquiring content knowledge.  Zoom cannot replace the mentorship and guidance that teachers give during the two minutes walking from one class to another, during lunch and recess breaks, and during a million other "stolen" moments of time during the school year; Google Hangouts does not replace actually hanging out with your friends by your locker or on the bus; FaceTime is not the same as face time.  As my teacher Rabbi Yehuda Amital once said, "You can make a robot that does everything a mother does, but what kind of a child will you have?"  Our students may still be acquiring some knowledge, but they are losing out on much of the human connection that helps to make the learning process richer, deeper, and ultimately more lasting.

Eventually, we will be able to return to our schools and to resume our full complement of classes and programs.  Will there be lessons learned and a million small changes made as a result of our time teaching from a distance?  Undoubtedly there will be.  But perhaps the most significant changes will be an increased appreciation - by teachers, students, and parents alike - that education is first and foremost a people business, and that it is the personal connections that we form and nurture on a daily basis that are the real secret of the success in education.