the future of schooling post-coronavirus

I have been asked to present some issues on the future of schooling post-covid for a group of educators in Australia in early September. Any feedback to this post would be appreciated.

In my research on schooling, I have found that the education system is a lagging indicator. First technology, business, and society change, and then formal education aligns with them. So I will try to see what is changing outside the school system and how that will affect schooling.

The one-room school house represented the agrarian landscape of North America. It transformed into the modern public school with divided grades and several classrooms when good roads and motor vehicles arrived. For example, in our town, there is an abandoned one-room school about 12 KM from the current regional high school with several hundred students. But that road was not plowed in Winter until the 1950’s, so even that short distance was impossible to travel on a daily basis. Now this school serves several small communities and students travel by bus and car for the most part. Physical distancing requirements under the pandemic are now a new consideration on what is the best technology to ‘deliver’ students or to ‘deliver’ education.

Most of our 20th century public education systems were created to give equal access to all citizens (a good thing) and to prepare workers for industrial jobs (a self-serving thing for the industrialists). Public education was embraced by reformers as well as factory owners. It was a shotgun wedding. Has the pandemic changed this arrangement? Is a standard curriculum delivered in a single location what reformers and business would still want?

When I went to school, 50 years ago, school started at 9:00 AM. Now in most places here, school starts at 08:30 AM and students can arrive even earlier. Schools 50 years ago could start later because most families had a stay-at-home mother, while the father went to work. Now with both parents working, or in single parent families, it is more convenient for the entire family to leave home at the same time. Since most workplaces start at 8:30 AM, school reflects this practice.

Today, many companies have decided to continue to work from home for the next year and even permanently, like Twitter and Google. The US recreational equipment cooperative, REI, has decided to sell its headquarters campus even before finishing it, and focus on working from home for most of its non-retail staff. As more parents work from home, will there be pressure on schools to allow for more flexible schooling options?

Most people have seen what schooling from home looks like now — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Will the underlying principles of ‘delivering’ curriculum be questioned by more parents? Is a six-hour class day, plus homework, really necessary for learning?

Here is a thought about the delivery model, from management expert, Peter Drucker, written in 1998.

“Delivering literacy — even on the high level appropriate to a knowledge society — will be an easier task than giving students the capacity and the knowledge to keep on learning, and the desire to do it. No school system has yet tackled that job. There is an old Latin tag: Non schola sed vita discimus (We don’t learn for school but for life). But neither teacher nor student has ever taken it seriously. Indeed, except for professional schools — medicine, law, engineering, business — no school to the best of my knowledge has even tried to find out what its students have learned. We compile voluminous records of examination results. But l know of no school that tests the graduates ten years later on what they still know of the subjects — whether mathematics, a foreign Language, or history — in which they got such wonderful marks.

We do know, however, how people learn how to learn. In fact, we have known it for two thousand years. The first and wisest writer on raising small children, the great Greek biographer and historian Plutarch, spelled it out in a charming little book, Paidea (Raising Children), in the first century of the Christian era. All it requires is to make learners achieve. All it requires is to focus on the strengths and talents of learners so that they excel in whatever it is they do well. Any teacher of young artists — musicians, actors, painters — knows this. So does any teacher of young athletes. But schools do not do it. They focus instead on a learner’s weaknesses. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, even on corrected ones; one can build performance only on strengths. And these the schools traditionally ignore, in fact, consider more or less irrelevant. Strengths do not create problems — and schools are problem-focused.” —Peter Drucker (1998) Adventures of a Bystander

Perhaps this pandemic will give us a chance to question the underlying premises of our education systems. This is an opportunity for all educators. For instance, according to Professor Kieran Egan, in The Educated Mind, three premises compete for attention in most of our public education systems:

  1. education as socialization
  2. education as a quest for truth (Plato)
  3. education as the realization of individual potential (Rousseau)

But no single premise can dominate without weakening the others, so we continue to have conflict in our education systems. When one dominates, then the others get less attention. We see this in every single flavour-of-the-year initiative from departments of education. Egan also explains that these premises are no longer valid in this network era.

“Socialization to generally agreed norms and values that we have inherited is no longer straightforwardly viable in modern multicultural societies undergoing rapid technology-driven changes. The Platonic program comes with ideas about reaching a transcendent truth or privileged knowledge that is no longer credible. The conception of individual development we have inherited is based on a belief in some culture-neutral process that is no longer sustainable.” —Kieran Egan

So what should be the underlying premises of public education in a globally networked society that may have to remain periodically socially isolated and physically distanced, as well as for future pandemics?

Perhaps we can learn from the past, and get beyond the European traditions of our education systems. When we teach through modelling behaviour, the learner is in control, whereas teaching by shaping behaviour means the teacher is in control. In Western society, shaping has been the dominant mode for a very long time. But in other societies, it has not been the norm.

For example, Dr. Clare Brant (PDF) was the first Indigenous psychiatrist in Canada and a professor of Psychiatry at University of Western Ontario. In 1982 he presented Mi’kmaq Ethics & Principles, which included an examination of the differences in teaching between native and non-native cultures.

Now the Teaching; Shaping Vs. Modelling

“This is a more technical kind of thing. The white people use this method of teaching their children – it’s called ‘shaping’. Whereas the Indians use ‘modelling’. Shaping is B.F. Skinner’s ‘Operant Conditioning’, if you want to look into that one. Say a white person is teaching a white kid how to dress – he uses the shaping method, one way being “rewarding successive approximations” of the behaviour he wants. Some are really complicated; for instance, if a white woman wants to teach her kid how to dress, she puts his sock on halfway and encourages him to pull it up, finishes dressing him and says he’s a good boy having done that much. The next day he learns to pull the whole sock on, then the other sock. Now that process takes about six weeks.

But the white mother who does not have all that much to do can take that time to do that sort of thing every morning to teach her kid how to dress. So in this group that we ran, with these young Native people in London, we started to sniff this out, and there is nothing random about this, as a matter of fact. I asked Mary, a Native person, how she taught her kid to dress and she said, ‘I didn’t, he just did it.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ It came to me that she did it until he was four or five years old, and then one day when the kid felt competent, he took over and did it himself. He did it then ever after, unless he was sick or regressed in some way.”

Brant concludes this section by stating:

“I’ve been having some collaboration with a professor of education, and he says that modelling is the best way to teach people. But shaping is the method that has to be used because there is so much information that has to be imparted in the system that you cannot use modelling. I suppose that the ultimate method would be for the teacher to go up to the blackboard and do algebraic equations for 7 or 8 months and invite one of the kids to come join him and do one with him and maybe if one of the kids got interested, or knew how to do it, he could start solving the algebraic equation. But that’s not going to happen in the school system. There’s just not enough time.”

With a standardized curriculum and constant testing, there is never enough time for most school students to fully learn. There is too much information and much of it is without context. But mastery often comes from modelling. It is how the apprentice becomes a journeyman and in time a master. It is not done in isolation. Are there opportunities — especially online — for more learning in communities of practice, and not based on classes and courses?

Shaping worked when our environment was seen as complicated (knowable), but it really is  complex (understandable only through continuous probing) and this is becoming obvious with our global challenges. As knowledge expands and new information is constantly added, what teacher even has the base knowledge to do the shaping anyway? In our digitally networked world, modelling how to learn is a better strategy than shaping on a predefined curriculum.

This pandemic has given us the opportunity to re-examine the foundational pillars of education in a meta-modern society. Should we go back to the old systems and just hope that society will be resilient enough to face the next pandemic, climate change, and whatever else comes our way? What can be changed in view of what covid-19 has already taught us?

My first school (Grades 1 — 7) in Albert Canyon, BC, Canada, c. mid-1960s

7 Responses to “the future of schooling post-coronavirus”

  1. Ian Gardner

    Whilst many organisations are accepting that WFH is possible (and preferable for some job types) I suspect the pressure will be on the system to return mostly “as was” so that schools can provide their function as state supplied childcare. Thus ignoring any arguments over what may be possible educationally.

    Certainly, many of the people I know who were/are keenest to return to their place of work are those that found balancing WFH with entertaining the kids difficult.

    I would hope that within that remit of childcare the schools can then be more imaginative with what that might look like in terms of a school day – for example, more cross-subject projects, etc. However, it will remain the case that activity outside of those hours (sports, clubs, reading, etc) is just as important as what is done during – and it is this latter point which is often ignored by parents when they blame teachers for all their children’s foibles.

  2. Cameron Paterson

    The sentence that stands out to me is this one – “So what should be the underlying premises of public education in a globally networked society that may have to remain periodically socially isolated and physically distanced, as well as for future pandemics?”

    You have also reminded me of the concept of cognitive apprenticeship, which I learned from John Abott –

    As an education leader I’m constantly thinking about leading change – not easy when we have such ingrained ideas of the basic grammar of schooling.

  3. Mike Gwaltney

    The prior commenters (Ian and Cameron) raise good points that resonate with me. But what lingers most about your post is this bit:

    “With a standardized curriculum and constant testing, there is never enough time for most school students to fully learn. There is too much information and much of it is without context… [our environment] is complex (understandable only through continuous probing)… In our digitally networked world, modelling how to learn is a better strategy than shaping on a predefined curriculum.”

    You’ve hit on the two key areas schools and educators must grapple with, in my view: both what to teach and how to teach it. Crisis-driven distance learning has required instructors to reduce content expectations, and to identify and focus on what they deem most essential for students to know and do. The most intuitive and successful of them have found that online learning better supports inquiry (learner control) than direct instruction. The opportunity presented now is an opportunity to work with educators whose minds are more open — too many stakeholders in schools and school boards have held onto the idea of a standardized and overpacked curriculum, but may be ready to reconsider a model of schooling that moves us closer to what we actually need.

  4. Buku Guzeh

    I disgreee with Drucker when he writes that They (schools) focus instead on a learner’s weaknesses. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, even on corrected ones; one can build performance only on strengths. And these the schools traditionally ignore, in fact, consider more or less irrelevant. Schools are supposed to work with learners to strengthen their weakness so that they can also become strength. Focusing only on student’s strength incapacitate them in many ways. Who wants to hear a scholar say I am not strong in that area? I am only good at Math. Why is it that during an interview, the interviewee says I do not know much about that area but I am willing to learn? Is it because the person focused too much on his/her strength and not improve on his weaknesses? I am not good at Math, but gosh I love Math. I therefore practiced it religiously not only to pass but to understand it and strengthen my skills in the area.
    Should we go back to the old systems and just hope that society will be resilient enough to face the next pandemic, climate change, and whatever else comes our way? What can be changed in view of what covid-19 has already taught us?
    Really? The first thing the pandemic has taught us is that no machines/technology will replace professional teachers or person-to-person learning and teaching. The outcries of parents in the streets exerting pressure on political leaders to open the school building is a testament to the preceding statement. School buildings are not just erected for students to enter and exit knowing how to solve science and math problems, or respond to literature and social studies questions. One thing you need to take into consideration is that schools have manifest functions as I previously stated. The latent functions of the school building is just as important. A place for outlet, socializing, learning to interact with other human being, learning leadership and citizenship.
    If anything, COVID-19 has also taught us that working from home/working remotely does not necessarily engender the satisfaction over the long run. The confinement in a small space, lack of constant movements, or strides to exercise the joints and muscle, also have deteriorating effects on the body.
    Now let’s consider how schooling/learning and teaching should look like post COVID-19:
    • Tweak but not overhaul the traditional method/approach. There should be a mix of full remote learning and in-person learning. Students and families who are able to, should have the choice and liberty for their children to learn at home remotely. If students in such category feel that their needs for socialization and leadership can be fulfilled via remote learning, then school districts should give them the opportunity for remote learning. Students who feel and require the needs for in-person learning should also be given the opportunity to participate in learning and teaching in brick and mortar buildings.
    • Companies and other organizations should collaborate heavily in preparing students for the real world
    • Understand that schools cannot lead the way in changing societies. Schools will always lag behind institutions that create jobs and other opportunities. That’s why a greater opportunity for collaboration should exist between the two entities. Instead of beginning cooperation in universities, colleges, and other higher institutions of learning, the collaborative efforts should start in high schools. Companies should influence the curriculum in terms of what graduates will need to succeed in the real world
    • Schools take hint from the societies in terms of what needs to be taught and how to prepare learners to fit in the changing societies
    • Culture and technology influence each other-technology companies look at what is needed in the culture and they fulfill the needs by creating the technology. At times culture follows technology by adapting to the new technology: telegraph alleviated societal dependency on sledge-pulling dogs and man to deliver mails; online payment of bills reduced the needs for the use of postal stamps. As societies change due to technology, schools should also be blown by the same wind in the same direction. Schools should not remain stagnant. If we want schools to take the lead to influence societal change, then high schools should also become research institutions to develop young minds for discovery, invention, and production. When students see that their skills can be sharpened at a younger and earlier age, the likelihood for interest in school will only grow high.

  5. Tom Palmer

    There is little question that there is a huge opportunity for redesigning our education systems at this moment. The need is urgent and well-articulated in this article: at the heart is the need to prepare students to work on more complex problems than those of the industrial past. Our systems are still largely designed for “shaping” students to overcome the simpler challenges of the past.

    Ian, above, highlights a barrier to taking advantage of this opportunity which is difficult to ingore: one of the primary functions of the current system is simply to look after children while their parents are working. With this function suddenly disappearing, I know many parents who are so desperate to send their kids back to school that educational concerns are quite secondary. Survival comes first, and it seems unlikely we will see a large movement back to only one parent working anytime soon, or ever.

    The shift from “shaping” to “modelling” (very interesting to consider how the latter relates to indigenous approaches) seems to be the task. Since learning by modelling happens through doing, I will venture a controversial proposition: how can we put students to work in a way that will help them build the skills they need for the future? What problems can they help us solve within their communities that the market is not currently solving? How can we organize this “work” in a way that makes it engaging, fulfilling, and meaningful?

    I imagine a future system of education where high school students are graduating with many years of work experience – skilled in designing and managing projects, leading others, making difficult decisions, and with clarity around their own strengths and weaknesses, based on a lifetime of trial and error.

    • Harold Jarche

      We are at an inflection point in education. I hope it goes toward a more open & progressive system that accounts for variety & diversity.


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