It’s Been a Year

It’s been a year, now.

It was going to be a couple weeks, but we all knew it wasn’t going to be a couple weeks. We told ourselves what we needed to hear to get through it. We did get through the worst of it, and it’s looking now like there’s a path to normalcy.

Image source: Pixabay.

We know “normal” is relative. To some extent, it’s a return to what was before. But it’s also a recalibration of the usual state. My ankle has healed, and I’m back to “normal” after the fracture last year. But I’m probably never going to ski the way I used to. That’s okay; that’s what normal is now.

So we’ll go back to restaurants. We’ll go back to school. We’ll attend concerts and plays and social gatherings. But the basket of masks on the kitchen counter probably isn’t going anywhere. The handwashing habit is going to stay. We’re going to have hand sanitizer at every entrance to every building. We’ll continue to feel uncomfortable in crowded places, and we may still flinch when someone around us sneezes. There’s a certain degree of post-traumatic discomfort.

I’ve been struggling with what post-pandemic learning looks like since the initial shock of remote learning wore off. I saw this experience as an opportunity to redefine the classroom. I reflected a lot about digitial pedagogies and time as a variable and the advantages of focusing hybrid plans on the abundance of the modality. Mostly, I saw the pandemic as a sandbox. There were no expectations to get much of anything done. As long as you’re caring for kids, you have a blank slate. You can try anything. Use your creativity to go completely out of the box and do the instructional things you never dared to do before. There were no consequences to failing, because there were no expectations that anyone would actually learn anything.

It took a lot of smart people to point out the flaws in my logic. Scott McLeod put it very well:

Any school leader who is trying to sell the need for a post-pandemic systemic transformation… is trying to sell a SECOND enormous disruption to the community (“Now let’s change school as we know it!”) at a time when everyone is completely exhausted from – and ready to be done with – the FIRST enormous disruption to the community (the pandemic), and that is AFTER trying to minimize the disruption and ‘restore order’ during the past 12 to 18 months.

Zac was a bit more blunt. He wants to box my ears for being uncaring, which is worse than tone deaf. It’s been a rough year. And it’s not over yet.

Yes. And.

I’ve been chasing the elusive promise of technology in education for my whole career. I was reflecting on the power of bringing people together digitally to collaborate and expand students’ world view since I first saw Usenet. I was experimenting with the role of anonymity in online educational environments before we had access to the world wide web. I’ve been struggling with information literacy and abundance and curation since the Netscape days. I’ve been working to put the pieces together: to make it possible to create an experience for students that increases student engagement, improves the level of academic rigor, connects learning to actual, relevant, real-world applications, and helps students become better thinkers and better learners. It is literally my life’s work. I’ve struggled with assessment and differentiation and student agency and portfolios and project based learning. I’ve fought against the idea that the teacher’s primary role is to deliver information to students who already have all of the information. I was so passionate about moving the teacher away from standing at the front of the classroom that I advocated for abolishing the front of the classroom, and deliberately designed learning spaces with no “front.”

When the pandemic happened, we innovated. The teachers dumped the box of parts on the table and built a CO2 scrubber out of the odds and ends that the astronauts already had on board. We snatched a stalemate from the jaws of defeat. Learning continued, more or less.

But in our efforts to replicate normal as much as possible, we worked really hard to make sure that our efforts imitated the classroom experience. I’m not really knocking that. It’s what our schools needed in the moment. There’s comfort in the familiar, and in a time of enormous disruption, we’ll take all the familiar we can get. We knew then — and we certainly know now — that our first priority to to care for each other, and, especially, to care for our children. That emotional support is job one. And familiar helps a lot with that.

In the process, though, we cemented the idea that technology’s primary role in education is to imitate the traditional classroom experience. Our parents couldn’t understand why remote students couldn’t just “Zoom in” and watch their classes. They’re frustrated that the technology makes it harder for students to take notes. Our teachers are upset that there’s no way to digitally administer a multiple choice knowledge test without the students being able to cheat. We resisted the pressure to build a system that had teachers standing at the front of half-empty classrooms talking to remote students over video conferences. But the more we discouraged that, the greater the demand for it was. We tried really hard to do the same things, even though the technology can do better things more easily.

Maybe it was tone deaf. Maybe we describe the classroom experiences we wish to see at the expense of the ones that actually exist, and that discord has frustrated everyone.

Looking forward, though, technology has a steeper hill to climb than it had before. It didn’t swoop in and reimagine education in the chaos of global disruption. Instead, it allowed us to continue to do what we’ve always done. It was an inferior reflection of the classroom experience. But we would trade all of the iPads and document cameras and video conferences in the world, if we could just have the all of the kids back in the classroom where they belong.

I’m afraid that after this, we’ll put the tech down. And we’ll say, “thank God we don’t have to do that anymore.” And when we start talking about project based learning or flipped classrooms or using technology to differentiate learning, we’ll smile and remember the time when technology helped us be almost as good.

It’s been a year.