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  • Writer's pictureTheresa Capra

Deep Roots: Two Educational Beliefs Worth a Rethink

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

American beliefs about what constitutes teaching and learning are deeply personal and rooted in our experiences and culture. For many of us, school is a rite of passage, whether it's middle, high, or heading to college--it's familiar fruit from a perennial tree. But perhaps that makes it difficult to examine practices that have grown on such old vines. Here are two pieces I think are worth a pick before they fall and end up forgotten. #research #theresacapra #teachingandlearning #Covid19 #trends


Would you be shocked to discover that the fundamental practices and policies that underscore modern American public schools hail from Colonial Massachusetts--you know, Pilgrims, Turkey, Pillsbury biscuits, and all the fixings?

If you’re like my students who enroll in my Introduction to Education courses you’ve probably never given it any thought (I understand, it’s not exactly worthy of a Netflix documentary). But how we fund our schools, the mandate for all children to attend regularly, local control, and even standards for what should be taught and what should be omitted are practices that were brought to Colonial New England in the 1600s by Puritan settlers.

The Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647 required towns with 50 or more residents to chip in and pay for a Dame--a woman teacher who would instruct the children in scripture and provide discipline. Towns were essentially responsible for determining the curriculum, assessing progress, ensuring compliance, and so forth. Thus, local, tax-supported schools conceived on the premise that ALL boys and girls had to come to school every day and learn the very same lessons were erected.

We haven’t changed much since then, even if the purpose is no longer to thwart Satan. People tend not to question these deep rooted beliefs about what school should be, and how it should operate because we all have personal experiences with the system and reimaging key social institutions such as education is very hard to do.

Plus, let’s face it, it’s a system that has worked for a majority, despite failing large populations, and moreover, schools have shifted from purpose to function providing childcare for a 9-5 society.

When I expose my students to alternative teaching and learning philosophies such as existentialism or unschooling that call for free, organic learning outside of schools, they are horrified and instinctively write them off as “not school.” Even if such philosophies are too radical for most, maybe, just maybe, we can use this pandemic as a time to reflect on some antiquated assumptions of what school must be. Here are a couple of pieces ripe for the pick.

Tell me teacher, tell me.

Teachers are critical, I would never suggest otherwise, but the notion that they should be responsible to ensure every student learns the same things all the time is problematic. Teacher-centered learning philosophies pivot on the teacher as the gatekeeper of knowledge--the sage on the stage, but the accessibility of information, coupled with increasing technological comfort, changes the dynamic giving credence to more student-centered models that are usually less popular.

Pure student-centered philosophies place the students in the driver seat and teachers in the back, but a hybrid featuring students and teachers taking turns driving might do the trick. Not just the ad-hoc group project, or independent homework assignment--they're still teacher-centered because the teacher determines the topics, directions, rubric, etc.

Instead, a blended framework would tap into both methods equally. For example, students could work independently on topics using technology in addition to whole group instruction. Topics could be tailored to their interests, strengths, or even deficiencies, and teachers and parents could help identify topics collaboratively.

This could occur during the school day, or even remote. In particular special subjects such as music, art, technology, and media could easily be developed in this manner--I am always disappointed when I hear my children complain about these classes because they are not interested in what’s being covered. In this capacity, teachers will serve as both leaders and facilitators. Students who develop autonomy, responsibility, and enthusiasm for learning may start to perceive it as a natural, life-long pursuit, not just something necessary to get a grade, and eventually a job.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Yes, this is our model, and as I previously said, it serves the function of daycare for working families. But does it have to be this way? Can we infuse remote learning on a consistent basis, if it’s truly planned, researched, and supported, at least for older students? Can we create programs that can serve families and provide varied learning opportunities throughout the year, not just in the summer or during breaks (specialized camps, subject immersion)?

For some special needs populations such models may not immediately work, and the inequity and poverty saturating our society will of course make such efforts lopsided (but this is already the case with traditional schools). However, there is potential in the lessons from Covid-19 to broaden our concepts of how learning should, or must, happen.

Covid-19 will undoubtedly change the way many Americans work with staggering shifts, remote offices, and technology to facilitate tasks, communication, and services. The grueling, stressful commute, as well as packing into tight spaces rifled with distractions may soon become relics of the past. Even healthcare will begin to utilize telemedicine to a larger extent for routine matters. Because jobs of the future will undoubtedly require such skills, maybe schools can rethink their framework, or at least start a conversation.

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