At this turbulent and most uncertain of times, when experts in education and many other areas are invading our online consciousness with all kinds of predictions for the future, it is probably best, for us educators, to go back to one of the basic tenets of good teaching.
In effect, a timeless, undisputed pedagogical practice, consists in asking students, at the end of the class, the very simple and yet profound question, what have we learned? Reflecting on our learning always helps discern what has been most relevant about the lesson and how that knowledge can be carried into the future. Rather than engage in what, by now, seems an almost futile speculative exercise about improbable futures, it seems healthier to just focus on lessons learned.
In no particular order, and clearly not attempting to constitute a taxonomy, categorization or anything of the sort, these are some lessons that we have already learned.
It’s not virtual, it’s real
A few years back, I gave a talk for university students at which I referred, amongst other topics, to the virtual world, to emphasize the importance of paying attention to that increasingly important space, how education should not turn a blind eye to it. When it was over, one of the students came forward and said to me, you know what, it’s not virtual, it’s real, it may be virtual for you guys (meaning people my age) but it’s real for us. Since then, I have taken special care of never using the word virtual again in that context and replacing it with “the online world”.
As we learn online, the story resonates powerfully to the point that I have become an advocate for not calling it “virtual learning”, or any other phrases that start with the word “virtual”, since my young listener was absolutely correct in that the meaning of the world virtual indicates something that “almost is”, and we have learned firsthand that online is real, and that calling it virtual is a blatant misnomer.
Technology can connect us
Albeit if justifiably so, in that excessive use of technology has led young people to increasing levels of social detachment, there has been a recent trend to demonize technology as a dehumanizing factor. So much so that the go to phrase is “screen time” as a way to belittle devices to their mere visual interface.
However, even though it would be foolish not to recognize the real threat in gaming or technology addiction, we are now experiencing that technology can, indeed, be a unique and wonderful medium to retain our humanity through online connections. At this unprecedented time in history when nearly the whole world is quarantined, we have relied almost exclusively on the Internet to remain in touch with friends, family and coworkers.
The flipside of the dehumanization coin is that, through technology, we can be in touch and enjoy significant interactions with people who are relevant in our lives regardless of where they are, even in normal times.
Online is here to stay
We are not temporary dwellers in the online world of learning. No matter what we think about it, a significant part of our lives takes place online, and will continue to do so. If anything, the extent and frequency of our interactions will increase.
Forced to inhabit this online world, it is a propitious time to become more aware of the unique nature of its social interactions as well as the wonderful distinctive possibilities it offers for a renewed knowledge paradigm. Eventually, we will return to school buildings, but it would be a lost opportunity if we did not incorporate significant online interactions into our learning programs.
Meeting students where they are.
Although there is no conclusive research to that effect (the relevance of educational research as per its usual methodology is one of the many dogmas that are slowly crumbling, but that is another conversation), some empirical evidence — namely, reactions from real students in real schools, tends to indicate that, when “done properly”, online learning favors greater engagement on the part of the students.
This is no paradox: teachers are meeting students where they are. By interacting with them in the online medium, a language that they dominate and we do not; teachers are being with students in a space they are at already, which gives them the self-confidence to connect with adults at a more profound level. Another interesting consideration is that, on the screen, everybody is on one plane, flattened in dimensionless windows, interacting closely with one another, even if with the inevitable detachment of the medium.
This contrasts with the usual classroom situation where, usually, teachers are standing up, students sitting down still facing the front, physically distant from each other. It is, again, almost self-evident that different, more flexible classroom configurations foster better connections between adults and students.
We need a new language, not a translation
Initial efforts, where schools scrambled to deliver lessons online through videoconference, soon fell flat under the weight of their pedagogical inadequacy, in the impossibility of continuing with traditional learning methods via an endless succession of online lectures. From learning to assessment, the online medium offers a wide variety of unique possibilities, including games and simulations, collaborative platforms, shared documents and projects, asynchronous work, all of which constitute their own distinct learning paradigm, one that is natural to students but counterintuitive for most adult learners.
A new learning model is needed, one that capitalizes on the uniqueness of the medium to develop learning interactions that are native to it and not a mere digitization of the traditional model.
The world is small
Thomas Friedman coined the memorable phrase “The world is flat” to refer to that the infinitely interconnected world is a leveled playing field with unlimited opportunities. When we are all at home, we finally come to terms to that it is also a very small world, the distances have been obliterated, and that we can equally connect with our neighbor next door as with a person halfway across the world, time zones permitting.
The globalized world presents us with some very formidable challenges, in terms of developing and preserving a healthy sense of individual and collective identity, but, as we now see, it offers us a limitless playground where we can interact with experts, colleagues and schools literally all over the world, extending our horizon on our way to truly becoming global citizens.
Critical thinking is the first victim
It is usually said that truth is the first victim of a war, and we can now also assert that critical thinking has been the first victim of this pandemic. Those of us who have long advocated for the need to have our students learn to detect biased, false and incorrect information, as well as developing a healthy critical set of criteria for consuming multimedia, are now grappling with the unsettling reality that even the sharpest set of critical thinking tools are woefully inadequate.
It suffices to browse any major news outlet at any point to find wildly contrasting information regarding effects, recurrence, origin, and even the future of the virus, even if from reputable and well-established sources. It is as if the pandemic has deprived us of our last vestiges of academic innocence: knowledge was never safe or stable, or even singular as we pretended that it was.
Like with all major losses, we need to deal with it first and then it will be, hopefully, immensely liberating, helping us to veer even more towards a personalized model of education that allows students to express themselves more freely. It will be, paradoxically, that the absence of a verifiable truth will set us free.
Schools should be, foremost, about wellness
Finally, the salient conclusion of this first expression of a global conscience is that when we find ourselves alone with, at best, our families, and we are forced to be in closer contact with our own feelings, spaces and bodies, we are resorting to our sense of balance and greater awareness to withstand a time of peril, fear and uncertainty.
Meditation, physical activity, healthy eating, mindfulness, and other contemplative practices have flourished for what they are, essential core lifelines to our well-being. Like in any great crisis, we have an enhanced sense of perception of our reality and cling desperately to our humanity to survive and even attempt to thrive in a new and different world.
If it took an almost apocalyptic pandemic to shake us out of our societal induced stupor in the sterile pursuit of false goals and empty ideals like materialism, power, and the hedonic treadmill that our world had turned into, it is high time that we rethink our schools as places where wellness tops the list of aspirational learning outcomes.
As our carefully construed educational dogmas inexorably dissolve, we need to act quickly and decisively to incorporate these learnings into everyday life at school. Learning how to live healthy, well-balanced lives, with a strong sense of purpose and prioritizing compassion, connection with nature and with others, should be the most important objectives of any school anywhere in the world.
This is what we have learned… So far. But it is enough to create a better future through education.