Symbolic of our quick-fix culture, I was recently asked to do a five-minute radio interview addressing the challenge of remote learning without the peer group dynamics of a regular classroom. The time constraint motivated me to get to the core of the education crisis precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic. Decades of developmental science research reveal that our physical and emotional health- our very sense of self- emerges in moment-to-moment interactions in our social world. The meanings we make of ourselves as hopeful and capable of empathy or, in contrast, as hopeless, fearful, and closed off evolve in a developmental process over time. The host’s question led me to recognize the need to turn conventional education on its head in this life-or-death situation.
Social emotional learning, for all ages, is the only thing we need to preserve. I propose doing away with all academic curriculum for 6-12 months. All children will “fall behind” at the same rate, releasing parents from the anxiety that seems to be driving a lot of decision-making. Replace academic curriculum with a “listening curriculum” which includes the following:
1) Eliminate conventional homework, which can be a source of enormous stress for students and parents alike.
2) In its place, ask students from elementary through high school to have a conversation with a wide variety of people- a different one every day. Family members, friend, neighbors, grocery store clerks, postal workers etc. Include people they know well, know a little, don’t like, or disagree with. Then write answers to the following questions: “What went well?” “What was difficult?” and “What surprised you?” For the youngest children, parents would need to help, which will be useful to the common task of reclaiming the ability to listen to each other. which many seem to have lost in our world today. By the end of the year students would compile a “book of listening” from the 2020 pandemic.
3) Prioritize arts over academics. Students can always learn content. Activities such as dance, drumming, martial arts, and drawing promote self-regulation critical to attention and learning.
4) Reclaim the outdoors. Make creative use of outdoor space and, when possible, exposure to nature.
5) Have all classes primarily discussion-based. Some didactic material may be needed frame the discussion but emphasis should be on interactive process.
6) Preserve- above all else- a sense of safety. We cannot listen, and we cannot learn, when we do not feel safe. Let students choose whether or not to use video. Some may be shy, ashamed of living situation, or have other reasons not to expose themselves. In exchange, require participation but give students a variety of options including emojis, typing in chat, or speaking. Let them wear pajamas.
While the agonizing and messy process of uncertainty around the question of in person vs. remote learning might have been necessary, the clarity of the need for remote learning is now emerging from the mess. The virus is not going away. Children can pass the virus and get sick themselves. Teachers and their families are vulnerable. Perhaps equally important, in-person education with the abundance of necessary restrictions and constrictions to typical moment-to-moment interactions will inevitably not feel safe.
In a recent interview, 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was asked a question about the conspiracy theory group QAnon. In his typical way of getting past the outrage to the essence of the problem, he spoke about members finding a sense of belonging that so many in American society seem to have lost. Many people in our world today feel unseen and unheard. If we can embrace the uncertainty of getting to know one another, we can build a society where all of us feel recognized and feel like we belong.
Perhaps the pandemic offers us an opportunity to rebuild a sense of belonging from the bottom up, starting with our children. Our sense of belonging grows not from holding on to an inflexible position but in engaging in the messiness of human interaction. When we listen to one another’s stories with curiosity, we create communities of connection.
As my mother always says, “When life hands you lemons…” Making use of the 20-21 school year in this way may reap enormous benefits. As students of all ages learn to listen better, we as a society may gain the ability to move beyond polarizing conflict, become flexible in our thinking, and engage together in creatively building a healthier world.