(Another Column Written During the 2020 Pandemic)
The noises and the clouds of pollution have left our cities. The lure to distraction and the knowledge of suffering are here, of course, but I hope we can all take in this historical moment of pause and peace.
In this pause, my cause clarifies. My cause is the next generations, which is why I work in a school. What better cause? I know there are other gigantic causes: health and healing the sick, preventing nuclear proliferation, habitat loss, fighting terrorism, making a ton of money, world peace, and many more. Without the cause of teaching and learning, all other causes are hopeless.
In this pause, in these simpler times, as we reorient towards health, and towards staying safe, I hear what-ifs that sound like home:
What if we have around 150 students at school: tribe-sized and connected, and safer against the spread of pathogens and pathologies?
What if we could have around 7-14 in a class, Socratic and connected, every voice heard?
I wonder: Can classes of the next generations be outdoors more of the time, not only in the healthy open air, but so we can stay in touch with whatever nature we can find, even if it’s only clouds? (How did the vision for education ever end up almost completely indoors anyway?)
Can we balance school rigor and stress with emotional intelligence and the development of the most meaningful, universal values?
When people are suffering or even dying, we are confronting what matters to us, and sometimes those are simpler, smaller things. This pause seems like a good time to think farther. Here are the subjects that I think will be standard in seven generations:
- thinking skills
- empathic communication (a.k.a. kindness)
- ecology and sensitivity to the environment
Most of the things we name high school courses for today will be integrated into these core subjects, including math, science, social studies, physical fitness and health, literature and arts. But their purposes will be more obvious to students. I don’t know how or if they will be graded. I think student self-evaluation will be more important as we develop a generation of self-aware people who develop sensitivity to the environment, whatever that is. Here is what teacher grading will look something like: “Hey, Evan, that was a courageous move you made there,” or even, “Hey, Evan, do you think/feel like that move you made was creative?"
Grades will be optional, for the same reasons. Did you know colleges today do not really require grades and actually look for some students who have non-traditional education—some kids do not take SATs or ACTs, and a great many more will not in the next generation. Why isn’t it well known, anyway, that we have around 50 years of research showing how students who are ungraded generally perform better on measures of academic achievement? The world needs our students to find their own purposes and causes along the way—too much compliance, grading, and narrow-banded testing takes that away from the pursuit of those purposes. The next generations will perk up to this insight and offer better choices. For great schools, the COVID-disruption was an opportunity to see new possibilities for what schooling could be without narrow accountability/testing routines, to explore radical new ways to provide student self-assessment without grades (e.g. Grauer’s “self-evals,”), and to pay closer attention to building compassionate and caring relationships with students as a fundamental purpose of schooling.
Student attendance will be optional, at least in some schools of choice, since students are natural learners, they are born learners, and if they want to complete a course or aim for a college, that’s up to them. Why would you want to take that away from them? Or at least they and their parents will have choices—yes, I know this can hard to face if your child seems to be forming no goals: but school is where this will happen.
Overall, these schools will be healthier because we’ll be outdoors more, disease will spread less in smaller groups, and the stress of bigness will be largely removed.
In seven generations, down-sizing, once seen as a loss, will be seen as a victory. These schools will be cheaper because there is such a low administrative/bureaucratic infrastructure necessary when all you are doing is putting kids together with a teacher—in today’s big schools, almost 50% of people do not work with kids. We are leaving the age of big.
Through massive, open source online and hybrid options, maybe Harvard will have 1,000,000 students, but that will only make enriched, personal experiences more valuable in education—it will only make connecting to nature and the amazing ability to listen deeply, that Socrates died for, still more valuable in schools.
Teachers will want to work in schools like these because schools like these are cause-driven …and because there is such a low administrative/bureaucratic infrastructure. Teachers will find these schools do not make such a big separation between home, work, family, and friends. We are integrated and authentic, living in communities of accountability and duty to shared purposes and ecosystems that obviously sustain us.
Over the generations, this cause will naturally gather bequests and grow endowments, so we can be no- or low-cost to more and more families. Kids will want to be in schools like these because they are places of belonging, not loneliness, and they are obviously purposeful.
In seven generations, all campuses and most courses, even urban, will incorporate the art of staying alive. Even if you are hungry, many more schools will be growing some seasonal crops or fruit-bearing trees to get snacks from, and students will get actual sustenance from them, not like the foods wrapped in plastic that entice students but do nothing for their health, food that does not seem to have grown or come from the earth, or that relies upon massive killing for growing. Surprise: A revolution in regenerative agriculture is liable to have a more valuable impact on schools than a revolution in technology—or maybe those two will merge.
We will remember: Constant silver linings scenarios were developed during the COVID-19 crisis. We watched in fascination as certain students developed independent passions, and not always our traditional “best” students. I hope to remember how, at The Grauer School, our teachers were finding ways to incorporate those individual passions into schooling and relationships.
If you want to get to work on a school like this, or you want a better vision, I will help you. The experts I’m listening to are predicting it will be about a year till we have a reasonable vaccine for this pandemic, and so I think things will stay slower for a while.
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