Is This the Future of Education?

Day to day, we use methods that seem to meet our needs perfectly well. Then something upsets our routine and we have to find different ways of operating. And sometimes we realize the new ways are better than the old.

Ever since I entered the teaching profession, I’ve been hearing how many elements of our education system are obsolete. Why take the summer off when so few of us work in agriculture? Why are classrooms so regimented, filled with a neat matrix of desks with classes operating on a rigid schedule?

New ideas are out there. For example, during my teacher training, I got to visit the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA, https://www.daytonearlycollege.org/), a public charter school in the Dayton, Ohio area that serves 1,300 K-12 students on three campuses. What stuck in my mind from that visit is the high school is not organized around the traditional four grades. Instead, there are six sets of requirements or benchmarks called “gateways”; complete all six gateways and you graduate!

Due to the pandemic, I’m definitely in the “Upset Routine” mode. I’ve just finished a week of substitute teaching social studies at the high school level under COVID-19 restrictions. I had the normal workload of five periods of students, but for only two times in one week and about 110 minutes at a time. There were two periods Monday and Thursday, and three periods Tuesday and Friday. Wednesday was strictly remote learning (for which I didn’t need to go to school). The real teacher loaded the lessons — combinations of reading, timelines, and videos — onto his Google Classroom site. I took attendance, turned on a projector connected to an internet-enabled computer, and put everything up on a screen.

A pattern quickly developed. I insisted we watch the videos as a class. This was so we could discuss them, especially since I’ve lived through the topics we were covering (the Cuban Missile Crisis and China’s Tiananmen Square uprising) and wanted to give them my recollections. But for everything else, what worked best was the students pulling out their laptops and working at their own pace, asking questions as required. I didn’t have to worry about timing or taking excessive breaks; whatever they didn’t finish could be done at home.

This is not as radical as it sounds. Again returning to my teacher-training days, I took all seven required content courses (history and sociology) at the local community college through videos, and one of my University of Dayton courses over the internet. Except for taking tests, I never set foot on campus for those courses. Also, I know my school district has an alternate option, the School of Possibilities. I subbed there once, and simply watched as students came in for half days, doing their lessons on computers with programmed texts. So learning outside a traditional classroom is nothing new.

So it will be interesting to see what gets permanently adopted after this pandemic is vanquished. There will still be a need for teacher supervision. And although we took a quiz on-line, there will probably be a more conventional approach to testing. But I can envision a radical restructuring of the school environment. Perhaps seeing new material in the evening through tools like the Khan Academy videos (https://www.khanacademy.org/), then coming to school to do the “homework” and for personalized instruction? I’m sure the concept of “snow days” for inclement weather is already a thing of the past.

It could be that in coping with this pandemic, we have found some innovations worth keeping.

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