How Our Schools Need to Change After COVID

Voices from the Field   20 April 2022
By Matt Greenfield, Rethink Education

 

We must ask ourselves, what kind of school do our children want to go to?

Matt Greenfield
Rethink Education

After surviving the pandemic, our stressed, distracted, anxious children need a new kind of school. 

Even before the COVID pandemic, over 60 percent of all children had experienced “adverse childhood events.” Future studies will almost certainly show a large increase in this percentage.

What distracted, worried children need is a space where they can speak and where they are heard, believed, recognized, and loved.

A school, as conventionally designed, whatever its other virtues may be, is not likely to be a safe space for the telling of a child’s stories.

Schools are generally built on a central metaphor of forward motion along a prescribed track. The words curriculum, course, and corridor are all based on the Latin word currere, meaning to run.

Corridors, a central design element in schools, are that metaphor transformed into architectural design—into wood, plaster, and stone. Between classes, students move briskly (no loitering!) back and forth along the corridors and up and down stairs and elevators to their next assigned classroom.

This kind of motion, in turn, is a metaphor for the design of a life: life is a continuous forward motion along a fixed path with a prescribed series of stopping places.

Think, for a moment, about the other metaphors around which schools (or we might even say learning environments) can be designed. For example, a school can be a space for unstructured browsing and exploration, like an amusement park, a playground, a toy store, a library, or a field of flowers from which bees gather pollen.

 

When I think about education, I think about a student growing, developing, preparing, and moving into the future. I think about what a student can become: a being who lives in the future and possesses amazing new powers.

Matt Greenfield
Rethink Education

The idea of a school where children choose their own paths inspires a deep sense of unease in some people. These people worry that children are naturally lazy and unfocused and that they wouldn’t learn anything in such a place, or at least wouldn’t learn the things they urgently need to know, such as geometry proofs or the date of the Stamp Act. But, there is an equally plausible argument that children learn a lot more when they are allowed to follow their passions and their curiosity. The argument is that in pursuit of those interests and with the support they need, children will learn those core life skills of reading, writing, and math and so much more in a way that leaves them emboldened and active owners of their lives.

Perhaps the goal of a school should be to maximize the opportunities for a child to enter a state of absorption and flow, even if that means playing a video game. In this mode, the adults function as coaches or guides, rather than as instructors, following the children around, rather than telling them where to go. Adults have much to learn from children, about video games and many other topics. And, teaching an adult can be a transformative educational experience for a child.

The playground metaphor for education involves motion and change. Is there a metaphor for education that does not involve motion?

The idea of education without motion makes me a little anxious, which is perhaps a sign that the question is useful. 

When I think about education, I think about a student growing, developing, preparing, and moving into the future. I think about what a student can become: a being who lives in the future and possesses amazing new powers. I am a hopeful person, which I have always thought of as a virtue. But, perhaps imagining the child who lives in the future is a kind of violence to the child who lives in the present.

Even in my own home, I have probably spent too much time pushing my own children, whom I love, toward the future. I am trying to do a better job of listening to them and accepting who they are right now, in this moment. 

For decades, I have been a passionate advocate of the idea that school should be a space for browsing and exploration: a playground, a library, a field of flowers from which bees gather pollen. I still believe in this idea. But, it is not enough.

How do we give children a space where they can tell their stories and be heard? How can we make sure that the adults and the other children in that space are able to authentically listen? How can we make sure that the stories of children are not interrupted, disbelieved, and erased?

We must ask ourselves, what kind of school do our children want to go to?

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