There is no perfect plan for how schools will reopen this fall. The two extremes—keep everything virtual or fully return to in-person learning with minimal restrictions—and everything in between come with a laundry list of health and equity tradeoffs that feel impossible to stomach. But, there is an opportunity to explore the fall from an asset-based mindset, regardless of the chaos we continue living inside of on a daily basis.
If we ask ourselves and our communities what will make families, young learners, and education practitioners feel inspired and motivated to engage in learning this fall, the answers will unlikely differ from what they might have said pre-COVID-19. They will want learning to be joyful and meaningful. They will want learning to honor the individual experiences of young people. And, they will want everyone to be safe and well.
Fulfilling these wishes in 2020 is not an easy task, but it could be much easier if we were willing to forgo what was and lean into the opportunity to invent, test, and iterate on something new.
One of the best ways we have seen the safety and wellbeing of young people honored within learner-centered environments has been through advisories—exemplified most strongly by the Big Picture Learning network, and specifically, The Met High School.
Advisories cultivate a family-oriented setting where young people and their adult advisor hold space to talk about anything relevant to their lives, to set and monitor their personal learning goals, to create unique learning plans that work for them, to overcome any obstacles to joyful learning, to build friendship and partnership among the group, and, at times, just to have fun and seek to relieve the stress and anxiety young people might be experiencing. If the entire country were to do nothing but provide this type of space for young people this fall, I believe the benefits to young people, their families, and educators would be undeniable.
But, let’s not stop there. What can we do to make learning joyful?
The answer has not changed since the pandemic began. Joyful learning is present when a young learner is able to engage in learning that is meaningful and relevant to them in a community context. When we create the space and opportunity for young people to make meaning of what’s happening around them in community with others, we don’t have to make things up for them. The curriculum is right in front of all of us—happening live 24/7.
If we have to put this through the lens of conventional subjects, tell me what’s irrelevant about the science of how disease spreads, the mathematics of how economies recover from recessionary periods, the history of racial injustice in America, the reading comprehension that is developed when young people engage with headline news stories, and the writing skills that are cultivated when a young learner journals about their day? If the learning is learner-centered, how does joy not show up?
A final point to consider (as alluded to above when speaking about joyful learning) is how we can ensure learning does not become an isolated, purely individual experience. We must continue enabling young people to learn and collaborate together. This might only be possible by setting up online rooms, but the adult doesn’t need to be in every room at once. Young people can and will learn without being monitored if the learning is relevant to their interests. We must abandon the idea that an adult must be present for great learning to happen.
Overall, there is nothing normal about how learning will look this fall. Nobody thinks being isolated—be it at-home or physically distant in-person—is the best way of learning. That being said, we still have the opportunity before us to explore what great learning looks like. And, if we make some discoveries amid the current chaos, imagine what we’ll create when being out and about in our communities is once again a regular part of our lives.