School closures because of COVID-19 should teach us a lot about the future of educational reform. Unfortunately, we aren’t learning the lessons we should.
For many years, educational innovators championed visions of personalized learning. What these visions have in common is the belief that one-size-fits-all approaches to education aren’t working, and that technology can do better.
Before we place too much hope in technological solutions to educational problems, we need to think seriously about COVID school closures. School districts did their best to mobilize technological tools to help students, but we’ve learned that students are now further behind than ever. School closures offered the perfect opportunity to test the promise of personalized learning. And though technology-mediated solutions are most certainly not to blame for learning loss, they didn’t rise to the occasion.
To be clear, personalized learning has its place. But when we think about where to invest our time and attention when it comes to the future of schooling, we must expand where we look.
I’ve felt this way for many years. The New York Times published an article back in 2011 that reported the rise of Waldorf schooling in Silicon Valley. While technologists were selling the idea that technology would revolutionize learning, they were making sure their children were staying far away from screens, especially in schools. They knew then what we are slowly finding out: technology, especially social media, has the power to harm student mental health. It also has the potential to undermine democracy. Unscrupulous agents are actively targeting teenagers, teaching them to hate themselves and others.
It is surprising that in all the calls for parents to take back the schools, most of the attention is being paid to what is and isn’t in libraries and what is and isn’t being assigned. Why do Toni Morrison’s novels provoke so much vitriol and yet the fact that kids starting in kindergarten watch so many inane “educational videos” on their “smart boards” doesn’t.
What is more, so many school districts provide children with laptops and some even provide mobile hotspots so children can always be online. We are getting so upset about what a student might read that we neglect all the hateful, violent, and pornographic images and texts immediately available to children and teenagers through school-issued devices.
Parents are asking what is assigned and what is in libraries when they should ask: How many hours a day do my children spend on a screen? And if they are spending a great deal of time on their screens: What habits are they developing?
If we focused on these questions, we’d see that our children are spending too much time on screens. We’d learn that our children are shying away from work that is challenging because they are used to thinking that learning must be fun and tailored to them.
We must get children outside their comfort zones through an encounter with content that provokes thinking. Playing games, mindlessly scrolling, and responding to personalized prompts don’t get us here. What we need is an education built on asking questions that provoke conversation and engagement.
Overreliance on technology has a narrowing function. We look for information that is easy to assimilate into our preferred ways of thinking. By contrast, a good question is genuinely disruptive, just as a good conversation leaves us less sure of what we thought we knew and more interested in learning about how and what other people think.
In our rush for technological solutions, we’ve neglected the art of asking questions and cultivating conversation. Expecting personalized learning to solve problems, we’ve forgotten the effort it takes to engage each other and have neglected the importance of conversation.
Rather than chase the next technological fix — fixes that failed us when we needed them most — we should invest in the arts of conversation. Not only will this drive deeper learning, but it can help address the mental health crisis and rising polarization because conversation teaches students that they are more than what any algorithm thinks they are.
Real conversation reminds us that we are bigger than we can imagine, and this is exactly what our children deserve and what our society needs. Classrooms need to move students away from an overreliance on technology and into a passionate engagement with their potential and the wonder of new and difficult ideas.
Our screens are driving us into smaller and smaller worlds. This makes us sad, angry, anxious, and intolerant. Many young people don’t have the willpower to put the screen down, so schools need to step up. Initially, it won’t be easy. Screens are convenient pacifiers. But our children shouldn’t be pacified, they deserve to be engaged. And this is where we need to devote energy and attention as we approach the upcoming academic year.