What Should Schools Be Teaching in These Turbulent Times?

As a retired school principal, I don’t have the worries right now that many school leaders are facing. Yet, I am very concerned as I read comments on social media as well as articles about schools opening for the next school year. Teachers and parents want to know what the plan is, and so far, very few districts in our country have the answers. The physical and emotional health and safety of our students and staff are the primary concerns. The uncertainty of where this virus is headed has kept school leaders in limbo, wondering whether to bring people back to campus when the possibility exists that another shutdown could be inevitable. What is a school leader to do?

This is the time for schools to look at today’s problems as an opportunity to do school differently. If we learned anything at all during this pandemic, it’s that schools need to redesign themselves to be less teacher-directed and more student-centered. The time is right for project-based or problem-based or independent learning with students applying essential language arts, math, and technology skills to delve deeper into science and social studies concepts and issues. Students need to learn how to ask higher level questions, to research to find answers, to have discussions with others to get different points of view, to create something to share what they learned, and to reflect on the learning experience with input from classmates and their teachers. With the technology available today, not all students need face-to-face learning in a classroom.

Students as young as kindergarten can participate and make a difference in their school, their community, their world. The beauty of project-based, problem-based, or independent learning is that students can work on projects at home via distance or blended learning programs. Teachers can have the initial discussions and share resources via face-to-face meetings or through videoconferencing because learning can take place outside the four walls of a classroom. We want students to be self-starters, to be able to learn on their own, to ask meaningful open-ended questions, to distinguish between fact and fiction, or to discern why people’s experiences may have a direct impact on how they react to an event. We, as adults, were probably not taught this in school; we were taught through textbooks and assessed on facts as they were presented. Today’s pandemic and the racial and political discord in our country provides a perfect opportunity for our schools to shift learning away from just textbooks, grade level standards, and standardized testing. Assessing students on random reading passages or math problems with no relevance to the real world does not lead to a more enlightened and informed citizenry.

Think of the problems in the world we are facing today: the pandemic, climate change, inequity of opportunity, trash, homelessness, a polarized country, racial discord. Our students shouldn’t have to wait until they are of voting age or can run for elective office to make a difference in their world. These are problems that need to be addressed, and luckily, many students are not waiting; they are making a difference now. (Youth Power: Age-Friendly city needs to hear from people of all ages) Let’s empower our youth by teaching them important skills that will help them become informed, active citizens who care about and get involved in their community, their state, and their world.

And as a former school leader, I hope that the safety and health concerns of our students and staff is at the forefront of any decisions that are made about the next school year.