The Real Reason Why Remote Learning Failed: It’s Our Educational and Philosophical Foundations

Could it be that all this insistence and scrambling to find ways to get students back into our schools during an exploding pandemic is simply our society’s unwillingness to let go of the twentieth-century, assembly-line schooling model?
What if the issues with remote learning is not the technology at all, but symptoms of an educational system that just used that technology to try to apply the assembly-line educational process which only works with a child seated in a classroom with a teacher in front of them and not a child sitting at a computer or with a device at home? (Of course we knew this process does not work for every child either.)
Take the design of a learning management system. It is an electronically structured class with the teacher at the head and students as subordinates (in most cases, that is how it is used.) It still requires some of the same assembly-line processes to ensure that the student-product is being advanced. Grading is inherent in these systems. Attendance is in there. Often, the activities students are being subjected to are simply e-versions of what they would be doing if they were present in a classroom. In others words, all our technologies, even those we use in remote learning like our learning management systems, testing systems are simply more of the same of what we would do if we had students sitting in classrooms. No wonder we can’t see the results we want. It simply is no longer possible.
Then there’s all this talk about students “being behind.” Peter Green, blogger and writer, asks a very pertinent question here: “Behind what exactly?” (See “Everything’s Made Up and Nobody’s Behind”) He goes on and points out the obvious, that this line or point where students should be is “made up.” Also, the whole idea that students should travel down a education-system prescribed path where their progress should be measured is made up too. This is not a natural idea that exists out there. Like the decision to place students in grades, which was a factory-assembly line idea, it is made up. Perhaps what we’ve really discovered here is not that remote learning doesn’t work; perhaps remote learning and this pandemic crisis has made all too clear the foundational and philosophical limitations of our educational systems.
For example, all this talk that students are “behind” due to not being able to physically sit in our seats in our schools is early twentieth century factory thinking. It is adherence to the notion that we have to subject students to an assembly line and quality-control test them along the way to make sure they are being produced properly. Now they can’t always be in our presence, so we’re lost. Our factory assembly line pedagogies no longer work.
Our testing-quality-control systems can’t be applied, so, we are frantically seeking ways to bring them back into our buildings once again so we can grow them and measure them once again. We just might have not really rethought our educational system during this crisis; we’ve simply tried to apply factory thinking remotely.
What if we were to completely rethink everything? Then what exactly needs to be rethought? Here are some things to chew about:
Idea That Government Prescribed Standards Are a Must: Standards are assembly-line necessities. Now the first thing an educator is going to say is that you have to have standards. Maybe, but perhaps standards need to be rethought in true remote learning. Maybe instead of being rigid markers of OUR chosen path to progress, they need to entirely personal too. Maybe they need to be flexible and adaptable to student needs and interests. Maybe they need to take some other form other than a rigid mark by which we judge if students are progressing or behind. In the remote world, perhaps having rigid standards will not work.
Idea that Education is a Treatment Students are Subjected to: Education has long had what I call “medical profession envy.” We want to be “diagnosers,” and “interventionists,” and “prescripters.” In that enterprise, we have a frame of mind that sees education as something “we do to students” rather than something they choose to participate in. In that educational thinking, the assembly-line pedagogies still exist no matter how much we talk about personalized and individualized learning. Just maybe, it’s time to let go of the “medical profession envy” and all the pedagogical processes and practices that go with it, and rethink what we do. Maybe, start with the natural state of each child, what they know, what they need. and what they want to learn. These ideas aren’t new. They just aren’t efficient, which is perhaps the last area that needs rethinking.
Idea that Education Must Be Efficient: The idea that education must, above all, be efficient has been a fetish of educational leaders and politicians since our educational administration forefathers uncritically adopted Taylor’s “principles” scientific management at the dawn of the twentieth century. Over the course of American education history, we’ve sacrificed many of our young at the altar of this business principle. When students historically cause inefficiencies in the system, such as refusing to comply, or refusing to learn in the prescribed manner, we’ve labeled them as deviant, abnormal, and even failures and often tossed them out or placed them in “special programs” to keep the main assembly-line going. The truth is: education and learning can and often is the most inefficient process of all. It does not happen on demand, even when we like to think that the application of this technique or that method will make it happen. We are often left scratching our heads, trying to figure out why that didn’t work. In our efforts to push out remote learning, perhaps we still hang on to the notion that it all has to be “efficient” for us, and do not really focus on what would work for each child.
Sadly, like many educational practices and notions, it is very possible that “remote learning” will end up on the slag-heap of educational technologies with the likes of open-education and other tried methods that simply would not work given our tenacious grip on current philosophical and educational thinking. In our efforts to make education and educational leadership a practical endeavor instead of a scholarly and philosophical enterprise capable or real critical intellectual examination, it is no wonder that remote learning has been found wanting. Just maybe like every pedagogical technology, remote learning works for some and not others. We still search for that “one-way” to educate even though it is as much a myth as it was in the 19th century.