This pandemic is shaking things up. As a parent to three children – ages 17, 13 and 10, with different learning styles and needs – it has definitely shaken up how my kids do school. It has also made me more aware that our public-school system is primarily designed around a previous era of industrialization and military efficiencies. What if this was that once-in-a-century opportunity to re-imagine our children’s education? Can we dream a little?
We need teachers and vacations, but do we need a nine-month/seven-hour school day?
I dreamed I could be the wonderful home-school parent. Reality is, I am so grateful for teachers and their giftedness in this area. However, with greater access to what my children are learning, I am realizing a seven-hour school day and three hours of homework isn’t necessary for the content being taught. My kids have become more eager to start their learning after a solid 10 hours of sleep. My 17-year-old looks healthier and is more focused with school starting at 9 a.m. My 10-year-old’s attention span is done after three hours.
They’re all pursuing things they’re really interested in during the free afternoon hours. What if afternoons were freed up for tutorials, extracurriculars and sports? What if teaching was done in such a way that the homework was included as part of the daily assessment of learning, rather than after hours?
Summers have also become an expensive burden for families needing childcare. What if we reduced the hourly expectation of the academic year, but provided natural rhythmic breaks so that our children are healthier and retain more knowledge?
We need assessment and accountability, but has bureaucracy stifled innovation?
My mom taught fifth and sixth grade for 30 years. I watched her pour her heart into creative lessons. She often laments that the move to teaching to the test discouraged so many of her peers. I hear so many teacher friends today lament how they have to teach to MCAS or some other national standard, but any change would require soul-searching on the part of parents who want to move into the best school district. I hear principals lament that in this pandemic they could not respond with solutions of their own based on their relationships with families and teachers, because they had to wait for guidelines from central office, state and federal administrators. Has the bureaucracy stifled innovation that our teachers and principals desire?
We need technology, but to what end?
I serve on the board of the Boston Higher Education Resource Center and one of the obstacles we’ve had for years is the inequity in access to technology. COVID-19 solved that overnight when BPS gave every child without access to a computer a Chromebook. We are now able to break down generations of inequity through technology. At the same time, as a college administrator, I know professors lament that the writing quality of students has greatly diminished. How can we use this experience of virtual learning to reinforce the basics, while also motivating our students to solve real world problems in communities near and far?
We need schools, but we also need family time.
The greatest gift this lockdown has given our family is family dinner each night with time to talk and play. I realize home is not a safe place for many children, but what if we really used this opportunity to rethink the home/work/school balance? What if sporting activities could be done during those freed-up afternoon hours? What would our kids create when left on their own? What volunteer opportunities or could they pursue more deeply? For youth who have to work, can they get credit for that work rather than thinking their college resume will require even additional things they don’t have time for?
Ultimately it gets down to what we think the purpose of education is. Sometimes we get so used to a system that we forget to pause and ask ourselves what we are really trying to accomplish. What are you imagining? What has the pandemic helped you to learn about your kids and the future of education? Can we start a conversation?
Jennifer M. Jukanovich of Wenham is the former vice president of student affairs at Gordon College and a doctoral student in global leadership and change at Pepperdine University.