Musings on Literacy – 6 – The Limits of Education During COVID

The Book Dealer

A student of mine contacted me in October. Would it be possible to borrow a couple of books? I said sure and asked her to name them. She wanted the Red Queen series, and the Six of Crows series. She mentioned another series known as the Throne of Glass, which I knew I did not have. After several years with a personal library for students, you become aware of what you are sure you have, what you think you might have, and what you do not have and wish you did.

But while I also used to know where the books were in their discrete little cardboard boxes that stacked along the garage, some 1,800 books in all, I now was rifling through them, picking them up and breaking some boxes, which called for downsizing and replacing in others. The experience was a welcome one, a reminder of just what a pleasure it is to be able to claim so many books. From classics like Moby Dick and Don Quixote, to young adult books like Ready Player One, I felt as if I had amassed quite a collection.

I found the books and put them in a box for her, and drove to her house, where I dropped them off. Her previous read, Adnan’s Story by Rabia Chaudry, was on the stoop. She was the first student I had seen since coronavirus. Over email, I got a chance to ask her how she was doing. She said that distance learning was difficult, that cutting class was tempting, but that she managed to turn in her work whenever it was required.

I’ve had so much time to read, so I’m pretty happy about that. I’ve also started branching out towards nonfiction books, which is different but nice. I also created a habit of reading three different books from different genres at the same time because I like to switch when I get too tired of one book.

“I’ve had so much time to read.”

That phrase is one I have been thinking of a lot since COVID-19 effectively shut down the schools we used to know. It’s the phrase that every teacher who has ever spent time in public education has wanted to hear. And it’s the one that we seldom do. As I have been unemployed during this time, my wife and I have read possibly more just in this year alone than all the days since when we met. I have been thinking about capital “E” education, and what that means in this time, and how much it really claims to be helping. It is a topic that many teachers seem to be speaking about back stage, but that policymakers do not seem aware of.

So let’s talk about it.

Return to Normal

All across Texas, there is a desire to “return to normal.” This phrase is used any place where administrators feel justified getting students back for in-person learning, to bring about sports for ticket revenues, getting attendance normalized for a healthy budget, or simply to make the school seem desirable.

I have discussed with teachers the unbelievable tendency, during a pandemic for public schools to continue with such pithy activities as “pep rallies.” These are celebrations before a sports game in order to encourage camaraderie, but they can just as easily be used for anything deemed worthy, like the days before a standardized test, in order to reiterate how important the results are for a school’s public perception. To continue with such a frivolous activity in a time when schools have been historically the epicenter for spreading viruses is ridiculous.

Not to mention that many standardized tests by the likes of charter school are still happening. Whole weeks have been spent taking the MAP test, the data of which is used to justify grants that supply these charter schools federal funding.

And when students return to in-person, the resulting hybrid learning that must take place has driven teachers into a very low place. Combined with the fear of getting a very high viral load of the coronavirus, due to the amount of bodies in the room, these teachers are expected to teach twice. The amount of work has noticeably doubled, causing teacher resignations nationwide.

Keep in mind that European countries have worked to keep schools open by closing everything else. They understand the importance of schooling to such an extent that they are willing to forego economic activity in order to stop the spread. The United States wants to have its cake and eat it too. It thrills in restaurants and business taking place in a booth or office, respectively, but they also want 30 students in chairs Monday through Friday for eight hour stretches. This has caused a likely outcome: easily over 100,000 cases a day across the country with little signs of slowing.

School otherwise has been haphazardly constructed and painful to watch. I sit and marvel at the thought that, because schools earn their funding through attendance, students must effectively sit through Zoom sessions with multiple classes that can total up to four hours a day. At my old school certain employees, hired more for in-person experiences, have been charged with having a “digital fall festival” which could only be mediocre at best.

So what is the point, really? Is it the politics of saving face, of not being the school that gets put on the news for subpar educational experience? What even is the educational experience right now? Supposing there is some distance learning teacher out there with all the right video equipment, with a green screen and massively entertaining videos, what is the effectiveness of learning from a screen? Is there some expectation among parents that sending their kids to the laptop produces such “aha” moments time and time again?

It may “mean” something to these schools to “return to normal” but the “significance” of what that actually entails is not being expressed.

Learning

Learning is a big word, and it is messy. So messy in fact that a teacher can never really know whether the topic or the skill or the idea ever works inside a student’s head, or if it even works the way the teacher hopes it should work.

Let me provide a brief anecdotal example. I have been using Filmora to edit and publish videos for a while now, and for the life of me, I could not figure out how to decrescendo the volume of sound but not mute the sound entirely. I simply wanted to lower the volume in order for voice over or for transitions. I was sure there was a way to lower the volume without silencing it, but I could not figure out a way to do it.

Through an advertisement on YouTube, I figured out how to do it. Not even a dedicated video: it was an ad.

For some strange reason, in fifteen seconds, this person told me all about how to use key frames, and suddenly I knew exactly how to reduce volume without silencing the sound from the video entirely.

Take into account not only that I got exactly what I wanted, which is rare in education, but that I got it in the most side angle possible.

It seems as though, in 2020, teachers are expected to provide this technical skill in each class, regardless of subject (History even) and they are supposed to bring this revelatory moment for each student regardless of their prior knowledge or skill. If it is English, the idea is that this distance learning teacher can finally solve the concept of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird so that no institutional racism exists ever again. If it is Math, the teacher is expected to explain Trigonometry, the bridge to Calculus, by somehow leapfrogging over any student’s porous knowledge of Pythagorean Theorem, calculator use, and the ratio of Pi. If it is History, the teacher must somehow teach only their History, and provide understanding of the entire world in 10th grade such that adults never make the mistakes of the past again. With COVID repeating what occurred with the Spanish Flu here in the States, it’s clear that is not happening. And that leaves Science, which must somehow answer deeply rooted questions about Biology that even our experts are not willing to admit in public, that we are animals, and as such our minds have evolved over time just as much as our bodies.

Clearly this is not a sustainable way to look at learning, and for the most part, I do not believe that many people in the United States take education seriously for this reason. But rather than take part in the pleasure of finding things out, the dependence on education to subsist learning has grown to the point where the amount of intellectual exploration has shrunk among young people to an alarming degree. Because such an emphasis has been placed on schools, even and especially in light of a pandemic, there is this assumption that schools are the saviors of our minds.

As a teacher, let me be the first to tell you that this is bullshit.

Out of the Classroom – Waiting for Superman

Take for example Finland, the best educated nation in the world. While Joe Biden has emphasized Early Childhood education for all, Finnish students do not start until age seven. And even when they go to school, they start at 8:15 and end at 2:45. Not only that, but they have an hour for lunch, and spend fifteen minutes on breaks between class. They have less (or no) homework, and yet with this schedule, they manage to outpace everyone, even the rigorous Asian nations like Singapore and South Korea.

Compare this to the U.S. where at my school, we received students at 7:15 for a starting time of 7:50. Students had five minutes to get between classes, and they only had 30 to 40 minutes for lunch. And if they were stuck in line waiting for food, it was much less, to such an extent that they were still eating their food in the classes that bordered lunch. School ended at 3:25, fully an hour later, where some stuck around for clubs or academic activities for yet another hour. Students went home with hours of homework, working with frustrated parents well into the night. Students then spent time on their phones, foregoing sleep and putting blue light into their eyes, making deep sleep more difficult. They would wake up the next morning, with our without their homework completed, and do it all over again.

What can we claim with this schedule? The United States is routinely behind many Western nations in reading literacy and math ability. While richer schools force our children into a “tyranny of merit” as Michael Sandel has written, turning our top students into nervous wrecks, the remainder of our children suffer projects and worksheets endlessly. The assumption with schooling is that education that is mechanical and can be measured is more important than a natural learning process that is very messy and difficult to quantify.

This reliance on sedentary and passive responses to education has been trending for some time. In the article “Time use and physical activity: a shift away from movement across the globe,” they make a prediction for our bodies in the United States:

Figure 1 shows that in the US total PA from the four domains in 1965 was already
somewhat low at 235 MET hours/week for adults, with occupational PA constituting the
majority. Total PA actually rose slightly between 1987 and 1995 driven by occupational PA.
Subsequently, it fell to 160 MET hours/week in 2009, and it is forecasted to be around 142
MET hours/week by 2020 and 126 MET hours/week by 2030 (see figure 1) due to declines
in occupational, domestic, and travel PA. Our forecast shows that active leisure PA will
have slight increases during this period. However, time spent in sedentary behaviors will
continue to increase to nearly 42 hours/week by 2030.

You might be thinking: if this is a call for greater literacy, what could be more stagnant than reading? But the truth of the matter is there is some disconnect between reading literacy and sedentary experiences. Consider India, one of the countries who routinely report much higher amounts of reading on average than other nations. Here is what the article interpreted:

Figure 5 shows that India is the most resistant to declines in PA among the five countries
studied here, but even so there is a noticeable decrease, particularly in occupational PA,
projected into 2030. At the same time sedentary time is expected to rise from 18.6 hours/
week in 2000 to 20 hours/week by 2030
.

Keep in mind that all countries have experienced a physical activity decline. For scientists like Barbara Tversky, author of Mind in Motion, this is particularly alarming.

I have read more, but I have also been riding my bike more as well. I suspect that the two are more linked than I realized. Having a hunger for space, to take the new words and link them onto the natural world, I have found a broadening of the spectrum of learning I had forgotten in my years of teaching. Spending years of my life in a single classroom taught me in a handicapped way. I could only see how stunted this type of learning was when I got out.

Schools seem hell bent on bolstering the weaknesses of education, when talks of the strengths and benefits of what this time provided fell by the wayside. Outdoor classes, used during the Spanish Flu and discussed among teachers avidly, was a measure that no school took up. Not even in California, where the weather is the most temperate for the longest amount of time (when wildfires were not raging of course).

This is a hard thing to admit, but schools were not places where I learned when I went as a boy. When I was a child I read books. And as far as I can tell, elementary school was a safe space where I could read quietly and effectively, so that I could leave and go play sports later. To think that there is some magic bullet in education is to forsake the self-directed learning found in our history. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Phyllis Wheatley. Even contemporary figures like Werner Herzog and Karl Popper remind us that education is only as good as Mark Twain claims it is, which, it so happens, is not very good at all.

Conclusion

COVID was a rare gift that schools squandered. It was the time to try an experiment: what if everyone spent less time upholding these odd traditions? So odd that we are not even sure if they provide the learning we need in 2020. What if, instead, we dedicated ourselves to a kind of self-sustained learning, where young people read the books they wanted and reported back, like explorers in the suburban wilderness of a pandemic? What if students were given the opportunity to discover themselves? I happen to know some adults who cannot claim that they have any awareness of what is going on inside their heads.

Without any consideration on if the old system was working, schools were more than willing to force the issue. And the result is to exacerbate some of the worst features of American schooling: sedentary, mechanical learning.

In each interview I’ve done since leaving my previous job, I am asked what innovative technique I have done in my time as a teacher. I always despise this question. The question is designed not in the form of creativity, but in iteration. What they are actually asking is: “What twist have you performed on teaching a noun that is different from a standard worksheet?”

I say this because it seems impossible for us to ask big questions about our institutions. We cannot give more time back to families by refusing early childhood education, because we are worried about our children being abused, about not being fed. How are these binary decisions – to either provide more boring school or send students back to wolves – the ones we will be making to make our nation better?

Until we figure out what we want education and schooling to be good for (no small task), we will never see teaching through COVID as anything other than the politics of keeping children busy.

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