I began my work in education 35 years ago studying how young children develop their strengths and interests in free play in preschool and kindergarten. Ever since then, I’ve been working with schools, districts and education systems to understand why it’s so hard to improve schools and create learning environments that support all aspects of children’s development. From that work, I’ve learned that the disruptions to schooling that so many have experienced this year will not necessarily lead to rethinking or reimagining what happens in schools. In short, nothing will change unless we change it. But there are several critical steps we can take right now to make the schools we have more efficient, more equitable and more effective and lay the groundwork for transforming education as a whole as we move into the future.
Make the commitment to address issues of equity
The pandemic has highlighted the critical challenges that many children face, but those challenges existed long before the latest pandemic. Millions of children have been living in crisis, enduring deprivation, and facing trauma every day. There are students who can’t get to school, students who are chronically absent, students who fail to get the learning opportunities they need, and we have never made the changes required to enable them to catch up. Given that reality, responding to this crisis begins with recognizing that in addition to facing a global climate emergency, we face an equity emergency that we can work on directly and continuously. Addressing that emergency depends on building on and sustaining the partnerships across the health, education, and economic sectors that are already mobilizing to work on the current crisis.
Expand our priorities to support all aspects of children’s development
We can rethink the goals and content of schooling, not just the medium of instruction. It’s not just a question of when and how to teach online, it’s a question of what to teach and how to make sure that students have an opportunity to pursue key purposes and goals that we’ve never made room to address. We can’t just shoehorn socio-emotional learning, critical thinking, and global citizenship into an already crammed school day; we have to make these kinds of goals a central part of the design of all educational opportunities.
Cut the curriculum in half
To create the space and time to support children’s development more broadly, we can cut the curriculum in half in every subject. Following a “less is more” philosophy, we can narrow our focus and make sure everyone achieves critical academic goals – whether that focus is on learning to read, learning about fractions, or learning how and why viruses spread. But we can also make room in the school day so that every student has the time to reflect on their experiences and the challenges they’ve faced; to develop coping strategies; to get outside and explore their environment; to connect and build positive relationships with their peers and teachers; and to get engaged in meaningful and constructive work in areas they care about.
Break down the barriers between learning “inside” and “outside” schools
We can reinvent the school schedule and make space and time for powerful learning inside and outside schools. As we learn how to support the development of foundational skills more efficiently both “offline” and “online,” we can create a condensed school day that opens up possibilities for education in museums, community organizations, outdoor explorations, and businesses. In the process, we can shift the focus from getting children into schools to taking advantage of the learning opportunities all around.
None of this is easy, and none of it is impossible. This work begins, even in our isolation, as we reconnect, establish the relationships, and develop the shared commitment and collective responsibility to work together in the service of the common good.