Crisis, Recovery, & Disillusionment

Teachers have a certain mettle about them. Just ask the parents from last spring’s remote learning experience. There were lots of thank yous and acknowledgements; I guess people understood more clearly the laborious demands of our calling as educators.

Then came the summer.

The escalation of COVID. State sanctioned racial violence. Black@ instagram pages. It was a lot, but despite all this pain, teachers persisted, and many have been asked to return to physical classrooms. While some resigned, a courageous and heart-wrenching decision born out of the tragic fact that they can’t work in public spaces right now, those that did return have done so courageously as well, all to serve students, to listen to them, and to heal with them.

Mettle has its limits though, something I keep at the forefront of my mind as I begin observational rounds this month. We’re all first-year teachers right now, and so many of us are hurting. As Donna Orem writes in a recent article, many of us, teachers included, are in the “disillusionment stage” of the disaster response and recovery process. Besides the obvious things that are in the news cycle, what else is contributing to this disillusionment?

The Concurrent Classroom

I have yet to meet an educator who endorses our new “hybrid learning environments” that are coupled with COVID safety protocols that restrict our movement, cover our faces, and relegate at-home students to tiny brady bunch squares on TV screens tucked away in the corner of some classroom. Simultaneously teaching in-person and virtual students, what Catlin Tucker is calling the concurrent classroom, is a troublesome proposition to say the least.

First, the two user experiences (in person versus online) vary greatly, meaning different instructional methods and designs are necessary for maximum impact whether that be an online or in person learner. Tucker describes it this way: “In class, students have easy access to the teacher and each other. There are more opportunities for social learning and human interaction. Online, students have a higher degree of agency, autonomy, and flexibility, but they may feel isolated or disconnected.”

I have taught in this environment in recent weeks, and it is a tough gig. There weren't as many thank yous from parents this time around, and my worry, after having this experience, is that the mettle may meet her match with this current challenge. I worry about burnout.

So how do we make this work? And why are we doing it this way in the first place?

I attended Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager’s webinar, “Teach Like the Future Depends On It: Unlocking the Potentials of Remote/Hybrid Learning Environments.” (If you haven’t already, check out their book Invent to Learn). Generously, they shared a ton of wisdom, forecasting education’s future and why we’re accelerating towards it, while also pointing out resources for the present. Not much was said, however, about the actual mechanics and structures of a hybrid classroom model. When addressing “the concurrent classroom,” their advice was to minimize synchronous class time. Good pedagogical advice, for sure, but it’s not acknowledging what’s driving the move to these synchronous hybrid models. (The best counsel I’ve found so far is Jennifer Gonzalez’s piece from last month).

We are faced with so many questions:

  • If we are tied to the bell schedule, for better or for worse, what do we do?
  • How do we layer these two completely different experiences in a synchronous environment?
  • How can we meet the needs of “roomers” as well as “zoomers” when time is precious and logistics are complicated?

One thing's for sure: there’s NOT a lot of research to shed some light, which begs the question: Why are we doing it this way? What are the design drivers that led us to this COVID model of daily schooling?

Rewind seven months. It was March with everyone on their way out for spring break, not realizing what was to come in the following days or weeks. Then came the stay-at-home orders, prompting schools to cobble together a remote learning plan. It was tricky, but, as mentioned, there was a renewed sense of appreciation for teachers.

That was nice.

The educational accelerationists were teeming with excitement. Historical circumstances were finally forcing certain desired changes that technology had made possible years ago. A moment of opportunity had arrived!

(Well, for some, at least. Let’s not downplay the inequities that were exposed nor overlook the challenging home life situations that kids no longer could seek refuge from.)

Somewhere along the way, however, the whole experience began to sour for just about everyone. Was it Zoom fatigue? Was it irregular attendance and check ins? Was it the conflict in parents’ schedules? Was it the noticeable decline in everyone’s sense of social-emotional wellbeing?

Most parents (and probably some students) concluded that there was a need for more structured, synchronous learning experiences. The old, seat-time model had had its merits, one might conclude.

A Call to "Deschool" School: Some Sketches for Seeing It Differently

In some respects, parents weren’t wrong about last spring. Remote learning did not go well for a lot of people, and it’s worth exploring possible reasons. For instance, consider the following (both of which are reasons why physical schools will continue to exist):

  1. The extrinsic motivators and regulators (seat-time, bells, etc.) that are part of a physical institution’s mode of operations were no longer at the disposal of teachers and administrators to get students to comply and do all their work, which led to problems in the remote learning context.
  2. The intangible but physical elements of a community (clubs, breaking bread at lunch, random encounters in hallways, conversations about nothing) were no longer as readily or organically accessible in the remote environment, thereby causing many community stakeholders (students, teachers, etc.) to feel isolated and even unwell—the take away being that the lack of physical space does have serious emotional and motivational implications.

Rejecting reason 1, schools shouldn’t have to function solely as manipulative institutions or as places of compliance where getting students to learn means holding them in rooms, disciplining them when they’re tardy, etc. COVID, however, exposed one of two truths (probably depending on the school or context):

(1) Some schools or educators rely too heavily on extrinsic factors to motivate learning.


(2) There is still a perception among many stakeholders (parents and guardians included) that this is the reason schoolhouses are necessary.  

Ivan Illich critiqued this decades ago in his unconventional study, Deshooling Society: “In school we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and, finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates. In fact, learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting” (Deschooling Society 56 affiliate link). Ilich’s words should give anyone pause the next time one's thinking, “But the students just won’t do the work!”

I think Illich would tell us that reason 2 is why schools will continue to have value: It’s a place for participation in a meaningful setting. The value of a brick-and-mortar school rests, not in the mechanisms of control it has at its disposal, but in the unpredictable and ever-unfolding community a social space makes possible. We need a setting, a place to participate with others. “As architects of learning experiences,” Catlin Tucker writes, “teachers should focus on providing that human connection to students working remotely. The students online need to feel like they are part of the class community even though they are not sharing a physical space.”

The absence of communal space is the real challenge.  It’s not that asynchronous, student-driven inquiry doesn’t work, but that it has to be nurtured (and structured) in actual community spaces.

For those that remain in a remote learning context, this is their primary challenge, meaning worry less about finding ways to extrinsically motivate students. That’s not what lures students to learning.

Ok, that's all well and good, but what can physical schools learn from our experience in the spring?

Caitlin Tucker addresses this stating, “Conversely, teachers will have more success engaging students attending class in person if they build more agency, autonomy, and flexibility into their lessons.“ Her point is clear: There are a lot of positive things to learn from last spring (much of which is pointed out in Nora Fleming’s edutopia article). When Ivan Illich talked about unhampered and meaningful experiences, he too was identifying positive possibilities of flexible, asynchronous learning.

Illich defines the “deschooling of society” as an act where we no longer model school on what he calls “manipulative institutions”—i.e., an institution that “assumes a therapeutic or compassionate image” (like mental hospitals or some prisons) but actually relies on forcing its user into “unwilling consumption or participation.” Instead, he calls for us to consider the model of “convivial institutions,” which facilitate unhampered activity and are distinguished by spontaneous use, and no one has to sell you on it (think of parks, subway systems, community centers, libraries, etc.).

The tendency to blame remote learning’s failures on the absence of school’s typical regulatory measures is a sign we need to deschool society. The instinct to rely on “concurrent classrooms” as the best possible solution is a sign we need to deschool society. In both cases, we rely on the wrong elements of our current model of schooling. In the spring we worried more about motivating learning through grades, homework assignments that kept them busy, group instruction via Zoom, while naively hoping they’d find some intrinsic reason to stay on top of it. Now we’re relying on synchronicity, seat-time, and bell schedules as holding patterns to provide a more consistent and similar experience for both our “zoomers” and “roomers.”

This is what COVID has taught us about the future of schools—not that “the concurrent classroom” is our best solution moving forward, but that we must rethink physical schooling altogether, while first and foremost, remaining safe, even if that means we have to keep it online in some cases. When we do move past this pandemic, I hope we learn that physical community spaces must become more plastic, user-centered, and personalized. That’s the lesson for schools as we feel the tendency to simulate the traditional bell schedule.

Instead of designing a solution based on what we used to do, we need to ask ourselves what appeals to the primary user (in this case, students and teachers)—not what works best for secondary users like parents and administrators. Otherwise our teachers' mettle will max out, and we’ll see more educators take their talents elsewhere.

Like Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager, I have failed to address the pressing concern: namely, how the heck do we structure a concurrent environment logistically and pedagogically speaking? I plan to post more next week and beyond, first on modified blended strategies such as the Station Rotation model, then on the virtual learner’s experience in a hybrid class, and last on the importance of giving restorative feedback (and not grades) during this time.

Until then, stay tuned. Stay safe. And stay strong. We’re in this together.