School Takes a Vacation — But Can Learning Increase?

While COVID-19 has resulted in an unprecedented experience around the world for modern society, it is not the first time in recent history that it has had a massive impact on public education in the United States. In the mid-seventies, the city of Columbus, Ohio shut down the school system for over a month due to a lack of natural gas combined with record low temperatures. The “School Without Schools” plan had children attending classes in borrowed buildings like libraries, restaurants, TV/radio stations, and many public structures. Although concern abounded over student learning (and, we imagine, student delinquency) in this makeshift operation, parental support and involvement increased and students took to the challenges and innovations necessary to make the temporary situation work.

Today we have a like situation with the Coronavirus shutting down our education system and precipitating a move to an online-learning environment. This will continue through this academic year and perhaps into the fall. Reports of the dire impact on student learning are common. We, however, predict that the opposite may happen —student involvement and learning will increase overall for middle school-through-high school years, understanding that the impact will not necessarily be universal due to equivalency of access to learning platforms. Still, it is possible that this less formal instruction may allow more students to gain. Past experience has taught us to expect the unexpected! 

Regardless of the learning environment, students are the conveners of learning (we often forget that) and will learn if they are motivated and interested, no matter the circumstances. A novel approach will often cause a spark and a spike in enthusiasm and active involvement. And let us be totally honest: it would not take much to have students better engage in our education system. Having to grapple with content in novel ways through a different medium (novel to many of us but not students) actually spurs participants on to be more self-reliant and teachers more innovative.

Our prognostication isn’t really going out on a limb – heck, we currently have little expectation for student performance anyway. Simply look at high school graduation requirements—meager at best with numerous routes to a diploma. The reality is that students are often elevated to the next level regardless of their acquisition of prerequisite learning. While working to define new standards of “high expectations and achievement,” we forgot along the way to make education interesting and fun. What we understand clearly is that students will live up to reasonable expectations if given the chance.

Thus, we find ourselves in a natural experiment to see how students—and teachers—will respond to a new learning environment with different learning expectations. It is unlikely that this will become the “new normal” in education, but perhaps we can take something from what we learn to ensure that our youth are prepared for a much different world than we expected.

By this time next year we may have to step up and explain why students excelled without going to school!

Today’s post was written by two esteemed colleagues in Ohio who wish to remain anonymous. 

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