The Reflection Pool

Think Again About Schooling

Reading Time: About 4 Minutes

Her voice rose as she spoke, cracking slightly on the last word. ” I’m juggling working from home, video conferences, wonky internet, planning meals, making sure we all get some exercise and being my kids’ teacher. I can’t do it!”

He struggled too, uneasy about his layoff. “I have no idea when I’ll get back to work. Even though I’ve plenty of jobs to do around our place, I can’t get motivated. And when I log on to the school’s learning platform, I can’t tell what’s happening and if the kids are where they should be. This is hard.”

Parents, guardians, caregivers and teachers worry about our children and what the future holds for them. This global pandemic has us all even more on edge. Now we wonder if the kids will be alright having had to stay inside for weeks. What does it mean that little ones are now using words like pandemic in their imaginative play as they warn each other to stay apart? How will they do in school if they’ve had to miss two or more months? Will my child fall behind? Will they be OK?

Parents* are also wondering about the worksheets, the exams and the comprehension questions. What happens if my child doesn’t finish them? Do they lead to learning? Am I a bad parent if I can’t sit beside my child and help them?

Over the years, educators, pundits, and politicos have written much about the purpose of schooling. Some people point out the quasi factory model of education that we still mostly follow in schools. You know, the desks in rows, punch in punch out mentality, strict adherence to bells and minutes of instruction. There are plenty of educators who have innovated within this structure, however, the sifting and sorting of students has continued. We assign grades at the end of each block of learning time, and those grades have become a proxy for success in life.

Listening to Gretchen Rubin‘s latest podcast, which included a parenting segment with Dr. Elizabeth Schwarz, resonated strongly for me. In their conversation, Gretchen and Elizabeth ask what is important about school. You can listen to the full discussion, but in short, their answer is socializing and learning to learn: “The actual material is not so important.”

We are in a time in Ontario, when grades don’t matter. For once, if Alex doesn’t complete that Math worksheet with 24 multiplication questions, it won’t really make a difference. Samira won’t have to write a final exam where she answers 15 multiple choice questions about the structure and behaviour of matter. Blair won’t need to finish the comprehension questions on that passage from Homer.

I’ve believed for years that grades shouldn’t be necessary and that we do a disservice to children, teenagers and adults by insisting on this ranking of their learning. If we believe that the purpose of school is to learn, that it’s for “students to learn and grow to their full potential in a diverse world” as my district states in the mission statement, then the focus should always be on learning, not on the grade.

So what’s the answer for now? While the pandemic threatens all of us, there are also opportunities. I wonder how learning can look without some of our formalized structures. Parents should feel good about all they’re doing to love, take care of and learn with their kids. Talking about family and our place in the natural and artificial world, preparing meals together, doing some home projects, caring for pets, or going for walks in the neighbourhood mean valuable time with family and also time to learn how to learn. Educators are helping by posting provocations, interesting questions, or problem solving challenges instead of pages of questions and worksheets.

We don’t need to worry so much about our young people keeping up. We need to worry about how they socialize, imagine, play and think.

*When I use “parents”, I mean parents, guardians and caregivers.