Pandemic academics teach us that classrooms still matter

COVID-19 has reminded us that technology is an extremely poor substitute for in-person learning

School is out across Canada, thanks to COVID-19.

And classes won’t resume until the chief provincial public health officers and elected provincial leaders say it’s safe to do so. That will come as soon as next week in Quebec. Many other provinces will be much more circumspect.

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For weeks, it has meant that teachers have become distance learning educators. School divisions scrambled to ensure the proper supports were in place for families who don’t have Internet access or computers at home.

Unfortunately, some people are using this pandemic to promote their particular education ideologies.

On one side, we have those who want to fully privatize public education. Instead of a well-funded public system, they would love to replace teachers with online tutors. These proponents suggest that, when things go back to normal, at least some online instruction should continue to be mandatory. For them, this pandemic is a convenient excuse to get rid of classroom teachers.

On the other side, progressive educators see the pandemic as an opportunity to take the next step in 21st-century learning. They want schools to ditch prescribed content knowledge and focus on transferable skills such as creativity and critical thinking. At long last, they argue, each teacher will be a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage.’

Both sides are wrong.

Education has looked very different over the last several weeks, and will do so in future weeks, but not because a fundamental transformation is taking place.

The distance learning programs being implemented now are stop-gap measures designed to ensure students keep learning during this emergency period. While some students thrive in this newly-created independent setting, parents and teachers are seeing first-hand that, for most students, in-person courses are a much better delivery option than online courses.

If anything, this pandemic has reminded us that technology is an extremely poor substitute for in-person teaching and learning. For young students, personal contact is, in fact, vital.

As for so-called 21st-century learning, the reality is that students learn best when they acquire substantial content knowledge beginning at an early age and learn a number of important skills (such as standard math algorithms). Practise and repetition are important ways of committing these skills and a substantial amount of knowledge to memory.

Obviously, it’s harder to cover the academic basics when students are learning at home. Schoolwork has become a lot more open-ended and flexible than normal – and that’s to be expected. After all, we are in the midst of a global pandemic.

However, this isn’t an excuse for schools to jettison the academic basics when classes finally resume. The worst thing we can do is turn schools into progressive bastions of fluffy self-exploration where students are never forced to grapple with meaty academic skills and content.

The long-term changes likely to result from this pandemic are considerably more modest. Creating effective distance learning options for students who can’t attend regular class is certainly one. We should also expect better access to technology for all students and improved communication protocols in the event of future emergencies.

There’s an old legal maxim that hard cases make for bad law. This is certainly true in public education. No one should assume that what schools are doing now will become the model for how schools should look in the future.

Meanwhile, the work of teaching and learning continues.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, author and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He has extensive teaching experience at a variety of grade levels and currently teaches high school social studies in Manitoba.

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