On January 11, 2020, a 61-year-old man in the central Chinese city of Wuhan succumbed to a new virus that had sickened at least 41 people. “There is no evidence that the virus can be spread between humans,” the New York Times reported at the time (Quin & Hernandez, 2020). By April 2, the COVID-19 coronavirus had sickened more than one million people in 171 countries across six continents and had killed more than 51,000. In a recent report for the Royal Society of Canada, my colleague Michelle Hagerman and I noted that nearly two years later, the pandemic had not only claimed the lives of millions but also upended nearly every public, private, and non-governmental institution around the globe (Westheimer & Hagerman, 2021).
Crises have a way of making us ask big questions. They focus our attention on what matters most – to us, our loved ones, our fellow citizens, and the planet. For educators, prioritizing what is important became fundamental as teachers grappled with the new realities of online learning, spotty attendance, and the immense inequalities the pandemic revealed about the lives of students and their families. These new realities offer an opportunity to reshape our thinking about what matters in education. But opportunity is not the same as destiny. For lasting change to occur, we must focus our attention on using what we have learned.
What does it mean to be well-educated?
Can you name any of the fourteen plant phyla? What’s the difference between sine and cosine? When did the Assyrian empire’s reign over Mesopotamia begin and end? What roles do chloroplasts, vacuole, or mitochondria play in the basic functioning of cells? If you don’t know the answers, you’re not alone. The truth is that few adults (whose professions do not require such specialized knowledge) know the answers to these questions. And even fewer face social, civic, or career setbacks as a result.
If I could ban any two words from education talk for the next year or so, I would choose these: learning loss. The past two years of interrupted schooling has meant that countless children missed lessons in math, history, geography, science, and literature. Every day we read about children falling behind, but the curriculum is bursting at the seams. Falling behind what? Behind whom? Estimates are that nearly 90 percent of the world’s 1.7 billion students have missed a significant amount of school these past two years. So we shouldn’t be surprised if testing experts tell us that, on balance, the COVID generation is not performing as well on standardized assessments of progress as previous cohorts of children at the same stage in their schooling. We probably didn’t need the tests to tell us that predictable fact. But what if that model of teaching and learning is outdated and there are more important things for teachers to think about than whether they’ve “covered” the curriculum?
For certain basic skills such as numeracy and literacy, the language of learning loss is an understandable way of expressing concern over an achievement gap between high- and low- achieving students. But for more than three decades, the school curriculum has become increasingly consumed with all the things students should know before they graduate. That has resulted in an unprecedented global obsession with micro-managing teachers’ work to ensure the right information is taught, and with standardized testing to find out if they’re succeeding. Yet those who seek to demonstrate the importance of coverage in the curriculum mostly use standardized measures of knowledge attainment to prove their point. This tautological approach should be easily dismissed, pandemic or no pandemic, when making the case that we need to move our priorities away from a mile-wide-inch-deep approach to teaching and learning.
Research in teaching and child development tells us that learning how to think analytically is much more important than cramming in material that students won’t remember weeks or years later. We live in an age of instantly accessible information in an infinite number of domains. Living well in the 21st century does not require more information, but rather the knowledge and skills needed to sift, understand, and assess the quality of information. Teaching content matters, but covering every possible historical event and scientific or mathematical concept does not.
I would be thrilled if my child had the opportunity to read and discuss with her teacher and classmates the brilliant allegorical novel, The Alchemist. After all, many students learn valuable ways of thinking about the world from reading it. But I’d be OK if they had to miss that one and read only Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Yann Martel’s Life of Pi instead. What matters is finding topics of interest to both teachers and students, having the time to explore those topics in depth, and facilitating connections between subject matter and the outside world. A deep-dive into topics of interest is worth more than a stress-filled endurance swim in the shallows.
This is not a new idea. “Less is more” has been a common aphorism in curriculum development for more than 30 years. The harms wrought by trying to meet curricular standards bursting at the seams were well documented before the pandemic (see for example Kempf, 2016), but during the past two years, as teachers and school boards across the country were forced to recognize the impossibility of covering the entire prescribed curriculum, the very idea of breadth versus depth came under increased scrutiny. It has become clearer than ever that endlessly expanding content goals reduce teachers’ control over the curriculum, undermine their professional judgment, and limit student engagement.
Acknowledging inequality without making it worse
The COVID-19 pandemic functioned like an X-ray, revealing already existing fault lines in our nation and the world: poverty and economic inequality, hunger and homelessness, racial and ethnic bias, unequal access to high-speed internet and computers, and inadequate resources for those most in need. None of these are new challenges, but they are newly spotlighted for all of us to see – “pinned” in the vernacular of the now-ubiquitous video conferencing platforms. Online learning meant that educators were transported into students’ homes, making inequality difficult to ignore.
What bothers me about a focus on learning loss and “falling behind” is that it will increase these already existing gaps. Calls for economically disadvantaged students to keep up with their wealthier peers will not diminish the achievement gap between children from poorer and wealthier households. The problem is not that some kids will learn more than others as much as it is the consequences we tie to arbitrary benchmarks of learning in the first place. Since students are likely to be evaluated in the future using assessments of how much of the curriculum was covered, and since those evaluations continue to be used to sort students in ways that will affect their futures, we are, at least in part, creating the very problem we hope to eliminate by emphasizing the achievement gap. The more we value the acquisition of information over the development of intellectual, emotional, and relational capacities, the more we contribute to rather than ameliorate inequality.
I do not want to minimize the added supports some children need to make up for lost schooling in basic skills. A child entering Grade 3 after having missed much of the previous two years may not be able to read. Some children will have missed the opportunity to learn or solidify basic mathematical literacy. These are significant liabilities, not really comparable to missing stories about some explorers in Canadian history. It is a significant handicap to be lacking these “basic skills,” and for most children, it would be difficult to acquire these skills on their own. To be sure, we should support additional funding for more teachers, smaller classes, and additional programming so that these gaps can be addressed.
But there is much more to schooling than basic skills alone, and we must be careful not to create arbitrary barriers to those students who, beyond common-sense basic skills, have not acquired the same level of curriculum coverage as their more well-resourced peers.
Schools have been stuck in the wrong paradigm for success, one in which individualized knowledge and skills are the end-goal instead of a means to develop students’ best selves within the community of their teachers and peers, and, by extension, improve society for all of us.
What counts as a successful education?
If we agree to move beyond an outdated paradigm of education centred around curriculum coverage, what kind of vision for post-pandemic education can take its place? Two decades ago, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that education either functions to inculcate conformity in the younger generation or it becomes “the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (2000, p. 34). To Freire, the sense of pedagogical meaning-making that derives from curriculum is inseparable from the goal of improving society. In other words, improving society requires not only teaching basic skills and knowledge, but also engaging young and old alike in a process of collective meaning-making and community-building.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the ways people treat one another, learn from one another, and live together in local, national, and global communities – in short, how people see themselves as members of a community. Education has always seemed important to me, not because of the debates about passing fads and strategies (phonics versus whole language, new math versus old math, small classes versus big classes), but rather because choices about how we teach our children are choices about the kind of society we believe in and the kind of people we hope will emerge from our schoolhouse doors. Will they be concerned only with their own individual success and ambitions without regard to the welfare of others? Will they form healthy and happy relationships with others? Will they value democratic values such as self-governance and social justice? Will they learn how to develop convictions and the courage to stand up for those convictions if and when it becomes necessary to do so? Will they be able to engage in work and community activities they find meaningful? These values are manifestations of a sense of both personal and civic identity and form the basis of community life.
You can see, then, that I think about schools not only or even primarily as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge, but also as places where children learn about the society in which they are growing up: how they might engage productively, how they can fight for change when change is warranted, and how to know when it is warranted. Schools have always taught lessons in areas such as citizenship, moral values, good behaviour, and “character.” Schools teach children to follow rules, to wait their turn, and (ideally) to cooperate with others. Schools (again, ideally) also teach children how to acquire and process information and how to articulate their ideas to others – all necessary skills for democratic community life. Some schools also help students consider whether being a “good” citizen or member of the community ever requires questioning rules, or what might be the proper balance between rule following and thinking about the origins and purpose of rules.
Schools teach these lessons regardless of whether or not they aim to do so explicitly. How classrooms are set up, who gets to talk when, how adults conduct themselves, how decisions are made, how lessons are enacted – all these inevitably serve as lessons in how to live together. Whether teachers explicitly “teach” these subjects or not, students learn about community organization, the distribution of power and resources, rights, responsibilities, and of course, justice and injustice. These same lessons are mirrored in students’ online interactions. Curricular choices and the relative importance we put on covering all the content standards contain both overt and hidden lessons as well.
When policy-makers focus obsessively on learning metrics, teachers are forced to reduce their teaching to endless lists of facts and skills, unmoored from their social meaning. But when we consider what a successful education might look like more broadly and we think about the impact our curricular choices have on the people we hope students will become, we create new ways of seeing the complex work of teaching and we form new expectations for the purposes of a public education.
Content matters, coverage does not
Schools should teach subject matter content. There, I said it. I do not want to entertain strawman arguments about progressive educators who don’t care whether children learn to read and write, add and subtract numbers, or learn facts about things. As far as I know, there is not a group anyone can join called “Parents and Educators Against Children Learning How to Read.”
What I am suggesting is that schools should teach content without becoming overly concerned with teaching all content. The need for such a shift in thinking is not new but was made newly possible by the disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eliminating the need for each and every student to cover the exact same material at the same time would free teachers to help their students create meaning, develop a sense of purpose, belonging, well-being, and the chance to learn more deeply about things that excite their curiosity. A paradigm for education that embraces these kinds of goals encourages teachers and students to develop content knowledge and skills by drawing on the local passions, interests, and resources of the school and community. As high school history teacher Michael Berkowitz likes to say: content matters more than coverage.
Most importantly, a successful education should be one that allows each child to become the best version of themselves, and to envision a future for their communities and the planet that isn’t yet realized – but that they can help bring about.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
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Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.
Kempf, A. (2016). The pedagogy of standardized testing: The radical impacts of educational standardization in the US and Canada. Palgrave.
Qin, A. & Hernández, J. C. (2020, January 10). China reports first death from new virus. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/world/asia/china-virus-wuhan-death.html. Para 4
Westheimer, J., & Hagerman, M. (2021). After COVID: Lessons from a pandemic for K-12 education. In T. Vaillancourt (Ed.), Children and schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and connection through opportunity. Royal Society of Canada. https://education.uottawa.ca/en/news/royal-society-canada-policy-briefing-children-and-schools-during-covid-19-and-beyond