(Or why remote learning alone won’t save education)
In response to COVID-19, schools across the country have scrambled to address learning via remote platforms. There is a wide range of what “learning from home” looks like, but the rush to remote learning, educational technology, and devices for all students fails to consider whether or not more technology is best for children and learning. Schools, superintendents, and school board leadership, when making such significant decisions, must consider the most important part of learning and education: human relationships.
My son loves his math teacher. When he started middle school at a Seattle Public School last fall, a little fish in a big pond, we were thrilled by daily reports of an educator who “made the learning fun.”
When Seattle Public Schools closed buildings in March, the transition was abrupt. My son was in Band when the principal announced the shutdown. His class cheered. As we know now, two weeks became three months and March 11 marked the “last” day of school as we knew it.
Schools across the country now face an enormous challenge. As districts plan for the future of learning (September still uncertain), we must appraise what “remote learning” means, and consider that investments in “more tech” do not necessarily equate to “better learning.” Distinct differences in how public vs. private schools are managing this process further highlights the inequities in education.
I speak to schools and parents to help them find balance with screen-based technology. In my presentations, I stress that I am not “anti-technology.” I own devices, use social media, watch shows with my children, and my spouse works in the tech industry. I consider myself “tech-intentional.” Technology can be a useful tool when used in intentional, research-supported ways (see www.everyschool.org).
I am deeply concerned that a hurried move towards more online learning will displace the vital importance of human relationships in teaching. Decades of research on child development show learning is relational: adults matter tremendously to a child’s success in school. Public schools serve a community purpose beyond just “education”: they provide social services, nutrition, preventative health care, and safe environments for children. Children come to these services through their relationships to teachers. Any educator worth her salt knows that when a child is in a stressful situation, learning cannot happen.
Public schools planning for future online learning models, even part-time, must take these factors into consideration. The focus should not be “catching up” on content, but a rethinking of the industrialized model of education, and spotlighting the critical importance of the student-teacher relationship. A laptop for every child is not the answer. Prioritizing technology at the expense of relationships will not benefit children; it will benefit technology companies.
I conclude my presentations to parents and schools by offering three critical questions when choosing a technology-based option. In moving forward, schools must consider:
- What do we gain? Who benefits, beyond the technology companies? How can remote-learning build on existing teacher-student relationships?
- What do we lose or replace? While some children may benefit from remote learning, which children will miss out? How do we address the inequities of internet access or devices? What non-screen alternatives can we emphasize?
- What do we model? What are we teaching our children about what we value? Online learning is a recent phenomenon, yet children’s innate curiosity and sense of wonder is a catalyst for learning. How can we nurture and honor the notion that “learning” need not be confined to four walls and a standardized, test-based model?
Throughout this crisis, we look for the silver linings. At the start of this global health crisis, social media feeds revealed an increase in appreciation for our children’s teachers: for their teaching skills, yes, but also for their ability to manage classrooms with wide-ranging needs, build relationships based on connection and compassion, and work within a system that demands the standardization of children, who are not, by their nature, standardized.
As schools plan for future remote learning, we must prioritize the importance of relationships at the forefront of learning, the classroom leaders who inspire and innovate, and the caring adults who work to make the lives of all children meaningful. This, above all else, matters most.
Emily Cherkin, M.A.Ed., is a tech-intentional parent, educator, speaker, writer, and founder of The Screentime Consultant, LLC, and her work has been featured in local and national news, including in The New York Times and on The Today Show and Good Morning, America.