Rate, Interaction, Place: Three Aspects of Education

We how work in education have been thrown into chaos this past year. The chaos has not been as bad as our reaction to it, but that is a topic for another post. What has become clear in the past year has been educators’ assumptions about teaching and learning and schooling. As often happens, my thinking about this was organized by a completely unrelated idea. Specifically, I encountered in which Stephen Jay Gould was writing about rate, interaction, and place. Gould was writing about speciation, but hose three factors seem to be important in educator’s concentration of school as well.

Schooling is based on the assumption that student in a cohort learn all topics at the same rate and that the rate can be controlled by the teacher. This is the basis of much that we see in schools including learning objectives, lesson plans, marking periods, and schedules. These tools have value for organizing teachers and schools, but they are imposed for convenience rather than because they accurately reflect how people learn. We can remove some of the obstacles to learn we construct by removing unnecessary controls of rate of learning. “Just-in-time learning” is a thing, and it may be the dominant thing as we tend to learn quickly when we perceive the information is relevant and important. Virtual classrooms can be leveraged for providing access to what must be learned when the student needs. This must be one of the lessons we learn from pandemic teaching.

Information—the “stuff” most think is the goal of teaching—is really useless. Facts become important when we understand the connections between ideas and how the ideas interact with each other. When students cognitively engage with the curriculum and with other humans about the curriculum, they learn. Much interaction happens in-person. Much interaction happens online. When we craft post-pandemic teaching and schooling, interaction must be the focus. We are hearing about “learning loss” (a very dubious construct) and many stakeholders will be motivated to cram as much information into brains as possible to minimize this loss. That will be a bad idea. Rich interaction with ideas, teachers, and fellow students has always been the basis of human learning.

Schooling is based on the assumption that learning can be accomplished in desks and at tables that are placed in classrooms and configured in the manner decided by the teachers (maybe in response to distancing guidelines). I hope we have learned that teaching need not be in the isolated places we call schools.

The coming year is likely going to be one during which we decide what schools will be in the future. I see a chance to return to schools that are better than the ones we left in March 2020. We can begin building those schools by minimizing the extent to which we control the rate of learning, by increasing students’ interaction with ideas and people, and diversifying the places we recognize as valuable learning environments.