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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Expensive and Messy

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

In evolutionary biology, the theory of punctuated equilibrium posits that evolutionary development occurs in bursts of rapid speciation dotted across vast periods of little or no change. Fairly or unfairly, American education is often described similarly, a profoundly conservative, glacial enterprise jolted occasionally into real change by outside forces: Horace Mann, Sputnik, Brown v. Board, and now, perhaps, the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has accelerated innovation from educators and designers of technology auguring what some believe could be the long awaited disruption to education by digital technology. Much of this thinking is coming in the form of predictions of what we'll retain from this fever dream of a year, once a vaccine is in place. Common on that list: the potential for digital delivery of instruction to be as effective as any other, and by extension, the potential for education to become cheaper, customizable, more equitable, freed from the day-long schedule, personalized and driven by the needs of the working world.

Although I have deep reservations about the last two (subjects for another article), I'm confident that some of these elements will come to fruition in secondary schools and higher ed, but I'm just as confident that elementary educators, and particularly preK-2 teachers, will choose to retain very little of what they had to learn about remote instruction, and administrators should listen to them closely. Elementary school is necessarily expensive and messy. It's best done not just in person but in kinesthetic, tactile modes, with hands immersed, as I saw on a visit to a preK classroom one day, in Crisco which the kids smoodged onto pinecones before rolling them in birdseed and hanging them from the trees outside a picture window (next: counting and categorizing birds, making graphs, learning about bird families, migration, processing it all in dramatic play). From a purely adult perspective, it is inefficient and frustratingly non-linear, a complex mixture of teacher-driven goals and children's interest, carried out by enormously patient, creative teachers who, for up to 8 hours a day, focus solely on the children under their care, their friendships and the classroom community. Rather than gleaning potentially transforming practices from the pandemic year, these teachers will be focusing on reclaiming and growing what the pandemic had taken away from the classroom.

Not Home

I write often about the value of school as "not home," school as the place where children develop their first relationships and, ultimately, communities outside the family. Elementary teachers carefully scaffold these early steps toward autonomy and confidence. Just as parents need their own adult space, children need emotional privacy, the opportunity to own their experience without mediation from their parents. Remote schooling removed this critical element of schooling almost entirely and inhibited many of the other communities young children join in their neighborhoods and activities. When I ask elementary teachers about their greatest concerns, they talk about how much the pandemic has set back children's social and emotional development.


Last spring, schools used a by-any-means-necessary approach to communication and then tightened it up over the summer in response to universal feedback from parents who'd opened their 200th "oops, wrong link" email some time around mid-April. Once kids return to "typical" school, however, schools have the opportunity to reset communication to achieve a healthy balance between keeping parents informed and promoting kids' ownership of their experience. I hope to see schools abandon online grade books, for instance, and to make thoughtful choices about sharing.

No Screens

A lot of equivocal, fuzzy reasoning brought screens into preK-2 classrooms over the last 15 years: It's the world they're growing up in; these tools will help personalize learning, especially with the kids who need more rehearsal. Remote learning over the last several months has helped elementary teachers confirm their reservations about these tools, that most digital programs are Skinner boxes, effective in improving performance at the trained task but almost useless at improving performance at closely or distantly related tasks, and that most programs are built to help kids become not digital designers but lifelong customers and data donors. Some bold schools will own this resolve loudly: we spent the last year discovering that screens don't work for educating young learners. You will no longer find them in our preK - 2 classrooms.

No Homework

Teachers know that homework is not appropriate for young children, and most preK - 2 programs in independent schools that assigned homework before the pandemic likely did so because of pressure from parents. Now those very same parents are exhausted from their year serving as "learning concierges." It's a serendipitous moment that schools should seize. Pitch it as, we want your kitchen table to be a kitchen table again, not a battleground. No homework, at least for preK - 2!


One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic year that I hope to see in all grade levels is the more frequent movement of learning outdoors. Let natural science learning take place through observation hikes and specimen boxes not textbooks. Let children derive research from primary sources, the kind they can hold in their hands.

Parent Guidance

Parents have spent too much of the past year in unhappy roles--scold, didact, nag, meddler, pedant, jailer. These are not foreign aspects of parenting, but in their muchness, through the intensity of togetherness that has characterized the last year, they have created dysfunction in family relationships and the overall emotional climate of the household. Families are going to need help recalibrating, and schools are in an ideal position to guide them. I've written here about how teachers and the larger institution should think carefully about how they communicate with parents and what they ask them to do. At each of these turns, educators should ask themselves, in what role are we casting parents by making this request? What assumptions are we making about their time? It's a certainty that post-pandemic parents will fall along a bell curve of engagement with their child's schooling, from the small number who quite enjoyed it and wish to spend a lot of time in their child's classroom next year, to those who will be burning rubber out of the parking lot on the first day of typical school. The great majority will fall somewhere in the middle and will be looking for help in striking a balance between structure and latitude, oversight and autonomy. Teachers should expect to assert themselves as parent coaches more frequently next year, in all of the ways they have in the past, to the parent who expressly asks for help, to the parent who avoids the conversation, to the parent whose prickly statement disguises deep insecurity and a profound question.

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