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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

My Top Hits 2020

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

The pandemic brought these ideas to the fore of my thinking this year. I'm still wondering about them.

Personalized Learning

This concept, getting fuzzier by the moment, is increasingly unsettling for me. The concept was quickly snapped up by the ed tech industry which had already developed programs that use the same algorithms that make your social media profiles a collection of Museums of Me. It's an effective dynamic to some degree as kids get more rehearsal at the things they're not getting, a solution to the "gotta move along" momentum of traditional classroom instruction. And yet, studies have demonstrated that most of these programs are Skinner boxes, proficient at training the task at hand but ineffective at building secondary and tertiary learning. More importantly, helping each child realize his academic potential is one important goal of a good education, but helping kids become thoughtful, effective teammates, collaborators, citizens holds equal value. I'm hoping that this concept vaporizes from its increasing weightlessness, but I think that's a futile hope.

Useful Learning

In a down economy, the voices advocating for career preparedness to be the directing force of education inevitably hit peak volume. Throw out the literature, calculus, the disciplines altogether, and focus on the skills and content that are currency in commerce and industry. This kind of thinking misses the value of traditional realms of knowledge as places for thought training. Just as musicians practice scales and great hitters take hundreds of swings a day in drills that look very little like a baseball game, students build more sophisticated problem solving strategies, means of analysis, capacity for civil debate and for reflection by learning math, literature, the histories of nations they'll never visit. These skills are not the luxuries of privilege but pathways to dignity, justice and authentic happiness that everyone should enjoy. As we know, these qualities can be gained outside of the classroom if one is fortunate, but a good education should be one way that we can guarantee them.

Snow Days and the Portability of School

The conversation surrounding remote learning on snow days has largely centered on jammies, sledding and cocoa as a birthright. I worry, however, that it signals the beginning of a slippery slope of equivocal thinking in which remote and in person learning become fungible. This year we've taken the measure of remote learning and seen pedagogical strategies and tech tools evolve at a rate that might have taken a decade under pre-COVID conditions. We've also identified one of remote learning's hard edges: its ineffectiveness for elementary learners. Developmentally, these students need caring, knowledgeable guidance from an adult. And, although physical, social and emotional learning is important at every level, all essential catalysts for academic learning, it's exponentially more important in the early grades. Without access to each other in person, without opportunities to feel their bodies in space and in proximity to each other, with facial expressions and body language reduced to inch square, flickering images, the PreK - 4th grade set who spent most of their year in remote learning, even at the best resourced schools, learned less than half of what they would have in person. If remote learning snow days are here, can belief in the complete portability of education be far behind? A promising thing perhaps for mature learners, but a fraudulent tradeoff for little people.

Mutual Exclusivity

In pre-COVID times, we believed it possible to live inside all of our convictions, that we could go about our lives upholding racial equity and justice, the rights of women, the needs of children, the elderly, the profession of teaching, etc. The pandemic made that impossible. Your learning pod supports your child and the needs of women but is inherently inequitable robbing your public school system of dollars. You promote equity by continuing to send your child to your local public school but your concerns about its quality have turned into panic about your child's future as you've seen it fumble disastrously through the pandemic. Your child is prospering in remote learning because you've made troubling sacrifices in your own career and in your relationship with your child. Your child's school has been enormously creative in making in person schooling possible, but you fear that school leaders have consciously put teachers' lives in danger to make it happen. Perhaps these multiply held convictions were always pitted against each other and the pre-COVD world just made it easier to sublimate our decisions or to ignore what was being ransomed. I'd like to think that the pandemic has caused us to take a more sober, rational look at the needs of our society and our place in filling them. My hope for 2021 is that we hold onto this clarity of sight and not let the initial novelty of the mundane choices that will soon be available to us (restaurants, concerts, family reunions!) make us think that we are giants again.

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