The New, Older Normal
If our nation achieves herd immunity before next fall, the new normal for elementary schools may be older than the old normal. Since March, out of necessity, schools have had the unique opportunity to explore remote learning strategies and build digital tools that might have taken a decade to create in pre-pandemic circumstances. For middle and high school learners, some of these tools and strategies have turned out to be promising. Even better, with their potential to allow teachers to serve a greater number of students without packing more of them into the classroom, they also offer a real opportunity for independent schools to control costs and make a real change in our doomed financial model. For elementary age learners, however, these last 6 months have helped us discover one of the hard edges of remote learning: there is no digital tool or remote teaching strategy for young learners that can approximate--and very few that can enhance--the rich social, emotional and academic learning that takes place in a high quality, in person elementary school classroom.
The upshot of that discovery next year in elementary classrooms will be a hard return not to the practices of February 2020, but to some that will look more like 1980. Some of this Ludditism will be pragmatic. All kids, but especially elementary kids, will struggle in the early going with the social world of school, and elementary school teachers will use every part of the school day to help kids re-learn and practice social skills and community norms. Some of it will be reactionary. Woe to the second grade teacher who flips a lesson next September triggering beleaguered parents who lost patience for their role as "learning guides" long ago. But much of it will arise from newly solidified convictions. The third grade teacher who had reservations about the 1 to 1 iPad program her school adopted three years ago likely has a complete understanding of those feelings now. Likewise, the first grade teacher who struggled to see himself in the blended learning workshop the entire faculty participated in last year can now describe exactly why these teaching strategies hold little value for seven year olds. I foresee fewer screens, much less screen time, and less homework for elementary students next year as teachers prioritize the learning power of relationships, especially peer relationships, and the primacy of nurturing relationships with parents.
Next year, it will be very important for schools to support elementary teachers in these convictions even as they support middle and high school teachers as they glean the best remote tools and strategies from the previous year. Schools will need to think ahead about the possibility of repurposing some of the expensive tools they purchased to make remote school possible for young learners, so that the (laptop) cart does not drive the horse. More importantly, schools who get behind this in-person, face-to-face elementary learning dynamic should proclaim that commitment loudly. Families will be looking for it.