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Early in the lockdown, my 10-year-old daughter learned how to use a sewing machine by watching YouTube videos. Before her school began offering live virtual instruction in September, she spent a good deal of time in the basement making pillows, handbags and other articles of clothing. She was supposed to be completing worksheets and other assignments, but I took a hands-off approach because I saw how driven she was to learn in her own way.
In the basement, away from parents and teachers, she figured out how much material she needed to produce what she wanted, how different materials fit together and what tools were necessary to create what she envisioned. She was remarkably adept at finding workarounds for problems. If she wanted to attach an object to one of her garments but couldn’t figure out how to sew it, she resorted to a hot glue gun, wire, a stapler or other fasteners. She now knows a heck of a lot more about clothing design and production than I do and is applying her newfound knowledge to other areas of design.
We tend to infantilize our children. By doing so, we place them in ideological boxes. School has become a place where they go to be taught the skills we have determined to be important. But many schools limit what is possible by adhering to rigid and outdated frameworks like traditional subject and grade divisions. This impedes kids from understanding how systems work, how things fit together, how people of different ages interact and how ideas are generated and disseminated. Now, as we grapple all at once with a global pandemic, profound structural inequities, climate change and the rise of authoritarianism at home and abroad, we need to produce citizens who understand how it is all knitted together.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, American education has experienced a seismic upheaval. For the first time in close to 100 years, many students are learning in environments apart from schools. They are therefore better able to apply academic content to the rhythms and challenges of their communities. We have a golden opportunity to reorient American education toward the passions of our students and the priorities of our communities, but the window is rapidly closing. Tech companies are circling like vultures, selling their quick fixes to exasperated school systems, and understandably the debates about school sanitization and safety are more impassioned than those about post-Covid pedagogy.
To their profound credit, well-intentioned teachers have moved mountains to cultivate online learning platforms devoted to teaching the skills they otherwise would have taught in their classrooms. But are those skills and subject-segregated methods still the ones our students need to make sense of interdependent global systems and phenomena that evolve at lightning speed? If we determine that they aren’t, can we chart a pedagogical future that is project-based, learner-driven and community-oriented?
In his book “Deschooling Society,” Ivan Illich observed: “Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.” As educators, we should reflect on what meaningful settings look like in our current troubled environment. Instead of requiring students to gaze at computers for hours out of their day so that they can complete compartmentalized “assignments,” we can ask them what problemsthey would like to solve in their communities, then orient cross-disciplinary instruction toward those ends. In the process, we can press our students on the moral, ethical and environmental consequences of their work.
We have a golden opportunity to reorient American education toward the passions of our students and the priorities of our communities, but the window is rapidly closing.
If we allow student curiosity and community problem-solving to drive the process, we can nurture systemic knowledge in our students that they can apply to other problems as they encounter them. This approach will help them better understand cause and effect, how traditional subjects relate to one another, how systems operate and how people interact. It will also empower them to believe that they can produce both knowledge and its products, instead of consuming both. If we use this time wisely, we can fertilize the ground to produce the comprehensive thinkers and doers we so desperately need right now.
Eric S. Singer is a high school and university educator. He has a master’s degree in education and a doctorate in history. He adapted “The Untold History of the United States, Volume 2: Young Readers Edition, 1945-1962.”
This story about reorienting American education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.