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Colleges Wrestling with Fall Openings… and So Will K-12 Schools.

April 24, 2020

Today’s local newspaper features an article by the Washington Post’s Nick Anderson describing the issues colleges are wrestling with in determining whether or not they should open. The commentary describes how much the college students themselves hope school will open, some speculation on the political and economic conditions surrounding the decision, and some quote from college presidents on what will inform their decisions.

The college president’s analysis that got my attention from the article was that of Mark Schlissel, , an immunologist who leas the 46,000-student University of Michigan. It was not surprising to read that his decision on reopening would be “public health-informed”, but his thinking about the educational rationale could have some far reaching implications for those who advocate online learning:

Remote teaching is exceedingly difficult, he said, with laboratory classes and others that require physical activity. “There isn’t anything that can replace doing experiments with your own hands and seeing and interpreting results,” he said.

Dr. Schlissel was clearly thinking of advanced courses in science and medicine when he made that comment, but it has even more far reaching implications for K-12 schooling. How can public schools ever purport to replace their programs with online learning when so much of what they offer require physical activity? Early elementary teachers, in particular, spend much of their time providing assistance in learning how to hold pencils, how to write letters and numbers, and observing the physical movements of children as they go through the day. Moreover, much of the de facto curriculum in elementary schools involves students learning how to work collectively and collaboratively on projects. How will those skills be developed? And most importantly, one of the skills that students learn early on is how to work independently… a skill that is, as previous posts note, a necessary precondition for successful learning on a screen— or “remote learning” as it is called.

Dr. Schlissel may have been framing his analysis on college, but it illustrates that the kinds of hands-on learning in college is no different in many respects that the hands-on learning in Kindergarten and early elementary school… indeed, the kind of learning that really makes a difference in humanity. Screens alone cannot provide that kind of learning. Maybe the pandemic will teach us all that lesson.

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