Home > Uncategorized > Erika Christakis Sees Opportunity to Use Remote Learning to Rethink Early Childhood Education. My Reaction? Why Not Rethink ALL Schooling?

Erika Christakis Sees Opportunity to Use Remote Learning to Rethink Early Childhood Education. My Reaction? Why Not Rethink ALL Schooling?

January 10, 2021

Atlantic education writer Erika Christakis’ recent article, “Remote Learning Isn’t the Only Problem With School“, is subtitled “Yes, remote schooling has been a misery—but it’s offering a rare chance to rethink early education entirely.” Her subtitle falls short of the mark because I believe remote schooling is offering us a change to rethink ALL schooling.

Ms. Christakis opens her article likening the results of remote schooling to the results of a tsunami:

…a tsunami that pulls away from the coast, leaving an exposed stretch of land, the pandemic has revealed long-standing inattention to children’s developmental needs—needs as basic as exercise, outdoor time, conversation, play, even sleep. All of the challenges of educating young children that we have minimized for years have suddenly appeared like flotsam on a beach at low tide, reeking and impossible to ignore. Parents are not only seeing how flawed and glitch-riddled remote teaching is—they’re discovering that many of the problems of remote schooling are merely exacerbations of problems with in-person schooling.

She then itemizes the existing problems with early childhood education, which readers of this blog are familiar with:

  • “A model that hasn’t evolved to reflect advances in cognitive science and our understanding of human development”
  • The “same configuration of desks, cubbies, and rigidly grade-specific accoutrements” as they had for generations
  • An agrarian calendar and a factory schedule model
  • Homework, “…despite the growing wealth of evidence suggesting that homework for elementary-school children (aside from nightly reading) offers minimal or no benefits.”
  • An emphasis on “…relatively superficial learning that’s too focused on achieving mastery of shallow (but test-friendly) skills unmoored from real content knowledge or critical thinking.”
  • “School hours… marked by disruptions and noise as students shift, mostly en masse and in age-stratified groups, from one strictly demarcated topic or task to another.

I emphasized “age stratified groupsbecause Ms. Christakis is one of the few education writers who sees the link between this practice and the toxic atmosphere that predominates classrooms at all levels of schooling and calls out the arbitrariness of such grouping:

traditionally age-stratified classrooms, which most people take for granted, represent an unnatural and potentially unhealthy way of organizing children’s lives, experts now believe. Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and the author of Grit, hypothesizes that the age segregation of schools can contribute to competition and stress. In a mixed-age group, she told me, “the 10-year-old takes the hand of the 5-year-old and looks both ways crossing the street. The 5-year-old looks up to the 10-year-old with admiration and trust, and does as they are told. In contrast, when you throw hundreds of kids of exactly the same age together, attention goes, unhelpfully, to comparisons within the group: Who is smartest? Who is fastest? Who is prettiest?” This steers children’s values away from kindness, trust, and community and toward status competition, which can generate stress and bullying. This effect may be more potent than it used to be, because children spend more time away from their home and neighborhood than in previous generations.

The comparing mind, which has the tendency to make one feel diminished, is amplified when students are grouped by age and forced to compete against each other. But such competition has little to do with learning ability and capacity and more to do with learning rates. Just as some students experience physical growth at varying and different rates, they also experience intellectual growth at varying and different rates. Anyone who has more than one child knows this from experience and most adults, given the opportunity to think about it for more than a minute, intuitively understand this. Yet because of administrative convenience, a model put in place in the 1920s that placed a higher value on efficiency than effectiveness, and everyone’s shred experience with the current paradigm, we persist in grouping children in age cohorts.

Ms. Christakis also sees the link between this grouping and the “accountability tests” that drive instruction and drove “special” classes and recesses out of the curriculum in many elementary schools…. and notes that these changes drove teachers to the front and center of classrooms and diminished opportunities for more adult-to-child communications— a diminishment that Zoom classes exacerbate even more.

Ms. Christakis closes her essay with this:

Finally… the pandemic has highlighted is the abiding tension between schools’ custodial function(warehousing children for the day, feeding them and keeping them safe, so their parents can work) and their educational function(actually teaching children). Too often, when we talk about “school” we really mean “child care”—and also nutrition, medical care, mental-health services, and social-skills support. Some teachers routinely purchase and wash clothes for their neediest students. Some even become foster parents to them. Modern family life is complex, and it’s tempting to keep asking schools to assume more and more responsibilities. But the more we ask schools to expand beyond their core mission, the harder it becomes to discern which aspects of schooling are educationally effective.Schools can and should help mitigate harm to disadvantaged kids, but they cannot be a panacea for children in dangerous or neglectful home environments. Issues like livable wages and the absence of affordable child care are distinct from questions about learning, and we can’t keep commingling them.

If the parental frustrations kindled by pandemic schooling can be converted into political energy, that could ultimately yield much-needed reforms in both schools and their surrounding communities, the health of which is essential to children’s growth. As we muddle through the COVID-19 era yearning for a return to something close to normal, we shouldn’t squander this occasion to imagine how much better “normal” could be.

Sometimes it takes a seismic shock to the system– a heart attack or a bout with cancer– to wake individuals up… to change their perspectives. Hopefully COVID will be viewed in that fashion and we can change the life-style of our schools the same way heart patients change their lifestyles.

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