Eyeing Sacred Cows: Education in a Pandemic

Maybe this isolation is not such a bad thing for educators?

A caveat here is the relative safety and security I enjoy as a middle class knowledge worker in Australia. No one I know has died, or is even sick. I don’t really know many people who have lost their job, either, and those who have are doing okay at this point.

This obviously allows me to see upside where many others might know the opposite.

One thought keeps coming through, however. One day, we might look back on this forced isolation as a positive thing, despite all the horrible elements. As Zeno of Citium mused when he learned all his luggage was lost in a shipwreck, “Fortune bids me to be a less encumbered philosopher.”

Maybe the fortune we experience now will allow us to think on some of the sacred educational cows we possess and send them into history? Maybe we might become less encumbered educators?

On a personal level, I’m roughly three weeks into remote teaching English to students from 12-16 years of age. We are using Google Meet as the conduit, delivering lessons using the normal timetable.

The first week, leading into the end of term Easter break, was giddy excitement for many, students and teachers alike. This was something from science fiction, after all, made reality with a creeping suddenness.

We spent a couple of weeks preparing, including a student free training day which allowed teachers and other staff to climb that steep curve of uncertainty and see what remote action might look like.

Despite still being on campus, we ran meetings via Meet, and over the course of the day we were able to shake off some of the liminal discomfort of playing in this new space.

In truth, there was a real sense of achievement at the end of that day. In reflecting on the largely positive mood of teachers, I concluded that it was so successful as a professional learning and development day because it combined forced risk with forced engagement.

In other words, no one could opt out.

The uncomfortable truth for many teachers, and I throw myself into this group for large parts of my career, is we can and do stop learning. At least, we lose our edge as learners in the busy environment of school and life.

This is more widespread than we might acknowledge, and it seems rarely a conscious choice. Raising this creates dissonance, or downright anger, when you suggest that teachers aren’t great learners. It is a long held sacred cow in our profession.

I suggest that this is due to the gradual accumulation of bad habits and mindsets that reduces the ability or capacity of many teachers to stay sharp with learning.

At the beginning of your career, there is no choice but to learn and learn quickly. Teacher training has never been great at providing the nuanced experience that time in the classroom does, nor should it ever claim to.

In a general sense, these are the years you are madly creating your own style and learning the tradecraft of the classroom. You make many mistakes and learn from them, disappearing up blind alleys and adding tools to the diverse utility belt every teacher needs.

Over time, as you become more comfortable with these things, you reach a plateau where you deal with most things that arise. Systems and routines are stress tested and refined. A lot of teaching becomes automatic, so there is no need to stay vulnerable and reflective, like good learners do.

Life fills up. Maybe you get married and start a family, or maybe you rise through the ranks and take on more stuff. Maybe you do both at the same time. Maybe you return to study, and learn the certainties that go with that.

Life gets busy. There is less and less to go around. PD days become a good opportunity to get out of school and maybe have a nice lunch. The best ones offer a sugar hit of enthusiasm that excites you and reminds you of the thrill in finding a better way.

Yet it tends to die out when you get back into the mix at school and all the things you need to do take priority and energy away from that thing you knew would make a huge difference.

In addition, busy becomes a byword for effectiveness and status. Like Tim Kreider writes, it is a trap many fall into, particularly in the modern, hyperconnected world we live in.

This is how so many of us stop learning, or stop being good learners.

And in the past, it worked okay. Curriculum was fairly static, the flat circle of repetition allowed us to be more cynical as we progressed, knowing that what is old is usually made new again.

A lot of learning was transactional. We gathered subject knowledge, curated and sharpened our tradecraft so we could pass it along to students in a sequential and orderly way.

Our purpose, then, was the transfer of knowledge to the unknowing and imminently enlightened.

We were gatekeepers and guides, instructors and lecturers. We had to know first, and sometimes, when this knowledge needed upgrading, we could cram and bluff and get by. This was often complained about, or ignored altogether.

Many teachers achieved mastery in limiting change and discovering workarounds.

Alas, too many accomplished teachers lost the sharp edge of our learning because we never needed to feel the discomfort of the learning process. We protected ourselves from the shame and embarrassment. We could opt out of anything new. If we didn’t like using technology, we did not have too.

We could still choose flint over bronze, and in most settings, that was okay.

Knowledge was the thing we leveraged and sold for money. It was the valuable item we had nurtured and developed in the process of being educated and becoming educators.

Yet…

The technology age means that knowledge, in and of itself, is no longer worth as much on the open market. When anyone with a device and internet connection has largely unfettered access to all the knowledge of human history and thought, what need is there for a gatekeeper?

It has been argued the role of teacher now is not to be the most knowledgeable in the room, it is to be the best learner. This is, and has been for many teachers, including me, a challenge in adjusting my habits and thinking.

The aforementioned sacred cow is in fact a fallacy – not all accomplished or great teachers are also great learners.

To be a great learner, you need to be vulnerable and humble. You must be prepared to make mistakes. You must be prepared to feel the discomfort of not knowing and counter the shame and embarrassment one feels when they don’t know.

Great learners need to knock down defensive walls to let new stuff in.

Which is why that day of training was probably the greatest intensity of learning among teachers I had experienced in my twenty some years as an educator.

As we prepared to go remote, we were forced to take risks, sink or swim.

Like stories of people who learned to swim by being thrown in the deep end, there was no choice but to engage.

Yes, we floundered for a time. We made mistakes and messed up and felt out of control. As each remote meeting progressed, as decisions about how we were going to maintain the learning uncovered more issues and problems to face, we found our heads above water. No one was drowning.

That afternoon, back on firmer ground, the vibe was overwhelmingly positive.

Our aim was simple – keep the learning going to the best of our ability. It would not be the same, but we would keep progressing even in a remote environment.

And the positive side effects of this for teachers and by extension, students, is we have reconnected to ourselves as learners. We have felt the discomfort of not knowing and made our own steps towards proficiency and mastery in areas that, without this forced isolation, would not in many cases have occurred.

Teachers are using technology and finding ways to get the learning done. Many are embracing the opportunity to teach again without the need for coverage of content.

Which is another sacred cow being eyeballed – the notion that content equals rigour. The belief that the amount you get through indicates the quality of the learning. One widely held view of good teaching and learning was that getting through more content, and quickly, was a pathway to better learners and learning.

So, maybe this isolation is not such a bad thing for education and for educators?

One thing is certain – this is a once in a career opportunity to look some sacred cows in the eye and reflect on their place in modern education.

If so, Samuel Ullman, writing a long time ago, might offer a useful encumbrance.

Published by charliehynes76

Learner. Teacher. Writer. My aim is to nourish and share a curious mind so that we might honour the gift.

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