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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

This Is Not an Experiment

There's lots of things we should be observing and thinking about. That doesn't mean we're in the midst of an experiment.

March 29, 2020
 
 

There is something different about my morning dog walk through my residential neighborhood.

Almost all the lights are off in the houses.

I go at 6:15 a.m., because we live near an elementary school, and street traffic gets a little heavy after 6:45 as students start to make their way to school via walking, biking and golf cart riding.

Normally, a significant majority of the houses are lit up, and toward the end of the walk I will see students being disgorged into the world. Most of the year, when this happens, it’s still dark out.[1]

In the aftermath of the pandemic, there will be many phenomena that may be worthy of retrospective examination. People are already anticipating both a post-virus baby boom and an increase in divorce once we’re allowed to leave our homes. Carbon dioxide emissions will be down against the previous baseline. Cities may develop better infrastructure for commuting by bicycle in order to reduce the crowding on public transit so people can get back to work without risk of infection.

And from what I’ve observed, school-age children will be waking up later.

My hypothesis is that this will be good for children. We have lots of evidence about how school interferes with healthy sleep patterns. In my neighborhood, at least, families are not rising at the same early hour when operating on virus-dictated rhythms.

While I have my hypothesis, I think it’s important to recognize that there is no natural experiment to run that could actually measure the impact of later waking times in school-age children. The number of confounding variables is simply too great, the fact of all this happening during a global pandemic being a not-insignificant one.

It is dismaying to see the sudden disruption wrought by the crisis spun into some kind of educational experiment, as posited by Jonathan Zimmerman in The Chronicle of Higher Education under the headline “Coronavirus and the Great Online-Learning Experiment.”

Zimmerman believes that this is an opportunity to measure what “students actually learn when we teach them online.” Responding at the Chronicle, Thomas J. Tobin (who literally co-wrote the book on evaluating online teaching), pointed out the many reasons why this is not a natural experiment that allows us to compare online to face-to-face teaching.

At the risk of repeating myself, all this is happening midyear against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

The idea that we are running any kind of systematic experiment is, to use a nonscientific term, bonkers. We are in a period of emergency distance instruction, not online learning.

It is rough times, and they are going to get still rougher. Everyone should do their best to do their best, and we have lots of things that need to be figured out both at the college and K-12 level, particularly in regard to educational equity when less resourced students are deprived of contact with their schools and teachers. This is why we also need to think clearly about what we’re facing in the present, near future and distant future.

To work through these issues requires a focus on our values, what is important and worth preserving, even when we are at a physical distance. This may not be an opportunity to experiment, but as Deborah J. Cohan says in a recent piece here at Inside Higher Ed, this is an excellent time for reflection and reshaping. Rather than attempting to port her course online as is in the middle of a crisis, she is attempting to live through the period as best she can while serving the varying needs of her students.

It is an approach that leads with the humanity of both instructors and students. I don’t know why we would be thinking otherwise right now.

This period of reflection should and will reveal some interesting things we can use to move forward with purpose according to our values.

At The Washington Post, Kevin Huffman, a former education commissioner of Tennessee and current partner in an educational nonprofit that funds and supports so-called public charter schools, says what’s happening will “set back” a generation of students.

As evidence he cites the “summer slide,” where student test scores on the same subjects decline from spring to fall, suggesting “lost learning.” If the summer slide is bad, the spring and summer slide would be worse, right?

But what if the only thing the summer slide tells us is that the stuff we’re able to assess (content) on a standardized test isn’t as important as we think, and what we’re actually testing is students’ short-term memory as prepped for standardized assessments. What if students have no chance of retaining the information they’re being tested on long term anyway?

You know that show, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, where fifth graders routinely trounced adults on general history, science, math and language arts questions? Do we judge the adults as failures because of all that content that has melted away?

Content matters, of course, but it matters as a conduit to meaningful, lasting learning, not as a thing in and of itself, unless you’re going to be a contestant on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

There’s no doubt that our world is being changed by these events, and the fall may see some additional disruptions to face-to-face operations, but we do not need to entirely lose our shit over this.

We do not know what the changed world is going to look like. The ed-tech companies that are filling my in-box with their “solutions” to online learning are looking to create a self-fulfilling prophecy while we are vulnerable. I wish they would stop. They’re making me very angry.

If we want to do right by students, we have to do right by them day to day, as Deborah J. Cohan suggests, while also protecting them and our educational system from the opportunists looking to capitalize as our institutions are at their weakest. Plans must be made for the fall and beyond as we consider the effects of unemployment and an economy in recession on families and institutions.

Let’s observe, reflect and adjust as necessary, but the moment we can stow talk of grand experiments or tectonic change. First things first. Let’s take care of each other and prepare for a truly sustainable future.

We can do this because we have to do this.

 

[1] The dogs do not care that we could sleep in and still avoid the crowds. Their stomachs do not respect the coronavirus.

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