Perspective: Taking Pandemic Lessons Learned into the Future
For many schools, teachers, and students, this fall marks the return of a degree of normalcy after almost three years. However, even as we embrace the welcome familiarity, we recognize that everything has changed. While education faces many challenges as it rebounds from the pandemic, new perspectives also make space for new opportunities. There may be no better moment to consider the potential technology holds to transform education.
One of the undeniable effects of the pandemic was to demonstrate technology’s central role in connecting us across time and space. And though remote connection is not the ideal mode for furthering rich, long-term teaching and learning, our recent societal “grand experiment” firmly established technology’s power to enable flexibility, foster collaboration, and open up new educational possibilities. Whether by choice or circumstance, the pandemic introduced us to new apps, new perspectives, and wholly new approaches to teaching and learning.
While I fully acknowledge the need for us all to reset and recover, we also need to guard against slipping back into the comfort of timeworn habits. Even as we settle into a more normal year, we must keep our recent realizations front and center, both about technology’s potential and about how flexible our world can actually be.
One way to avoid backsliding is to take a fresh look at that world. Across society, commerce, and culture, we find technology at the core. Our daily interactions play out across a vast network of computers of all sizes and types. Computational data, much of it from smart devices and sensors, forms the basis for critical decisions across all sectors of society. Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms work as silent partners in smartphone apps and smart grid infrastructures. And countless new innovations await in areas ranging from robotics to quantum computing and beyond.
Knowing this, we can tap into everything we’ve just learned about the flexibility of the status quo to consider embarking on a grand new experiment. What would education look like if we were truly starting fresh? How might learning play out if we embraced our society’s inextricable connection to technology?
Educating with computing at the core
Children today live in a world where AI algorithms generate art seemingly from thin air, extend single sentences into complete short stories, drive our cars, and control our city infrastructures. It’s hard to imagine what comes next, but one thing is clear: The jobs these children will someday take up will bear titles not yet imagined.
But comparing the curriculum that youth encounter in school today with modern reality reveals a harrowing mismatch. If we were designing an education suitable for a world in which computers inspire engineers with original, interactive 3D models, in which we can track the global movement of shipping containers and Arctic Terns to the nearest meter in real time, what would our elementary school children spend their time learning? I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t be long division.
Instead, children might begin with the basics of modeling the world around them. They would learn how to wield data to illuminate their understanding. They would almost certainly accept as natural the key role of computational simulation in solving problems across topics and scales.
And what would we discover in the process of creating curricula anew? We would certainly expose today’s subject area silos as outdated and irrelevant—not a big surprise, given that they were created in 1892. We would also undoubtedly cast aside the current emphasis on memorizing details and mastering facts to make space for learners to develop key habits of mind and exercise the vital practices of questioning, investigation, and evidence-based argument to solve relevant, unique problems.
Technology for authentic learning
Rather than make learning experiences fit stale paradigms and rigid categories, we would instead push aside longstanding boundaries and ask how technology can transform our paradigms. In the process, I’m certain we would find at least one answer cropping up regularly—technology’s ability to support more authentic learning opportunities.
While most domains can benefit, Earth science provides a particularly salient example. Observing a traditional Earth science lesson, one could easily be forgiven for coming away with the view that Earth is a static mass and that geologists spend their time memorizing the stages of the rock cycle, only taking occasional breaks to run scratch tests on minerals they pull from a dusty cardboard box.
We want our students to see the Earth wholly differently, as a dynamic, shifting entity, and to view each rock as a miniature chapter in the Earth’s grand, ever-evolving story. We want them to recognize that geologists are some of the most artful systems thinkers around, and to know that scientists today are even more likely to unlock the Earth’s mysteries by clicking a mouse than by pounding a rock hammer. Students should see Earth science as a lab science, where computers serve as active aids to help them understand the Earth as a system and provide an active, accessible proving ground for testing ideas and making original discoveries.
An education that acknowledges technology’s fundamental role would place authentic models and simulations at the core of the curriculum. We’re creating precisely such learning environments for students around the globe, holding them up as examples to show the world how computing can pave new paths.
Though the topic of Earth science education is in particular need of radical change, truly rethinking education means going deeper. In particular, it means recognizing that almost nothing in life involves only one topic in isolation. And while we recognize that approaches that combine disciplines don’t fit easily into the container of traditional school, we choose to see that as an opportunity rather than a barrier.
At the Concord Consortium we’re helping students take part in authentic, transdisciplinary experiences around key topics such as data science. Working side by side with teachers, we’re co-designing and researching engaging, project-based learning opportunities using innovative new tools and learning approaches. By fostering computational thinking throughout the curriculum and allowing students to connect with community members around issues relevant to their individual cultures and backgrounds, we’re creating experiences that put students in the driver’s seat and place their lives and concerns front and center.
Making it happen
So, what would we do if we could rewrite everything? In short, we would design an education that treats technology as the partner it has become in our everyday lives, preparing learners to take full advantage of technology’s potential. We would provide space for doing so, embracing curricular integration and flexibility, and borrowing from current movements rethinking the transcript and questioning the Carnegie unit. We would focus relentlessly on providing all learners with the foundational ability to control, design, and move technology forward as an evolving tool for addressing humanity’s greatest needs.
In a year when achieving normal may feel like a high bar already, thoughts about this level of change may feel grand and complex. But if there’s one important take-away from our collective pandemic experience, it’s the realization that we can do things differently, and that technology must be a transformative part of the process. Even in a moment when we may simply feel like seeking familiarity, we must keep the big picture in view. Our goal—and the goal of every educator—is to build the best possible path toward the brightest possible future. Let’s get started today.