Somewhere across the spectrum of difficulties our society faces in the post-COVID world lies the education of our children. As a parent and a teacher, I am currently operating under the assumption that, come the Fall, Secondary V and lower will be attending classes in person, while the majority of those in CEGEP and higher will be resuming their studies online. Given what we know about COVID-19, it appears that the socio-economic fallout associated with keeping children home is the worse of two evils when compared to the health risks attached to attending classes in person.
My primary concern with the resumption of learning activities that await our students in a matter of weeks is that the already wide chasm that exists between so-called strong and weak students will widen, perhaps dramatically.
In my ten years of CEGEP teaching, I have observed the following: our best students get better every year, and our struggling students struggle more. Anecdotally, I attribute these changes to increased access to technology. Where a strong student might use Wikipedia to examine the link between black holes and general relativity, a less motivated student might spend an afternoon on Instagram.
Indeed, the resources available to our children are mind-boggling. Self-directed learners (there are a handful in every class) could arguably work their way through elementary and high school on their own armed with only a list of content, a tablet, and an internet connection. In this thought experiment, such students suffer socially, but may emerge unscathed academically.
My fear is that going forward, our students’ academic diet will be dominated by screen learning. While this is evident for online learning, our younger students who sit in classrooms by day could experience a similar, though less dramatic shift. Consider a teacher who is mandated to bring their students to a hand-washing station once per hour. This process eats up fifteen minutes each time. Where is this lost hour per day recouped? Kahn Academy YouTube videos from home? Flashy learning Apps that utilize Smart Gaming?
The motivated student whose parent can spend time alongside them may well eat this content up. But what of her classmate, who would, quite understandably, prefer to play street hockey or watch an entire season of Friends, and whose parents arrive home exhausted around dinner time? Scenarios such as this make it clear that the educational landscape, which already favours wealthier families, is about to stratify even further.
Oh, and what about the teachers?
A common word that echoes through school administrations is equity. Equity across a given course means that regardless of which section of say, a Mechanics class that a student is registered in, they will experience a similar degree of difficulty, cover roughly the same content to the same depth, and ultimately have an equal chance of passing. Many departments succeed in this by meeting regularly in curriculum committees and sharing teaching materials.
However, this does not ensure that the learning experience is equal across different sections in all courses. Academic freedom means that each teacher is free to select their preferred pedagogical approaches for the courses they teach. This freedom is crucial to the teaching profession, as it allows a teacher to tailor the learning experience to their own unique strengths. There is, however, a downside to this necessary freedom.
Fortunately, us teachers have had more time to prepare for this Fall (although it must be said that, with weeks to go, there has been little flow of information from the provincial government thus far). Many educators will adapt to the new boundaries inherent to teaching in 2020 and beyond. My hope is that our students, regardless of their socio-economic class, can adapt along with us.