Fragility and Change

I love when I find other people who can capture what I’m thinking and feeling so much more eloquently than I ever could. Take Dr. Mark Denison, a researcher at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation. In a recent Radiolab podcast, Dr. Denison discussed how the coronavirus functioned and how his research was instrumental in developing the drug Remdesivir. Beyond the health impacts of the virus, however, Denison also discussed the pandemic’s overall influence on our society and how it’s forcing us to reevaluate our systems.

Outside of the virology, it’s telling us about the fragility of the global organism of human beings and our political, economic and social, financial, cultural systems and habits. Those are being probed by the virus as well. And we’re learning about how we’re all interweaved and interleaved, because its breaking each of those apart and making us view them individually.

That’s some pretty eloquent stuff there. And I think it’s pretty accurate. As we navigate this pandemic, we’re being forced to view our systems individually and we’re seeing how different aspects are lacking. In some cases, that has led to social upheaval and political unrest. As we view our systems, we’re learning about what matters as human beings. And that’s hopefully promoting action and initiating change.

While we see this playing out in political and economic ways, I also see it happening in education, too. I saw this firsthand in a class I’m currently teaching. The course is an online graduate class that examines the pedagogical implications of blended learning and one of the main readings is Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools by Horn and Staker (2015). I’ve taught this course two or three times over the last few summers and one of the early discussions in the class involves examining some of the benefits of blended learning. In the text, Horn and Staker outline four areas that can be positively impacted by blended learning: deeper learning, safe care, wraparound services and fun with friends and extracurricular activities. To get my students to apply these concepts a bit, I ask them to rank these four areas as to which they feel would be the most important in their schools and defend their position in a discussion board post. Over the last few iterations of the course, deeper learning was the consensus top choice among the students in the class. While they saw the other factors as being important too, the vast majority of students wanted to use blended learning as way to get students to dig deeper into the content.

But that was prior to COVID-19. This summer, the responses are much different. While a student or two has identified “deeper learning” as the most important factor for incorporating blended learning in their classes, the rest are seeing the other factors as being more important. Looking across most of my students’ lists, “safe care” appears at the top two of the rankings and they’re offering in depth explanations about the importance of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. More than one has written about embracing “Maslow before Bloom.” After decades of the educational pendulum swinging to higher standards and more standardized tests, the coronavirus has exposed the fragility of our educational systems and forced us to recalibrate our lenses. We’re learning (remembering?) that students can’t learn if their basic needs aren’t being met first.

I know this a small, anecdotal window into the larger educational system, but it shows how the broader conversation is shifting after the pandemic. Now we just have to find the will to promote action to initiate broader change.

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