What the Pandemic Has Taught Me… by Scott McDonald

As we recognize the one year anniversary of the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I invited readers and colleagues to share what the pandemic has taught them about teaching and learning. I’ll be sharing these posts (and my own) over the next few weeks. This week, we hear from Dr. Scott McDonald, a teacher educator in Science Education at Penn State University. Fifteen years ago, Scott served as my doctoral advisor and dissertation chair. He and I now co-host the Science In-Between podcast together. Note: If you’re interested in submitting a reflection on what you’ve learned from teaching during the pandemic, email me at oliver.dreon@millersville.edu.

The pandemic has not taught me something new, but deepened something I already knew – that teaching and learning is relational. This may not be news, but there is some nuance in terms of the impact of the pandemic’s imposition of remote or socially distanced teaching. When I say teaching is relational, this is in contrast to transactional notions of teaching. To think transactionally about teaching is to imagine it as an exchange between the teacher and the student. The teacher is giving students knowledge and the students are giving the teacher attention or at least quiet and submission. Alternatively, teachers give students evaluations as grades or points, and students give seat time, work, and activity. Our educational systems are built on transactional notions of teaching and learning, and when we think transactionally we implicitly dehumanize our students. To think of teaching relationally is to see it as about developing relationships of trust, caring, and respect with students. Relationships with students are not different from relationships. This may seem self evident, but in fact it is a radical departure from how schools and universities currently operate. What the pandemic has given me, however, is that not only is teaching relational, but so is the most fundamental human function of both relationships and learning – memory.

The pandemic has distanced me from my students and this distance makes it harder for all of us to remember things. When is that thing due? Is that next week? What happened in class last time? What week is it? Part of the reason for this is that memory is deeply tied to all our sense data, not just visual and auditory, but also gesture and relative body position, and the most powerful sense for memory – scent. We have been deprived of all this data to anchor our thinking, and so our memory suffers. Another part of our memory loss is that our memory is linked to place. We remember things based on where they happen, but now everything happens in the same place – a collection of boxes on a computer screen see from our seat in the same chair. Every place is the same place. Hardly the rich, diverse contexts and places we were learning in before the pandemic. So, not surprisingly, we have trouble remembering things, and this has a fundamental impact on learning because memory is the foundation of relationships.

The lack of sense data and place access makes it more difficult to build relationships with people, because relationships are built on memories of people, and in particular memories of shared activity in shared places. The other consequence of being behind a screen rather than moving through place/space is that we have lost serendipity of contact with people, which is fundamental to not just learning, but human relationships more broadly. In our distanced world, students all arrive to class at the same time because all that means is turning on their camera (or not). Once they have arrived, there is not space to have side conversations with each other and chat about nothing (which is really everything when it comes to relationships). When I met in person I could chat with students when they arrive early on the only bus they can take to campus. The only time I have with them, and they with each other, is tightly prescribed time that constitutes “class time”. All the implicit work of building relationship has lost is space to breathe. I have learned this means I must take the space back and build those relationship explicitly.

In response to the systematic loss of memory, I have made the choice to devote class time to relationship building with my students. I no longer think of class time as an opportunity to “cover content”, though I honestly never did. Now, however, I enforce structure on the relationship building. My class met twice a week (T/R) and every Tuesday we instituted peaks and pits. I simply ask each student to describe their best and worst thing from the last week to the rest of the class. I participate as well. I will admit I have small classes (typically less than 20 and never more than 25). Still, this takes a significant chunk of class. I don’t see this as “lost” time, I see it as fundamental to teaching and learning. I also “arrive” to class early and stay late, that is open up the zoom room before class starts and let in students from the waiting room, and I hang around to chat and answer questions after class. Once students know this, they take advantage of the time. This is because they are also invested in the relationship, even if they don’t know it explicitly. Students want to be known by their teachers. Not just their names, but who they are. Just like in all relationships, with all human beings. What matters isn’t what you cover as a teacher, but who you connect to as a teacher. We lose sight of that a lot in teaching, for lots of reasons. If the pandemic has taught me one thing, it is that both memory and relationships are delicate and contextual. They need to be cultivated and in an environment where making relationships is difficult taking them for granted kills them. And you cannot teach people you have no relationship with, all you can do is transact.

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