First, let me acknowledge the effect of the pandemic on education. Schools across the country flipped immediately to virtual learning. It was chaotic and messy at best, and remains so. However, one incontrovertible fact has occurred to me since March of 2020: We were headed in this direction anyway. The pandemic simply sped up what we have had the capability to do for a long time.
Suddenly, Zoom meetings and Google Meets became the norm. My former district in Berkeley County, South Carolina, spans 1,200 square miles and is larger than the state of Rhode Island. Technology turned out to be a real time and money saver there. As Harvard professor Chris Dede once wrote, “necessity is the parent of transformation.” Well, there you have it. We changed because the pandemic forced us to.
In truth, we have had the technology to provide alternate ways of instruction for quite some time. Perhaps we lacked the will to proceed until the virus forced us to. Now, remote work has become a new norm in many work environments, not just in education, and yes it is still developing and challenging to implement.
The new norm should not be limited to technology. We still have an antiquated system of schooling in this country. Largely we still adhere to the calendar driven by agriculture. Our curriculum has mostly remained unchanged over the last 125 years, and yes sadly, our accountability systems at the state and federal levels rely solely on expensive standardized tests that remain replete with mostly lower level, factual recall questions.
“Test prep,” as quoted by Education Week, has turned school into one huge standardized testing death march. It has stymied the creativity of teachers. Today’s high schoolers still move from subject to subject not unlike assembly line workers during the Industrial Revolution. That form of schooling worked very well. It created assembly line workers for manufacturing. In fact, as stated by the late Sir Ken Robinson, it enabled the United States to win two world wars.
However, this form of schooling and accountability is insufficient in helping students acquire the work and life skills necessary for them to succeed in the 21st century. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, today’s high school graduate will have between 10 and 14 jobs by the time he or she is 38 years old. Defined pension systems are eroding. Workers will have to possess the personal financial literacy skills and discipline to invest in their own retirement.
Is personal financial literacy a graduation requirement? It should be. Human knowledge is doubling almost every year. Do our students know how to conduct a good internet search? Can our students take a new piece of information and work in teams to solve complex problems? Some of my teachers used to call working with others “cheating.”
There is good news. Great teachers have always emphasized what is important. While I certainly can’t reference all of my teachers, I will say that a sage like Dr. Bob Thorne was outstanding for me. Bob, a retired professor at College of The Albemarle and later Elizabeth City State University, inherited the chore of teaching me freshman English at COA during the 1975-76 academic year. He didn’t make us memorize anything. He taught us how to think. Bob challenged us to study what we found interesting and schedule a time to come to his office for a one-on-one chat where he helped us frame good questions.
Albert Einstein once said that framing the problem to a complex issue was often more important than the solution itself. Dr. Thorne engaged us via the Socratic method. We talked, we listened to each other, and we made new discoveries because of how he facilitated his classes. We created original work, and were encouraged for it, not scourged by it. Not many missed his class. We wanted to be there.
At the expense of sounding overly simple, I believe we must first “unhitch teachers from the post.” Good teachers know how to teach and engage their students. We have to release them from the “Tyranny of Metrics” (A title of an interesting book).
Indeed, as Tony Wagner of Harvard says, what counts most in life can’t be counted. In addition to traditional graduation ceremonies where we boast the number of scholarship dollars earned by students to pursue degrees and credentials that will become antiquated before the kids even complete program requirements, why don’t we follow up with our kids five, even 10 years after graduation? Are they good citizens, good husbands, wives, fathers and mothers? Do they contribute to the greater good of their communities? These things are more important than what one does to earn a living.
The term “lifelong learning” has never been more applicable. Our working lives are and will be longer. Today there are more people working into their 70s and even 80s. Many of those have “aged into new careers.” This means building new skill sets.
A few years back, I was the commencement speaker at a large two-year college in South Carolina. As I shook the hand of one of the 800 graduates, he thanked me for my encouragement (and brevity) and whispered that he had a master’s degree, but at 57 had returned to earn a two-year technical credential so he could get a good job. I will never forget that. I was 57 myself.
I predict you will see new things expand on the horizon in education, things like microcredentials. More high schoolers will graduate with a diploma and a two-year college degree simultaneously. More students will “flip their learning,” working as apprentices and having their companies help them pay tuition for further education.
Indeed we are in difficult times, but difficult times create opportunities to build collaboratively the resilience and ingenuity we need in our society. Education is ripe for innovation. Let’s not squander the chance.
Dr. Eddie Ingram is interim superintendent of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. He retired earlier this year as superintendent of the Berkeley County Schools in South Carolina.