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We knew recovering from the learning loss of the pandemic would be hard. The reality is it might require us to rethink education altogether.
We might all be better off for it.
To help our students move forward, America’s schools and colleges need to turn away from constant drilling for tests and a fixation on “coverage,” the notion that skimming across vast swaths of curriculum somehow makes for a good education.
Even and especially in disciplines we think of as essential, we need to shift to hands-on, experiential learning and side-by-side collaboration. As the studies showing devasting pandemic learning loss pile up, the answer is not to pile on more rote work, more classroom hours, more anxious test-taking, more passive note-taking.
From my vantage point as a college president, it’s clear that students across the U.S. and around the world suffered an extreme disruption of their lives and educations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The period of isolation and remote schooling they experienced—up to 18 months for some—came at a crucial developmental moment for children and adolescents. Students didn’t just lose instructional time; they were living and learning cut off from their peers.
This time was precious, and “making up” for that loss is a daunting task. Indeed, in order to match the pace we used to expect, students would need one to two years to catch up for every year of disrupted schooling.
But what would it mean to “make it up,” anyway?
Education is a social undertaking. Human beings learn through modeling, by seeing others demonstrate skills, and by watching their successes and failures. Context is everything. Infants, psychologists tell us, learn best by interacting with a loving parent or caregiver, looking out at the world from a place of safety, warmth and security. And they learn by imitating—mirroring the movements, words and actions of those around them.
As we mature, this kind of learning doesn’t go away. As children, adolescents and adults, we learn by watching, listening and interacting with others. In fact, there is really no other way. Textbooks and computers are substitutes for people, not ends in themselves.
Students have missed out on a lot, and we worry they might never catch up. The solution—and opportunity—lies in changing our teaching so that students learn by engaging with and participating in the world around them.
Educators and institutions need to focus intently on having students practice what they learn, not sit passively, memorize, listen and take notes. At every turn, we must make education a shared endeavor.
In a science class, this means getting students outside, looking at the world and asking questions about it, learning in groups about how to design experiments to find answers.
We can also provide opportunities—and in fact, insist—for students to write, write, write! Not for a test, but for a neighbor or a classmate. Rewrite the instructions for a medication in a second language. Listen to someone describe a meaningful experience and write it down from memory so others can learn.
Education is about bringing knowledge to life, and it fundamentally has to involve life in its many dimensions—human interaction, exploration, trial and error, listening as well as speaking, learning from and with each other across our many differences. Learning is best in person and in partnership, because that is how we live.
My academic background started in English and American literature, but somewhere along the way I became fascinated with neuroscience, and most of my research has come to focus on how our brains respond to art. When it comes to beauty, one thing we know is that, from a psychological and physiological standpoint, people respond quite differently to observing a painting in person in a museum than to seeing an image on a page or screen. The presence of the actual artwork produces a far broader range and intensity of response than do reproductions.
Face-to-face with an artwork, you see the effects of texture, and you are able to focus on details in different ways. There is a similar effect at work in live performances and events. Think of the energy of the crowd at a basketball game. Think of how you can feel carried along with the excitement or disappointment of the crowd. When we connect with others, life is far more than a spectator sport. And so is education.
Moving forward after the pandemic will not simply be a matter of more hours of rote work and frantically making up for lost time that we can’t really get back. It will be a group project. We have a new chance to dispel the notion that education doesn’t matter for “real life.” We’ll do this by bringing education to life.