I am watching schools report plans for reopening virtually or in person after hours and hours of work and effort to create ways to ensure environments safe for…exactly what they used to do. The world is spinning off its axis, and our response is to do more of what we’ve always done. I see Kindergarten classrooms with centers removed and nothing but individual desks six feet apart in barren spaces. I hear teachers preparing to teach virtually reaffirm that their job is to impart information via distance software. I get that protocols around health and safety have to take priority. But I also think that this is an opportunity to step back and recognize how inappropriate to the times…and to children…many of our paradigms are. It is time to reimagine education, to put aside the assumptions that formed what has been education since the 19th century in our country, designed to serve an industrial nation without digital information accessible to all, with entirely different assets and problems. And imagine what kind of education might serve our children and our society now, with our assets and our problems.

  1. Information is no longer finite. There is no way to know all there is to know. Who is to say what is vital to know? That’s pretty arbitrary. Isn’t it more important to 1) have the curiosity to question, 2) the motivation to engage in inquiry, 3) practice engaging in research, and 4) be able to think critically about the information you discover in your research?
  2. If our children are to survive, they are going to have to proactively take care of the natural world. They cannot do that unless they have a relationship with the natural world from a young age. I believe a large part of children’s education should be in and engaged with the outdoors. In addition, one of the values we support should be that of advocacy: expose children to the world and its many conditions, and when their hearts engage, as they will, encourage them to do something meaningful about it. Tell them stories of others whose advocacy made a difference. Help them find their voice.
  3. Think about why we ask children to study what they study. For example, reading and writing are about communicating. From the beginning, literacy should be embedded in communication for real purposes. Though you may have minilessons in word study or punctuation, for example, the bulk of your writing time at school should have children writing—their own thoughts, their own words. Every concept in literacy can be taught through actual reading and writing because they are the reason you are teaching those concepts.
    If you step back and ask yourselves (together with colleagues) why it is important that children study something and dig down (because the school district says so doesn’t count, nor does because everyone needs to know ______), it may help you find where the topic can be meaningful to children. The division of subjects (even in preschool!) is arbitrary, having come from the minds of adults. If you step back as I’m inviting you to do, you may see that they really don’t make much real-world sense. If children are engaging in research in authentic ways, the lines that mark “subject matter” blur and fade. Children need communication/literacy competence (reading, writing, speaking) no matter what they are studying, because they need the ideas of others to bounce off of, and because they need to make their own ideas known. They need to be able to think about quantity, geometry, and time to solve problems that arise in their research. In my experience, literacy and mathematics instruction outside of children’s research is not enough. It is through deep investigation that children 1)appreciate the purpose of such knowledge 2)develop far deeper understanding than out-of-context instruction can offer and 3)get to use what they know in a way that furthers their understanding in a way half an hour of instruction in “reading group” can never offer. Perhaps it’s time to flip our image of academic learning on its head. Rather than assigning the bulk of school time to instruction in discrete subjects, with project work relegated to relatively small chunks of time, why not consider research and investigation primary; word study and math instruction would not need to dominate the day’s schedule if they were considered response and in service to children’s research. My own teacher research over many years supported this with five-year-olds, in the beginning by accident. Because they were in a preprimary setting, academic proficiency was not required by the school. Yet, because the children’s research was primary, because they needed to write and to “speak math” to do that research because the emphasis was on intellectual engagement and they developed awake minds, their academic growth was remarkable, far more efficient and joyful than when I thought I was managing what they learned and when.
  4. Change the role of teacher to Listener. This is directly related to #3, above. If you are planning to initiate a study of weather, for example, you might start a conversation with the children. “It is a windy day, today, isn’t it? Tell me about wind.” Record the children’s conversation about wind. Don’t correct them. See where the conversation goes. When you listen to the conversation later, analyze it. What misconceptions do they have? What do they know? What seems to interest them? Did the conversation go anywhere interesting? You can get a lot of information and direction about where to go next in your study of weather from such conversations. Maybe you can take a provocative statement or two back to the group the next day to discuss further. Maybe you can set up an experience inspired by something one of the children said. Or maybe you have to start again with a new conversation the next day.
    In the traditional paradigm, the teacher is the talker, the children are the listeners. The teacher knows what she has said. But she really does not know, in real-time, what the child has heard or what he has learned. She may learn what the child remembers of what she said when she asks him that exact thing later on a test. But that does not tell her what he has learned, not by a long shot. Teachers and administrators fool themselves when they think that tests tell them what a child has learned. A child will show you what he has learned by acting on what he has learned if he is invited (by the environment) to do so and if you are observing/listening.

Let’s take this crazy time to put aside our old assumptions and reimagine what education can be.