Perhaps what I am most aware of this week is that I am a ridiculously finite creature with limited and imperfect answers to abundant and profound questions.
One day it's, “All right — I've got this!” And then the next day it's, “Why are my ideas so dumb? Haven't I been teaching for a while now?” A true internal whirlwind. And so I've drafted and shelved half a dozen blog posts this week, as hesitant to proceed in my writing as I am to do so in my teaching. And yet the clock advances, and so must this post.
Below, I'll offer a very rough draft outline of my present thinking. My hope is at least some of it helps you, whether you're a teacher or a leader or both. And whatever is unhelpful, please graciously discard.
Thinking in Phases
Right now, schools around the world are answering an emergency question: How do we provide a universally accessible K-12 education…remotely?
Let's call this Phase 1.
So far, Phase 1 has looked like this:
- Identifying, preparing, and implementing solutions, using digital where possible and analog where not.
- Collecting and monitoring fundamental data like which students are engaged with the school's learning solutions and which are not.
- Providing something like meaningful feedback on the work of students who are engaged.
- Devising means for getting in touch with students who are not engaged to gain clarity on each situation and, where possible, the best means for remedying the disengagement.
- Improving all of this in manageable increments as we advance week-by-week, ideally doing things better and smarter a month from now than we are today.
Here are several things that I believe are true about Phase 1.
- It won't last forever, but it isn't clear when it will end. This uncertainty creates a remarkable downward pull on one's motivation if one's attention isn't carefully cultivated. We all have a chance to emerge from this
- 1) with a greater compassion for students and colleagues whose lives are marked by irregularity and
- 2) with a greater facility at using the two rules of resilience.
- Speculating on when and how it will end produces terrible returns on the time invested, so it's best to avoid doing that. Certainly the worst use of my time these past weeks has been in prognosticating on when the closures will be over. This activity gives the illusions of both productivity and control (dangerous). It reminds me of this bit in Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning where a prisoner believes he's received a vision from God on when the camp will be liberated. When the date arrives with no end in sight, the prisoner falls ill; within a short time, he is dead — death by loss of hope, loss of meaning. Frankl uses the story to illustrate the principle that the path to resilience is through focusing on what one can control. I need this reminder hourly.
- While differences in our home lives have always been a factor in how we perform — both students and teachers — in the school building, these differences are exponentiated during Phase 1. If jobs were stressful before, they are likely more stressful now. If home was non-conducive to productive learning before, the effects of that are more impactful now. And on the other hand, if home was a wonderful educative place before the closures, it's probably more so now with the pace of life reduced and the time at home expanded. This latter reality is so true that I suspect a percentage of students will emerge from the closures more educated, not less.
- Since Phase 1 is not permanent, it does not make sense for individual teachers or schools to give 100% of their energies to perfecting it. Even if we were to identify the world's best K-12 distance learning experts and have them develop the world's best K-12 distance learning curricula for teachers to deliver, and then we were to bring forth an army of expert K-12 distance learning coaches, it would still take 12-18 months to develop a global workforce of expert distance educators. Like it or not, human expertise is stubbornly slow in developing, and even after those 12-18 months, that expertise would still only be affecting an incomplete percentage of our students due to gaps in equitable access to remote learning.
- To use Nobel prizewinner Herbert Simon's language, instead of maximizing for Phase 1, teachers and leaders should seek to satisfice Phase 1 and start building the expertise we'll need to answer Phase 2. Which brings us to our next question…
What's Phase 2?
When in-person schooling resumes, schools will be faced with answering a uniquely difficult version of a very old question: How do you reduce opportunity and/or achievement gaps amongst students so that schools optimally promote the long-term flourishing of all young people, regardless of background?
In other words, Phase 2 won't be about answering a new question, it will be about answering a severe form of our oldest question. Because the question of producing an equitably accessible K-12 education has always plagued us, Phase 2 deserves a slice of our attention pie chart that increases week by week as we get the hang of satisficing Phase 1 work. And familiar stubbornness and unprecedented severity of Phase 2's question is exactly why we need to start finding time for it now — time that will only be available if we satisfice Phase 1.
Practical Guidance for the Phases
Before I conclude with some practical guidance, let me draw you back to where I began: right now I have low confidence in my own advice. You've really got to test what I'm saying to see if it bears any weight. Reader beware!
Phase 1 Guidance for Teachers
- Develop a schedule that offers the lowest likelihood that you'll go insane during this time. If you're able to, sleep in. Or wake up early just so that you can begin the day with a couple hours of reading. If you have young children who wake up really early, train them in safe ways to occupy themselves. If you've got babies…man, find a way to get a nap in some days. If you're at one of those districts where you're livestream teaching on a normal school schedule…I'm sorry. My point is, as best you can, create a human schedule at the expense of not being able to create a perfect Phase 1. You and I have never been very good at the savior thing — let's not try inhabiting that role now, either.
- Tell your students to sleep in, too. For once our secondary students have liberty from the inhumane start times that our systems (at least in the US) subject them to. It is ludicrous that the same CDC that we've looked to during COVID-19 published school start time recommendations since at least 2015 and yet 80+% of school systems do not follow them. Now there aren't the usual excuses for perpetuating this trend — so, teach your students to sleep just as you'd teach them to avoid narcotics.
- Satisfice your emergency remote lessons for the sake of gaining time to reach out to disengaged students. I think the goal of Phase 1 for teachers should be to provide an at-least-okay set of weekly learning experiences to as many students as possible. I'm not going to try to perfect my curriculum during the next seven weeks, but I am going to do what I can to speak with each of my students and see if we can't figure a way for them to do some learning before school ends in June. In these interactions, I want to communicate the care that teacher credibility is founded upon: I care about you as both a person and a learner.
- Fight to protect at least an hour per week where you get to invest in your Phase 2 professional development. If you're K-6, read Wexler's book. If you're 7-12, read Didau's. I'm recommending these books specifically because they remedy the fundamental misunderstandings that perpetuate the opportunity and achievement gaps. Read that again and let me rephrase: the reason that Phase 2 is a worsened form of a very old problem is because the work of schools isn't caught up to the work of educational science. Period. So if at all possible, find a way to satisfice Phase 1 work so you have time to at least read these books. Phase 2 is coming and it need not find us without newly consolidated knowledge base from which to answer it.
- If you'd like me to figure out a way to lead some kind of virtual book club around the reading of these two books, please indicate that interest by placing your email here. If enough folks sign up, I'll put in the time to design a good experience for all of us.
Phase 1 Guidance for Leaders
- Treat Phase 1 as a chance to get the mechanics of remote learning down. This is important. If your school has extended breaks (e.g., summer break for many districts in the US), then one of the reasons that Phase 2 is such an old problem is because many families don't have access to a quality guide for extended break learning. So really, master the mechanics of delivering educational messages and resources to as great a percentage of your families as possible. Identify the remote learning experts (e.g., people whose ideas about remote learning correlate to replicable results) and get them in a room before this all ends and say, “Okay — how can we solve summer?” Seriously, if we can get through Phase 1, we ought to emerge with solutions to the summer slide.
- Start figuring out how to remove “curriculum creation” from the job description of teachers. It's always been a foolish aspect of American education that we insist on the local creation of curriculum — but now it's obviously foolish. Consider the differences in two of the courses I teach this year: AP World History and on-level world history. Weeks ago, my students in the AP course started receiving high-quality, well-structured, manageable lessons from the College Board's network of top AP World History teachers. My job in those classes quickly shifted to being a highly qualified tutor and coach for the emergency remote curriculum. Meanwhile in the on-level world history course, my students' first real lessons will start next week, and they'll be of dramatically lower quality than the AP lessons simply by virtue of the fact that my colleagues and I have had to create the emergency remote learning curriculum from scratch using the homemade curriculum we've been using for years. I'm an advocate for teacher autonomy, but most teachers in the United States have an impossibly large degree of autonomy over curriculum. We need fewer responsibilities in curriculum creation so that we might do better on our responsibilities around instruction. I'm not saying you need to make it so that your district becomes the College Board, nor should teachers or students be subjected to the administration of scripted curricula; I am saying that almost all systems in the US can and need to do far better in centralizing the creation of quality, evidence-informed curricula, and that districts with the resources and expertise for seeing this done ought to begin pursuing it. Be very carful about the expertise part, though — just because I am a teacher does not mean I am an expert. The shoddy, shiny curriculum adopted with majority “buy-in” won't do much good for students or teachers in the long-term. (And yes, I know this paragraph is a big job — that's why it begins with the critical word “start.”)
Phase 2 Guidance for Teachers:
- As I said, begin now to refine your understanding of what learning is and how it works. View Phase 2 as a chance to start teaching afresh. And again, begin with foundational texts: if you're in PK-6, read Wexler to get a picture of where we went wrong and how we can turn aright. If you're 7-12, read Didau, who aptly summarizes so much of the cognitive science. I'm recommending these books specifically because they dig to the root of the misunderstandings that have perpetuated inequitable long-term flourishing outcomes for longer than I've been a teacher. And if you think it'd be neat for me to lead some kind of virtual book club on these books, please indicate that interest by placing your email here. If enough folks sign up, I'll put in the time to design a good experience for all of us.
Phase 2 Guidance for Leaders:
- Learn with your teachers, starting ASAP. See above bullet point.
In closing, remember how I started: I'm not The Guy Who Has All the Answers right now. Take these thoughts for what they're worth.
Teaching (remotely) right beside you,