It's Time for Educational Innovation: It Won't Be Easy

It's Time for Educational Innovation: It Won't Be Easy

Karen Gross 14/09/2020 6
It's Time for Educational Innovation: It Won't Be Easy

For an educator, it is downright frightening to watch and, in the interest of full disclosure, participate in the debacle that now exists across the early childhood-adulthood educational landscape.

It's Time for Educational Innovation: It Won't Be Easy

Installation Mask Art (doable in schools)

Some schools are opening; some are remaining fully online. Others are doing some hybrid version. Colleges are reopening in some form and there is lots of blame on students for too much partying. Teachers are frightened about new outbreaks; so are parents.

States are all handling this differently. The Secretary of Education seems to be on vacation. Oh, some private colleges are closing; whether the Pandemic is the cause or not, the watch word of the day is “blame the Pandemic.”

We know from existing data (even if incomplete) that mental health across our nation is faltering; yet, we focus on physical safety in the context of education to such a degree that mental health almost seems like an after-thought.

Think about the college that proffered a new initiative titled “Culture of Care“ and mental health was conspicuously missing (Sadly, my alma mater).

And goodness knows, those of us to raise the word ”trauma” are cast as coddlers by those who believe that we don’t need to help folks too much; it weakens their drive to succeed and develop responsibility.

I could go on but complaining doesn’t do much good. Neither do more meetings and more reports. Now is the time, if ever there were a time, for change -- dramatic, real, fundamental change. Tweaking at the margins is not what is needed. And, more importantly, it won’t make a difference.

But, there is a starter question: Do we agree enough on the values that undergird education to make large scale change in education for all our students, at all ages and stages?

The answer to this question matters. Sure, we can make micro changes and even these changes are better (in most instances) than no changes. Stated differently, macro changes with stickiness require that we have some shared goals, some shared value.

In a society as diverse and divisive and fractious as ours, are there things within the realm of education about which we can agree? If the answer is no, then change agents are not going to get far. They will find some converts but they had best not expect systemic change.

Solving the Pandemic Has More Shared Goals than Education (Pandemic not easier but there are shared outcomes):

Now, it seems to me that dealing with the Pandemic -- as hard as that is -- we have shared goals and aims, absent cynical observations about political efforts to make the virus endure longer than necessary with American’s dying to insure election outcomes.

We want to control the spread of the virus (how is the question) and we want therapeutics for those struck with it (how to manage that is another question). Now how to get to these ends is immensely difficulty.

But, here’s my point: with respect to COVID-19, we do know what we want as an outcome: we want the viral spread to be curbed or perhaps stopped and we want those who get it to have some medical interventions that provide a cure.

Getting there or the reasons for not getting there are the problem areas.

To be sure, we are handicapped in our effort to move forward toward COVID solutions due, among other reasons, to the absence of data that is collected (and not collected), the absence of uniformity in terms of data definitions and the lack of cooperation at a myriad of levels in government and the private section on both the prevention and cure spectrum.

Surely, though, we know what we want to do as an endgame with respect to COVID-19. At least I think we can agree on that.

Pandemic Educational Aims/Goals: We Don’t Agree

But, I am not convinced we even have any level of agreement on educational goals/aim.

Is there a consensus that early childhood education is needed for all children and should be free and mandated? (No.)

Is there consensus that in person learning is optimal for all children and youth and adult learners? (No.)

Is there consensus that post-secondary education (in whatever form described whether college or apprenticeships or certificates) is needed? (No.)

Is there consensus on how education at any level should be funded and the role of the federal government in terms of monies and oversight? (No.)

Even more fundamentally, we do not agree on what it means to be educated. Seriously. Some folks believe that educational minimums are context based. We need to know certain things at certain levels.

Others are less focused on content and more focused on process -- the process of learning and adaptability.

Some believe we need to educate for civic engagement and certain shared culture norms while others think that is the job of parents/guardians and schools better keep their hands out of those arenas. Just ponder for a moment on the disagreement of what should be taught in schools on sex education.

My view is that fundamental education change cannot occur unless and until we have some shared goals and they can be goals that are hard to achieve but at least we know where we are pointing.

Stopping the spread of COVID and therapeudics are not easily translated into the educational realm. But, in education, can we have a thoughtful conversation about this?

My optimism was fostered by a recent opinion piece in the WSJ. Now, I may not agree with it but the point is it shows the need to consider the deeper question: What are we trying to accomplish in our educational system, at least from early childhood through high school?

Check out this article

I see way more value in learning pods than the author but the point is: think broadly about what we need to educate ALL our children.

Some Initial Goals/Aims: A Trial Balloon

It seems to me that there should be several basic aims of education about which we can agree. Indeed, when I was a college president I copied the idea from the University of Chicago and started the academic year with various valued members of our community speaking about:

What are the aims of education?.

Try this list and add to it or delete from it or edit it. The goal is to get the conversation launched. And, eliminate fancy words and politics and trends. Let’s address what really are the nation’s aims, whether implemented on the state or regional or local level.

My suggested list of aims are:

A. Development of a love of learning, not as measured by a test but by engagement and the skills needed to learn. In a world that is changing as fast as ours, we want people to continue learning and growing and adapting. To do that without being paralyzed by change, one has to learn to love to learn.

B. Recognition of the need for and importance of civic engagement, whether at the local, regional or national level. Our nation is founded on an educated populous. We need individuals to engage in and with their communities, to vote, to care about issues that affect others.

C. Appreciation for differences in culture and the need to treat all people, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity and religious views, with decency and kindness. We may agree to disagree but kindness helps and enables social engagement. Think Lord of the Flies and do the opposite.

D. Understanding of data and its collection and its use; we live in a world filled with information (so much information) that we need to know what to do (and not do) with it. Data crosses disciplines; it is not solely in the purview of data scientists or IT specialists.

E. Valuing beauty, whether in the form of music, dance, art, nature, literature, sports. We live in a world filled with beauty both on the outside and inside of places and spaces and people.

F. Respecting our planet and the need to preserve it for generations to come, with attention to water and air and land whether near or far.

G. Development of fundamental skills needed to navigate life, including reading at a basic level, doing math that informs how we function with respect to money and spending, history to put life now in perspective and problem solving and analytic ability.

H. Willingness to innovate and explore and experiment and take risks and be curious, with the aim of improving our world. That includes embracing technology where it fits including AI how to personalize it to preserve our humanness.

I. Capacity to work with others, outside silos, to achieve common ends without the need to prove oneself the better person.

J. Enhance self-reflective abilities to enable understanding of feelings, thoughts and behaviors and manage inevitable setbacks in life including trauma.

K. Recognize and respect and acknowledge wisdom and its value and that it comes from a wide range of sources, including life experience.

L. Belief that we all have have the potential to contribute to our world, albeit in different ways. No one has a lock on this.

M. Importance of helping each other to bring our best selves to the proverbial table -- for the betterment of our civilization.

Conclusion and Challenge

Surely, there is no one way to meet these aims and goals. Many are not measured on tests. Many call on doing education differently. Many call on us to change how we engage with others. It all begins I think with asking this question: At the end of the day, what matters to us as a civilization?

Not an easy question and it was inspired by James Ryan’s profound book, Wait What?. Not nearly as easy as addressing COVID 19 which is deeply complicated and expensive and hard and time consuming. This much I know: if we don’t ask the right questions, we won’t get the right answers.

Let the questioning begin.


A version of this article first appeared on CoFoundersTown.

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  • David Reynolds

    Reopening schools and universities is not a wise decision.

  • Karl Wyatt

    Do students really learn remotely ?

  • Luke Read

    Coronavirus is still here and won't go away anytime soon

  • John Beghini

    It's time to reform the educational system

  • Kevin Bayes

    I stopped watching TV and reading newspapers....

  • Chris Carson

    My son is back to school. He wears a mask but he is happy to see his classmates.

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


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