It’s becoming increasingly obvious that our education system does not guarantee career readiness for your child. For instance, in 2019, the rates of unemployment rose to 4% for all recent college graduates in the USA — compared to 3.7% for the general population. More significant, however, is the fact that 41% of recent graduates suffer from underemployment; they obtain a job that doesn’t require a degree, and they keep it longer than they should. Even the quality of these jobs has diminished compared to the 1990s, as underemployed graduates face more part-time work and lower wages than ever before (think barista, not electrician).
When college graduates do obtain a white-collar job, most show up unprepared to work by default. That’s because our schools don’t typically equip students with the skillset, knowledge, etiquette, and cultural norms needed to seamlessly integrate the workforce. In 2019, for instance, the CEO of Siemens USA said that "there's nothing about the job that truly requires a four-year degree — it merely help[s] our hiring managers weed through the crowd.” In other words, the jobs college students aspire to require skills they are more likely to (yet still too rarely) have.
While failing to prepare students for purposeful careers, our educational institutions do not otherwise abide by their proclaimed love for education. Rather, “schools hire rankings consultants to tell them how to improve [their ranking]. The responses don’t serve educational excellence, or really any educational purpose at all, and educators resent them” — yet that is what matters most.
Simply put, the fact that schools don’t guarantee career readiness wouldn’t be quite as noteworthy if we weren’t used to reading headlines like, “How College Became a Ruthless Competition Divorced From Learning.”
Given these things, the spread of Covid-19 across the world set fire to our education system’s key premises. Unemployment rates for recent graduates rose to 12.9%, with graduating students feeling less prepared than ever to enter the workforce. Over the past year, we've witnessed an unprecedented time in education’s history, with schools worldwide closing to re-evaluate their learning methods. Many alternative education practices suddenly became commonplace in institutions where they had previously fallen on deaf ears. Educators went from saying “I don’t have the bandwidth for this right now” to recognizing the value of engaging teaching practices like differentiation, flipped classrooms, and project-based learning. As a result, moving beyond the pandemic now requires us to seize the opportunity to re-center schools around learning.
Two Schools of Thought
There is so much to gain from analyzing how educators have responded to the pandemic and what they’ve learned about their own ability to deviate from old-school methods. While some quickly dabbled with alternative learning in response to Covid-19 lockdowns, others remained paralyzed and tried to repurpose typical teaching methods in digital classrooms.
On the one hand, teachers who felt dissatisfied with how schools were in the days before the pandemic saw this as an opportunity to truly change the status quo. They began to move away from content-obsessed learning metrics and rethink the ‘way things were always done.’ After a few hurdles, many educators explored the opportunities blended learning offers up, sometimes discovering surprising advantages to digital learning for their students, teachers, and their community at large.
On the other hand, some educators experienced what social psychologists call threat rigidity, a panic-driven "flight or fight" response by an organization to an impending drama. When it comes to Covid-19, threat rigidity is a reasonable reaction to an overwhelming and shocking challenge. But when experienced at an institutional level by schools this year, it's left hundreds of students to feel alienated by digital learning.
It's clear that while some schools have really stepped up, others are still trying to recreate what’s “normal” in an obviously abnormal reality. Consequently, there is still room for improvement in schools that tried transferring traditional teaching methods to the online space. In any case, there has been some room for experimentation everywhere. In Mexico, where many students don’t have access to the internet, television has become primordial to alternative education. Indeed, TV networks have stepped up and given an opportunity for teachers to deliver content through video to students who otherwise wouldn't benefit from digital learning.
Back in the United States, the pandemic has forced many good teachers to become great digital educators. Though the shift to digital learning was incredibly rapid and challenging, it’s revealed itself to be a fantastic opportunity for schools to see what is possible beyond the gaps in the four walls of the classroom, from differentiated teaching to skills development to socio-emotional growth. At META Learning, we see this as a change from education to learning, and it’s a one we hope to continue seeing in the future.
This year, we witnessed educators take the time to work one-on-one with students online, especially in large classes where this sort of interaction was previously impossible. Teachers can ask each student specific questions to check whether they are understanding certain material and progressing without hurdles. When they struggle, educators can pivot and provide differentiated learning materials on the fly in ways that would have been impossible in the brick-and-mortar school. This kind of personalization was necessary for the online space and is one we must take care not to lose as we leave Covid-19 behind.
Likewise, moving from education to learning means leaving content regurgitation and standardized testing behind to provide personalized learning. It means thinking of students as individuals rather than as a mass. And that requires new skill sets from teachers who, more than most professionals, are used to getting into their groove, whether that’s through teaching the same lesson four times per day or the same content year after year. With digital learning, educators have now learned how to make videos, how to run a digital classroom, and how to create engaging teaching materials. Some are wondering how they can use videos to redefine homework, as opposed to making kids read chapters, complete worksheets, and other busywork.
Moreover, when teachers make space to ask the necessary questions and check who among their students is disengaged or emotionally distraught, they acknowledge this is a new and challenging educational environment they may not have all the answers for. In this sense, educators have showcased an exceptional vulnerability this year, becoming role models in social-emotional learning for their students. This approach implicitly validates what many proponents of alternative education have known for a long time; we need to make sure our students are psychologically and physically okay before we can help them learn. In other words, we must prioritize Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs over Benjamin Bloom’s pyramid of learning concepts.
In the past year, countless teachers have realized they could finally prioritize human needs over standardized testing requirements. As a result, educators got to grow into more than content delivery machines, showcasing a newfound (or previously hidden) interest in their students’ concerns, opinions, and lives. And witnessing these changes during the pandemic has been truly exceptional.
But Is There Learning Loss?
After the initial havoc of Covid-19, many educators have longed to go back to the way things were before, finding it hard to engage their students across the digital divide. For instance, it’s been especially challenging for older teachers to get used to all sorts of new technology. Lately, we've started talking more and more about “learning loss”, or the idea that students need to catch up on the past year’s material, filling the gaps of what was lost during the pandemic.
However, “learning loss” can only exist if we think of learning as a checklist of content items. In other words, it is merely a corollary of our education model, which privileges standardized testing over personal growth. If we measure our success with test grades, then, yes, we have undergone a “learning loss” this year.
Yes, there haven’t been as many 50-minute math and history and English class sessions a week. There haven’t been as many textbook chapters. There haven’t been as many exams. But that's not a bad thing.
The learning students experienced over the past year is actually astonishing. In North America alone, society as a whole developed an incredible digital skillset. For the first time ever, we had 7-year-olds on Zoom meetings, 11-year-old kids creating their own schedules, and 60-year-old teachers running videoconferences. Viewed in this way, the pandemic has allowed for the expansion of digital abilities to individuals of all ages and academic levels.
Moreover, several educators report witnessing increased collaboration in their digital lessons that they wouldn’t otherwise see in their physical classrooms. Previously disengaged learners came to life through using digital tools to connect with peers in new ways. Some students even thrived in a state of relative anonymity. They didn’t have to worry about getting bullied or laughed at because of their physical appearance and social skills. Other students thrived in having the freedom and flexibility to plan their own schedules, with space for breaks, healthy eating, and passion projects.
Likewise, the good judgment, interpersonal awareness, and organizational skills students acquired are irreplaceable — in both professional and personal circles. Applying aslow over Bloom thinking in class this year means teachers could finally help students grow as human beings. And while maturity may not be quantifiable, testable, or standardizable, it is certainly an invaluable asset for learners of all ages.
What We Carry Forward
At META Learning, we’re choosing to bring questions with us beyond this pandemic. Questions like:
How can we continue to differentiate learning for each student?
How can we break outside the four walls of the classroom and bring in knowledge experts to chat with our kids, just the way we would on a Zoom call?
How can we continue to use the flipped classroom approach?
How can we get our older teachers to continue learning from younger teachers?
And in what ways can we all continue to share a collective vulnerability and openness to learning?
Teachers taking their hats off to adopt an attitude of collaborative improvement is the best thing that could happen to us. Because of it, we now get to mull over the benefits and drawbacks of our in-person, digital learning, and blended learning programs. And we get to improve them all. As a result, countless schools are now seeking out professional development in digital learning and project-based learning to explore what’s possible in the future of education.
Far from being a waste of time, a threat, or the cause for learning loss, the pandemic has led us to ask the right questions about what we want students to gain from schools. The move away from standardized testing allowed us to slow down the pace of our learning to ensure that it is done well for all students, with a new focus on skills-centered learning rather than on the mindless regurgitation of content. It has also made learning more humane. From social-emotional learning to Maslow over Bloom to student-driven teaching, post-pandemic education will make space for the emotional creatures within us. Covid-19 ultimately gave us the breath of fresh air we needed to reassess our goals, required learning metrics, and teaching methods.
Hopefully, we can continue to move the needle forwards when it comes to promoting learning over education, skills over content, and personal growth over standardized testing. Learning, skills, and personal growth — these are the things employers will actually want. More than any standardized test, they are also what's best for your child. So why not make the pandemic an opportunity to reprioritize them?