The invisible blizzard and the importance of e-learning

Mass school closures now in place as a result of an international pandemic will provide valuable insight to parents and guardians about how much of their children’s time and creativity schools waste every day. I can assure you it will be more shock than awe. This is not the fault of teachers, but of an education system trapped in the Industrial Age. Let me explain.

For too long, we have prioritized seat time over student learning. That old notion is costing students and communities significant productivity – not to mention public tax dollars -- no one can afford to waste. As we are all facing uncertain times, trying to take care of our families and children and navigating our own needs, we also have an opportunity – no, an obligation -- to improve the way we have been doing things.

So what can we collectively do to urge necessary change?

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Let’s begin with teachers. They have much to share, are expert in learning new ways for students to understand content, and think deeply about the well-being of students. Yet, the current system has them steeped in routines that constrain their personal and professional expression, leaving little room for practicing or expanding their craft. Teachers don’t want to watch a clock, they want to help students learn. The system should be designed around their ability to do just that: connect around ideas, projects, activities and learning in ways not dictated by the hands on a clock. Let’s hear from them how they would work if the system were designed around student learning as opposed to seat time.

Second, we need to recognize that education is the greatest public power to transform individual opportunity and community well-being. As such, let’s release the current chokehold on individual creativity from the grip of those resistant to change and who would rather prop up a system organized to accommodate adults. Quality public schools are the heart of healthy community; as such, schools must be designed around the needs of children and engage them in work that is relevant and enhances the social and economic well-being of their communities.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson issued a national call to action to improve social conditions in the United States. One year later, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders issued the Kerner Report, chaired by Otto Kerner, governor of Illinois from 1961-1968. Among its recommendations, the Commission called for, “individualized instruction made feasible by educational technology (computers, television)” and said “the objective must be to make public education more relevant and responsive to the community and to increase support for it in the home.” Think where we would be today – 50 years later – if we had only heeded this prescient advice?

While State Superintendent of Schools for Illinois, I pushed for E-learning, district autonomy, and high school graduation by competency – all ideas aimed at enabling students to show what they know rather than how much time they spent in a seat. In 2017, the legislature successfully increased school funding and removed the arbitrary idea of time from our state education code. Liberating equitable learning, teaching, and creating strong connected communities became the focus. So too: activating all assets of a community; increasing the number of apprenticeships; and, collaborating with outside of school time partners to enrich learning.

Unfortunately, much of this progress was lost when, in 2019, state leaders reinstated minimums for instructional time in schools. But, this doesn’t need to stay the case. The state’s leadership need only embrace the framework design developed three years ago and use it as a springboard to further innovation.

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Which brings me to my third point. We can and must learn from local leaders working now to build social solidarity even while increasing spatial separation. And not just in Illinois. There are districts, schools, and educators across the nation showcasing the possibilities of E-learning while also providing other supports, food, and a place for those who don’t have anywhere else to turn. They’re not counting minutes, they’re creating opportunities. Competency-based and E-learning must be embraced by our nation’s education leaders if we truly want all children to thrive.

So here is my plea. When children go back to school, let’s hit “reset”. Let’s urge the U.S. Department of Education to direct energy, resources, and regulations it would have otherwise directed at lost testing time towards creating schools designed to meet students where they are. Not the other way around. Same for Illinois.

At the end of the day, part of our healing and recovery from this current global health crisis, must be that we don’t go back to schooling as usual. Our healthy future depends on nurturing new learning not punching the clock.

Tony Smith, Ph.D. served as school district Superintendent in Oakland and Emeryville, Ca., where he led systemwide community school efforts. He was the Illinois State Superintendent from 2015-2019.