In September, I celebrated my first year as Kentucky’s commissioner of education by co-teaching a class at my alma mater, Meade County High School in Brandenburg. I spent the day alongside ninth-grade science educator Jonathan Mangin, a former veterinarian who teaches in the room that once housed my fourth-grade class.
One of the few good things to happen because of the COVID-19 crisis was that it forced the education community to be more creative in how we view education. We had to rely less on the traditional stand-and-deliver-a-lecture method and find new ways to engage students.
During my day spent co-teaching, we used a project-based approach to discuss earthquakes and plate tectonics. The class was asked to investigate whether a hypothetical story I told could one day be factual or would stay fictional. Students worked quickly to sort through the resources provided by Mangin and me and pull together a short presentation. Groups huddled over their Chromebooks and discussed photos or data points they were adding to their Google Docs. Each group, all working from the same information, provided different levels of analysis and inferences.
Technology serves an integral role in this active-learning approach, which greatly enhances classroom engagement and meaningful student learning. Strong online skills lead to digital creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. In the class, everyone ultimately arrived at similar answers, but they differed because the students were able to explore the resources as they desired or bring others to bear.
The education world’s use of technology exploded when the pandemic forced learning to move online. While I still firmly believe that meaningful in-person interactions are essential to student success, we should not discard the lessons learned during the huge educational shifts schools were forced to make due to COVID. These include the role technology plays in increasing students’ agency in how they respond to tasks and challenges, and its value as a nearly unlimited resource of content information and a catalyst for learning and collaboration.
I’ve received similar feedback from high school students from across the commonwealth who serve on the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council. Reflecting on their experiences over the course of the pandemic, they found there were many things they liked about how school operated in the 2020-21 year. They appreciated how they could better manage their assignments from all their classes through tools such as Google Classroom, and how flexible their schools were in giving them more latitude in how they responded to tasks as they transitioned from in-person to virtual learning.
Not surprisingly, one thing the Student Advisory Council members said they wanted to leave behind was traditional lecturing.
“A lot of time [virtual classes] started off with listening to a lecture for 50 minutes, just as we would in an in-person class,” said Sofie Farmer, a recent graduate of The Gatton Academy, a two-year residential STEM school. “It was really ineffective online and was still ineffective in person.”
From my own experience teaching classes and listening to students, I’ve seen how they have acquired technological skills at a rapid pace over the course of the pandemic. I have observed how they yearned for opportunities to collaborate, create and take on meaningful and interesting work.
Students are also awash in information, facts and concepts; no generation has had so much data at its fingertips. Yet they struggle to sort out what information is credible, what data relates to the problem they need to solve and how to make meaningful inferences from the maelstrom of content and perspectives they can call up on any topic.
Much attention and focus has been given to the concept of “learning loss,” meaning drops in content and basic skill knowledge as measured by standardized machine-scored tests. We rightfully should be concerned about how we support students in recovering from the disruptions to their learning and make sure they have solid foundations when it comes to basic literacy and numeracy.
While changing how students are educated is vital to helping them get their education back on track after so long in virtual learning, it is essential to look beyond the time of COVID. Without thinking deeply about how we are delivering education to students, we risk creating a generation and nation of potentially unemployable workers and distracted/disengaged citizens. Learning must be genuinely transformed so students get ample opportunities to practice finding solutions to the complex problems they will encounter as adults.
So yes, we do need to work to recover from content and basic skill “learning loss” that they experienced as a result of disruptions due to the pandemic. And fortunately, we have significant federal dollars to support that effort.
But in our efforts to manage the proximate crisis of “learning loss,” we must expend even greater energy in taking on the gigantic and existential crisis to our economy, democracy and way of life that will come crashing down if we don’t make bold changes to our education system that bring about a profound and genuine transformation of student experiences.
Jason E. Glass is Kentucky commissioner of education and chief learner.