COVID-19: Deeper Thoughts on the State of Education Today (and a brief mention of the Headwaters Response)

 

As I write this post my first hope is that everyone in the Headwaters community and beyond is home, safe, and surrounded by the people and places they love.

We’ve all been inundated with COVID-19 updates, emails, ‘official responses’, and other communications in our inboxes.  We at Headwaters have purposely avoided this mania.  Instead, the Board of Headwaters Academy quickly and carefully met many times (more than at any point other than our founding) to try to ‘get it right’ in novel circumstances.  While we may never know if we got everything ‘right’, we did take the following actions, together with our Principal Rich Fletcher and our teaching team.

1) We implemented Zoom live classrooms.  Our students are not only maintaining their academic abilities, they are actually growing as learners.  Parent and student response has been overwhelmingly positive.

2) Recognizing that our school was founded on acres of outdoor space we invested in the materials necessary to livestream from outside.  I will lead an ‘Innovations’ program that includes gardening, beekeeping, and other outdoor pursuits so that our students can find that their classroom still is not confined to four walls (one of our founding principles).

3) Recognizing the financial hardship of our families we are carrying a substantial portion of their tuition fees forward as a credit to next year.  This Board was the first (and, to my knowledge) the only Board in our area (or possibly in the province) to offer this to families.  While our fixed costs of schooling are paid/have remained consistent we felt it was also imperative that we recognize the reduced level of service we can provide and act accordingly, from a financial perspective.

However, what I mainly want to write about today are two deeper questions, as they pertain to education.

1) What is the state of public education today?

2) What might be the lasting impact of this pandemic on mainstream education?

 

1) What is the state of public education today?

It is easy to forget that not so long ago our public education system was in a larger amount of disarray than usual.  Wages, online classes, and class sizes were the battles of the day and students, as always, were the losers as classes were cancelled for strike and work action days.

Early in this COVID-19 crisis agreements were suddenly made. Wage discussions have no place in this thread – but the concept of online learning and class sizes are certainly credible conversations.

On Class Size

When we founded this school our initial advisory team, Dr. Barb Smith, Simon Smith, and myself (I hope you are well Barb and Simon), sat down for a lively discussion and debate around class size.  Research showed, somewhat conclusively, that student achievement was changed little by class size, though the systems studied didn’t get much lower than 16 per class, with 12 being a very seldom researched but lowest class size found with any frequency at all in the academia.  Dr. Smith, who was always an inspiring administrator in education, summed it up this way as we know we wanted to go lower than 12  – “if this was a dinner party, how many people could we have around the table before we felt we might not be heard?”  After some discussion eight was the number we settled on. 

Thus, to us at Headwaters, the class size discussion of 23 or 24 is without merit.  Both numbers are too high to provide a quality educational experience for elementary students.

On Online Learning

If COVID-19 has taught me anything as an educator it has opened my eyes to the fact that online learning can work.  But only if delivered in a live manner (in our first week we were not live – and that was not well received!).  We have the technology to do this – why haven’t we been doing it, to some extent, all along?  More on this later…

 

2) What will this pandemic mean to the future of education?

This pandemic is set to disrupt the way that we educate. 

The ‘system’ itself has been outdated for far too long.  The concept that we can take a curriculum updated every few years, and that has been largely unchanged for decades, and use that to prepare children to lead a fulfilling and successful life is laughable in today’s rapidly changing world.  Yet we all (or almost all of us) are products of that system.  It is what we know; thus, it is what we cling to. 

Our newest family, the Karons, recently wrote that they were seeking an “alternative to the public school system” and “an enriched learning environment”.  I only got to meet their children for a week or two in person before COVID-19 put us all home.  But I can tell you that these are two children who have all of the potential, all of the manners, and all of the energy necessary to lead fulfilling and wildly successful lives.  Yet they were forgotten in the system, unseen, and due to their good behaviour, probably also unheard over the din of 22-25 others in the classroom.  Had their parents not acted they, too, might have been lost and poorly served by a curriculum that inherently is backwards versus forwards looking and a system designed on an economic versus education model.  Schools are for learning – this pandemic may bring us to look that fact straight in the face again.

Parents everywhere have been forced to take on the role of homeschoolers.  Some are finding, in fact most are finding, that their children can only achieve 2-3 hours of instructional learning in a day (and the public system expects even less of their students).  The truth is, that for most students, we could pack all of their on task time at schools in to 2-3 hours.  So why don’t we do that?  Why have we devalued the positive impact of the parent or community on children? 

I own a maple business and we employ a few people to pick up sap using large (and really cool) tractors.  An 8 year old boy attended the pick ups with his father in the tractor.  They were talking gallons per minute pumped, tank capacities, vacuum systems and pressure, and speeds and rates the whole time they were here picking up sap.  On the road perhaps they talked about life in general, commerce as they went through Flesherton, or even took to some fun imagination like what would happen if the turkeys they saw in my woods were to become the leaders of the free world.  Regardless, here was a time for that boy to learn from his father, like generations of boys before him have done prior to the advent of mass education.  

Headwaters recognizes this value.  It’s why we implemented a promise to be outside of the classroom and reaching in to our own and out to the broader community.  This pandemic has brought pause even to me, as founder.  Can we increase the amount of time our children are spending with their parents going forward? Would parents see the value in this?

On a broader scale public school parents will see truly how little time was spent focused on learning in a classroom that, through no fault of anyone in particular as it is from a bygone era, is designed for failure with more students in it than can possibly be heard let alone taught.  Some will have no option but to send their children back.  Others will see that this is, indeed, a new era and that both alternative models such as Headwaters, and homeschool models bolstered by live online learning, are very much viable and, frankly, imperative models for their children’s futures.