- The pandemic spurred a new — and much needed — era of education, as parents, teachers, and school districts everywhere reimagine schooling to cater different learning styles and individual interests.
- Experts say a curriculum centered around critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and compassion will more naturally prepare children for the future.
- Though learning pods and homeschooling only recently gained momentum during COVID-19, Tyshia Ingram and her family have embraced this form of self-directed learning for the past three years.
- She believes that this approach could potentially decentralize education while empowering kids and their communities.
- Sign up for our new parenting newsletter Insider Parenting here.
Hidden behind the carefully designed hybrid plans and distance learning classrooms across the country is a truth we all must face: School, as we know it, is over.
We've entered a new era. And as some parents, teachers, and school districts work to return to some semblance of normalcy, others are eyeing an alternative path. This wave of homeschoolers, "unschoolers," and families forming learning pods is more than an innovative response to a pandemic. They're also becoming the unexpected collaborators of an education reform that's way past due.
The "normal" so many are struggling to recreate is one that was actually developed over a century ago — a model created to economically educate students for the world they would enter as adults. A world that looks nothing like the one we live in today.
"The current system was designed and conceived for a different age," said Sir Ken Robinson, an education and creativity expert, during his popular TED Talk on changing education. While standardized education worked for the industrial age for which it was designed, we now live in the highly accelerated age of information.
Careers exist today that didn't a decade ago. Technology automates our jobs or replaces them altogether. Even the tried and true career path of school to college to job has come under question due to rising costs of higher education without the guarantees of the past. Post-college income doesn't always offset its cost. Student loan debt can have long-term impacts on financial goals. And we now have access to a wealth of information that can be pursued for a fraction of the cost with the internet.
Nothing is the same, yet in traditional education little has changed. Instead of using school to prepare children for this world, we've been preparing them for one that no longer exists.
What our children need
In the current education model, there's little room for flexibility. It doesn't take into account learning styles or individual interests. It isn't structured to support questions, creativity, or curiosity — practices needed to analyze and store information.
It's a model that generally feeds children a standardized set of data and measures them based on what they can remember. How does this prepare our children to live and thrive in the world as it is today? It doesn't.
"Content that once had to be drilled into students' heads is now just a phone swipe away," wrote educational consultant Jonathen Haber for Inside Higher Ed, "but the ability to make sense of that information requires thinking critically about it."
Experts have argued that our children need education that centers around creativity and critical thinking, as well as collaboration and compassion. This kind of model gives children space to question and wonder, encourages them to work together to solve problems, and allows them the space to follow their curiosities and learn in a way that feels natural to them.
As Chicago-based educator and teacher representative Ashley McCall wrote for The Alliance for Self-Directed Education in August, "When we structure students learning around their lived experiences and present needs, they not only develop content knowledge and skills, but they grow to care about and for one another. They are equipped to collaboratively face the world they are inheriting."
The future of education
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it an unusual opportunity to shift the way we teach and learn. As parents grapple with the new landscape of distance learning, hybrid schedules, and socially distant classrooms, many of them are simply deciding to opt out.
For the past three years, our family has embraced self-directed learning: a homeschooling approach that centers on children following their natural interests and curiosity. We've also taken part in "learning pods" before the pandemic brought them to the mainstream. I've seen firsthand how this path, not bound by ages, curriculums, or tests, has led to a world of possibility.
Through homeschooling, we've been able to create a different kind of learning environment. It's allowed our youngest son, age seven, space and time to play, a vital part of his development and key component of learning. In the absence of a predefined curriculum, my business savvy middle schooler has been able to deep dive into topics like finance and entrepreneurship. His "school days" typically involve checking and managing his Stockpile account, a brokerage that allows kids and teens to invest, or working on his business plan.
We've also found communities that align with our beliefs. A couple days a week, our children attend a self-directed learning center where facilitators support them as they explore, discover, and work on their personal projects. This gives them space to try new things and socialize while I get some focused time to work. And while there's been concern about pods widening inequality and equity gaps, there's also a large portion of people — my family included — that are using learning pods to decentralize education and create a learning environment that empowers them and their communities.
Our journey, ignited by a desire to tailor our children's education to their individual needs, has taught us that children can and will learn outside the constructs of conventional schooling, and that they just might be better off for it.
We have the opportunity to create a future of learning that's better than the one we had before, and the future is bright.
Imagine a school where children read books that inspire them, start businesses from their passions, and work together on real-world problems. That's the model we need for the future. That's the model we have the chance to create.
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This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).
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