Ways of Seeing: Reimagining how we educate
About eight years ago I began doing hand-built pottery. Some people make beautiful bowls or whimsical wall hangings; I like to make sculptures. Probably all of you have made things out of clay, even if it was simply Playdough. I remember making an elephant when I was in kindergarten. The great thing about building with clay is that if you don’t like the way it’s turning out you just squish it into a ball and start anew. I realize that making a marble sculpture would be significantly less forgiving.
In the state of Washington, a famous bridge was built in 1940. At that time, it was the third longest suspension bridge in the world. As it neared completion, its bucking and twisting in the wind led the construction crew to name it “Galloping Gertie.” Rather than stopping to reconsider possible design flaws, those in charge had the crew carry on. Alas, a mere four months after its opening, it galloped its way to destruction — a lesson for engineers and physicists ever since.
When do you know it is time to cut your losses? Do you decide based on how much wasted time you have invested? Do you fear spending good money after bad? Do you just get fed up? Or maybe, like those bridge builders, you don’t cut them, and then you really lose.
As we muddle along in this pandemic, I hear people questioning so many ways that we have gone or are going in the wrong direction. So many of our country’s systems and cultural assumptions have been called into question. Some say it’s time to reimagine, reinvent, recreate. Others just crave getting back to “normal.” Even if that normal is heading down the wrong road, it’s the road we know. There are so many arenas we might reconsider: farming, food processing and distribution; health care; the range of emergency response services; our environment; the internet as a public utility; educational models; an equitable economic structure. It can be overwhelming, but it can also be freeing. Changing some of these things may be a bit more like trying to re-sculpt that chunk of marble than re-shaping a lump of clay, but all of those arenas have held different shapes in different times.
I believe we have let the two “e’s,” economy and efficiency, drive too many things in our world. It was a game-changer when Henry Ford started making automobiles on an assembly line, turning out an affordable car for the middle class while making big profits. What a concept! It was so amazing that people began applying it in many fields — including agricultural fields! Bigger, cheaper, more labor-efficient became the focus of so many aspects of our culture.
Around the same time Ford began his mass production of cars, public education had finally become available nationwide. Larger communities used the “state-of-the-art” model for their schools, moving students along the “assembly line” through the grades — and “discarding” them if they did not fit the system. The efficiencies and economies of such an approach became more complex when discarding students was ruled unconstitutional. A factory is only successful when you can control what “raw materials” will be used, and occasional discards are simply the cost of doing business. Educating children is a very different enterprise. Nonetheless, the idea that a better “product” can be delivered through large facilities persists.
As we grapple with how to safely educate our children during this pandemic, school boards and superintendents continue to focus on placing increasingly larger numbers of students together in the long term, even as they divide them up for this fall’s reopening. Why continue on this path right now? Better, perhaps, to pause in this process and consider how to provide more space for our children through smaller class groupings while still keeping them in school. We truly have no idea how long we will be in this health crisis and what sorts of changes will have occurred by the time it has passed. Why not focus our energies on reimagining educational models? Right now we have bigger issues than figuring out if this building or that one should be closed. Right now we need every bit of space we have, and probably more!
The fact that we have been moving in a certain direction doesn’t mean that we can’t stop or possibly turn around. We have come to know more about what children really need in education, and we know that especially for younger kids, they need it to be in-person and not just two days a week. We need to be thinking about new concepts, new designs. But what we are being offered instead is to count on bigger being better: closing the small schools and sending those children to larger schools. Why? Maybe we hope — and that is a big maybe — it will be cheaper. Maybe more efficient? Efficiency is also debatable. The real question is what do children need?
Closing schools that we later discover we really need might be like chopping too much off that block of marble. You can’t just undo some mistakes. Maybe it’s time to say we do not want to return to the old models, that we need to consider a new course, one that actually works for our children and for our communities. Like it or not, the pandemic has given us a pause. Let’s use it to find a better route, a better design, a better world for our children. If we can do that, it just might be a better world for all of us.
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and longtime Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental and just.
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