Published on Medium April 27, 2019

What will we learn about education from the days in 2020 when our school buildings were closed?

We might say we’ve learned there’s a lot more good out there than we’d have hoped to imagine — a lot of creativity and a lot of generosity. New curricula, content, resources, platforms, tools, tips, techniques, technology being developed — and much of it freely shared. A lot of nimbleness and flexibility. Quick pivots as schools and families adapt from classroom-based to home-based delivery.

Will this experience change our perspectives on teaching and learning, once life gets sorted and school buildings open? Indeed, what will we learn from this period of … well … homeschooling?

One American think tank has already declared, “We’re all homeschoolers now.”

I disagree for two reasons:

(1) Lack of flexible use of time and space (we’re in lockdown and cannot leave our homes!)

(2) Lack of ultimate parental responsibility for the design of educational programs (most of the educational programs in use currently are designed by teachers, with the expectation parents will support where required)

This is not homeschooling.

Inherent in homeschooling is the realization that time and space can be used differently in a child’s education. This was central to a 2015 study on homeschooling in Canada, where my colleague, Dr. Deani Van Pelt, wrote:

In the last decade, education has been increasingly less constrained by time and place. Opportunities provided by technology and possibilities afforded through changing perspectives on teaching and learning combine to create new conditions and prospects for educational delivery in the twenty-first century. Since home schooling is an approach to education that inherently offers its practitioners flexibility in use of time and space, this education sector may have some policy lessons to share with classroom-based schooling as it adapts to future opportunities.[1]

The education taking place during COVID-19 isolation does not offer flexibility in use of space. So, that is one strike against considering it homeschooling.

Another key distinction exists.

In that same paper, Van Pelt was interested in sorting out just exactly how to define homeschooling. She considered several sources — from Statistics Canada to experts such as Basham, Merrifield, Hepburn, Donnelly, and Lagos — and concluded that recent and earlier definitions are congruent. Homeschooling is an education that takes place primarily outside a large institutional setting, where “parents take final responsibility for the selection, management, provision, and supervision of their child’s education program.”[2]

Conversely, teachers are still largely designing and delivering the learning taking place in homes today because of the pandemic. They’re just doing it digitally and not in person.

So, it’s e-learning, right? Pedagogically, no. It may be “emergency” learning, but it is definitely not “electronic” learning. Nor is it “distance learning, distributed learning, blended learning, [virtual] learning, [or] mobile learning.” Some are rightly calling it “emergency remote teaching,” as the primary objective is to provide temporary access to instruction and support, in a manner that is reliable and quick to set up. But the curriculum and learning plans are not designed for online delivery.

The education we’re experiencing during school closures is characterized by its lack of opportunity to plan and the huge pieces of the educational ecosystem that are missing. At this point, it’s crisis management.

We have jumped straight to how to teach students, given the COVID-19 circumstances, without answering the what and why. These must come first, beginning with why. How comes last.

Why education? What are we after?

In the words of the great education practitioner and theorist, Charlotte Mason, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” She rightly observed that education is the science of relations: Relations to each other, nature, belief, the practical realities of our economy and occupational preparation, and also “the world of intellect and culture,” to quote the distinguished philosopher and former Yale professor, Nicholas Wolterstorff.[3]

But it’s also more.

“Students,” writes Wolterstorff, “are more than students. Students are people.”[3] Personhood, as Charlotte Mason discovered, is the first principle of education. It is the central reason why education is so important. Education is about who a child is today and who that child is becoming. And it’s about what difference that becoming makes and will make on both the individual and society.

It’s about journeying together, for the common good.

The journey is different for every person. The “best” school, curriculum, or pedagogy for one person or group may not be the best for another. For some reason we appreciate our differences as adults — we don’t all work the same hours, in the same place, in the same industry — as we all benefit from the diversity of our strengths. Likewise, each child is different. So why do we keep trying to force kids into the same, big educational mould — especially now that we have the technology and capacity to do things differently?

Can the economic shutdown and the immense pressure it has inflicted on education budgets not provide us with an opportunity?

Through this lens, perhaps it’s time we reconsider what can be learned from homeschooling and its potential to nourish deep human flourishing.

Perhaps it’s also time we reimagine education, in all its diverse forms, and how a truly pluralistic education ecosystem benefits all, not just a few.

Now is the time to refine our education programs’ design and delivery so that innovation, adaptability, and creativity are not just features of our disaster response, but how we educate every day.

[1] Van Pelt, D.A. (2015). Home Schooling in Canada — The Current Picture — 2015. Vancouver, BC: Fraser Institute. p. 2

[2] Van Pelt, D.A. (2015). Home Schooling in Canada — The Current Picture — 2015. Vancouver, BC: Fraser Institute. p. 3

[3] Wolterstorff, N. (2002). Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning¸ Baker Academic. p. 20–21

Written by Cardus Education Director David Hunt