Educators are wringing their hands these days about how much students have “fallen behind” the past year. News story after news story laments a year of “lost learning.”
Those premature dirges assume a very narrow definition of “learning.”
Students everywhere have learned a great deal the past year. But what they’ve learned is far from the classic facts that they get tested on in English and algebra classes.
If math and reading scores are down, knowledge about the world is up. Way up.
This past year, K-12 students have learned about viruses and epidemiology, racism and social justice, shortages and supply chains, loneliness and community. From math and science to history and psychology, the lessons are profound, and worth exploring in great depth. Instead of starting the school year regretting missed lessons that emphasize failure, how about starting on a note of opportunity?
This may be the biggest teachable moment in any contemporary schoolteacher’s career. Teachers: grab it! What might new syllabi look like?
Crafting active-learning exercises across 45 years of teaching college students has inspired me to rethink current pedagogical challenges. Let’s imagine some Covid-inspired curricula.
History: In what ways did, and didn’t, the Covid pandemic replicate the 1918-20 influenza pandemic? The Black Plague? What lessons do past pandemics hold for the future? How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Math: Teach students to read charts tracking Covid infections and vaccinations. Compare the utility of different ways to visualize quantitative data. Do tables or bar graphs best illustrate certain kinds of data?
Do pie charts better illustrate other kinds of data? Are all published tables equally accurate? How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Biology: How do viruses infect people? What are all those spikes on the Coronavirus, anyway, and why is it called a “coronavirus”? How do vaccines work? How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Social studies: How does critical race theory explain George Floyd’s murder? How does democracy work? Why have 78 percent of Covid vaccine shots been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries, while only 0.5 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries? How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Geography: Map supply chains for product shortages students experienced. Brainstorm new technologies to halt climate change. How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Art: How can artists powerfully express their own engagements with the past year and speak movingly to others? For inspiration, check out the Plywood Protection Project. Have students scavenge materials and recycle them into artworks to promote social justice.
Beneath all the specific subject matter ripe for discussion, notice the refrain?
How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
That is the critical lesson that every teacher, at every grade level, ought to be teaching all year, in every class. Given the increasingly unhinged and medically dangerous calls online to inhale hydrogen peroxide, ingest horse-sized doses of deworming medicine, and gargle with Betadine as futile and potentially fatal prevention tactics against Covid-19, our very lives are at stake.