This past Saturday, the cover story in the Wall Street Journal Review, titled “My Teacher is an App,” led me to think that K-12 virtual learning is the latest red herring for individuals seeking educational reform. The article cites the growing prevalence of digital learning: Florida requires every public high school student to take at least one online course; Idaho requires two. Thirty states let students take all of their courses online. Districts are embracing these programs because online learning cuts costs – a traditional high school teacher oversees 150 students; an online teacher can manage over 250, largely because the program is standardized and the grading is computer-generated.
Granted, there are students who might benefit from self-directed study, especially if the brick and mortar classrooms don’t provide individual instruction that matches the student’s ability. But the statistics suggest that online learning is not the panacea we’re hoping for: online students routinely school lower on standardized tests than their “in school” counterparts.
No doubt the times call for radical solutions (in the nation’s largest cities, half of all high school students never graduate). But perhaps the answer lies in the original meaning of radical – “rooted, inherent.” Instead of searching for a sexy, modern solution to our age-old woe, we need to remember what it means to be essentially human, what is rooted or inheres in each one of us. We need to remember that students are first and foremost human beings, individuals who want to connect to others, who want to create personal meaning out of what they learn, and who want to develop a sense of purpose and direction. Delivering content more readily to their doorsteps is not the solution. After all, information is not knowledge, let alone wisdom.
Diana Senechal, in her article “The Most Daring Education Reform of All” published in spring 2010 American Educator, offers sage advice: “Instead of rushing to incorporate 21st-century skills in all aspects of school, instead of embracing change for its own sake, we should pursue perfection in curriculum and pedagogy.” Of course, her statement begs the question, “What is excellence?” To me, that’s the question we should be grappling with.
In her article, Senechal cites an old professor of mine from UVA, E.D. Hirsch, who understood that “the central purpose (of education) used to be to create virtuous citizens with enough shared knowledge for all to participate in the publish sphere.” In his seminal but highly controversial work, Cultural Literacy, Hirsch explores the need for core knowledge in order to develop reading comprehension. Students must know something about the world in order to make sense and contribute to it. Senechal additionally offers a secondary purpose of education, “to prepare us for solitude, which is part of every life; if we know how to be alone, then we may be less prone to distractions, escapism, and boredom.” Certainly, man was made for relationships; he was made to connect and collaborate. But man was also made for solitude. Our essential condition requires that we lay down our heads at night with only ourselves to talk to, to sort things through, to come to conclusions. Communing with our fellow man is vital to our health, like nutrients to our body, but the capacity to live in solitude is akin to the very air we breathe. Parker Palmer in his book The Courage to Teach highlights the paradoxical need for both solitude and community: “When it is torn apart, both of these life-giving states of being degenerate into deathly specters of themselves. Solitude split off from community is no longer a rich and fulfilling experience of inwardness; now it becomes loneliness, a terrible isolation. Community split off from solitude is no longer a nurturing network of relationships; now it becomes a crowd, an alienating buzz of so many people and too much noise.”
In our rush to solve the problems of education, we must not overlook the basic human skill that will always endure: the ability to sit in solitude and think. I think we need to ask our students, and even ourselves, whether we are creating and fostering an environment for our students that allows them the peace and quiet to know themselves.