Pandemic Should Not Be Used as an Excuse to Change Approach to Learning

March 23, 2020 Updated: March 24, 2020
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Commentary

Every school across the country is now closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students are at home for what looks like an extended period of time.

This means that learning is going to look a lot different in the weeks and possibly months ahead. Teachers have no choice but to find alternative ways to teach their courses. For some this means photocopying extensive work packages that will be sent home to students, while others are making extensive use of online learning activities.

Many schools are learning that a lack of technology can be a major impediment in times like these. The internet has become a vital part of modern society and teachers and students who lack access to it are at a significant disadvantage. While global pandemics are, fortunately, rare, there are many other circumstances where students might be unable to come to school for extended periods of time. We must be prepared for these times.

This pandemic is a good reminder that it is wise for provinces to develop online learning options for all students. Of course, it costs money to develop online programs but, if done right, it’s an investment that pays off. This is particularly true for high school courses, where online programs can provide students in small schools with course options they wouldn’t have otherwise.

However, we should also remember the old legal maxim that hard cases make for bad law. It’s one thing to expand online learning resources for students, but it’s another thing to use this pandemic as an excuse to throw out our entire approach to public education.

Sadly, a number of so-called 21st Century Learning advocates are doing just that.

These advocates are proclaiming the end of “factory-model” schooling and the dawn of a new approach to learning. They have long opposed a knowledge-rich curriculum and suggest that student-centred inquiry learning is the only effective strategy for public education. These advocates want teachers to throw out any preconceived notions of what content needs to be taught and learned, and instead let students pursue topics that most interest them. The COVID-19 outbreak has given them the perfect excuse to renew their attack on traditional learning methods.

It’s not hard to see why this approach might become more appealing in the midst of a pandemic where regular schooling is nearly impossible. But it’s important to keep in mind that this pandemic is not the new normal. This period of “social distancing” may last many weeks, but it won’t last forever. The world will not remain in total shutdown forever. At some point, the virus will run its course, schools will reopen, and life will go on much as it did before.

While it is important to prepare for disaster, we cannot operate under the assumption that a disaster is always just around the corner. If we did that, no one would ever take a cruise, open a restaurant, buy hockey tickets, or even invest in the stock market. When it comes to school, there’s no question that students learn best when they have direct contact with caring, committed, and competent teachers. Research is clear that students benefit greatly from knowledge-rich and structured classrooms where excellent teachers are clearly in control.

Of course, other professions have also been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, many family doctors have replaced in-person visits with videoconferencing and phone calls. This obviously makes sense in the current situation. However, no one would seriously suggest that doctors need to completely throw out standard medicine and patient care because of the extreme measures needed during the pandemic.

The fact remains that in-person medical consultations are clearly superior to videoconference or phone consultations, regardless of how advanced the technology is. Similarly, no matter how good an online learning course might be, it cannot match the in-person learning experiences of engaged students with competent teachers in school. Of course, online learning, when done well, is a helpful supplement to good teaching and learning. But it is not a replacement for traditional classrooms with expert teachers.

One positive thing we can take away from the COVID-19 pandemic, or any other national crisis for that matter, is that it forces us to set aside less important matters. For example, the labour dispute between Ontario teachers’ unions and the Ford government seems like a distant memory. Squabbles about class size, mandatory e-learning, and salary rates pale in comparison with a rapidly spreading virus that crosses all borders and has the ability to infect everyone.

Obviously, these issues haven’t gone away permanently. The Ontario government will still need to address them when virus outbreak has been resolved. But perhaps the pandemic has reminded both sides in this labour dispute that some things matter a lot more than others.

Quality teaching will always be quality teaching, whether we face a pandemic or not. At this time, let’s not be too quick to discard the things that work best for our students.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.