Category Archives: Education

Part Seven: A Culture of Democracy

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

A crowded town hall meeting in Torrington, CT in 2011.  These citizens are part of a culture of democracy.
Standing room only at a 2011 Town Hall Meeting in Torrington, Connecticut. Dannel Malloy / CC BY

Working for the past 8+ years in low-income housing, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to change a culture. Humans are amazingly mimetic creatures. In surprisingly large part, we do what we see other people doing. Our collective behavior changes when we reach some mysterious tipping point. When enough of us see enough of us acting in some particular way, suddenly everyone is doing it.  

In low-income housing, you see this when people break the smoke-free housing rules. Suddenly, when a few people don’t use the smoking area, nobody uses the smoking area. It shows up in countless other bad decisions and leads to most lease violations.  

That’s why it is so important with something like masks for leaders, members of the media, and celebrities to don their PPE ostentatiously. That’s why online challenges are a thing. And, perhaps, that is why online trolling has become our new national pastime.  

Once a community reaches that tipping point for a particular behavior, or even attitude, it is remarkably hard to change. Reaching that magical point where behavior becomes self-perpetuating throughout a population isn’t intentionality friendly.  

When we talk about changing the culture of democracy in the US, which is the Commission’s sixth and last strategy, we are talking about a couple of things.  

  1. In the last 40 to 60 years, the US has gradually developed a culture of civic disengagement. So how do we change it back?  
  2. In the last 20 or so years, the US has lurched into an especially bitterly divided, vitriolic, and tribal partisan political culture. How do we change that back?  

A Culture of National Service

The author operates a video camera at a youth summer camp in the woods of upstate New York in 2006.  National service like this can facilitate a culture of democracy.
Shooting video at the site of my AmeriCorps service, a youth summer camp. I went back to work for a summer three years later.

The Commission’s first recommendation is something that I have written about before. This country is crying out for a robust national service program. An expectation that everyone would spend a year after high school, or around that time, participating in paid national service could do wonders for our economy, our infrastructure, and, perhaps most importantly, our exposure to one another.  

As our sources of information become more and more siloed, as our civil society has withered, and as we have self-segregated into Camp Red and Camp Blue, it is worth noting that we are raising our children in this ecosystem. Despite some exposure to one another in school, a Camp Red childhood is very different from a Camp Blue childhood. We need to learn how to talk to and work with one another again. That means we need to expose our young adults to broader sources of (accurate) information and perspective, different kinds of people, and the art of collaboration.  

College is not enough. GED students, future service sector workers, community college students, those planning on entering the trades, and the dormitory-bound four-year college student all need to learn to work together, learn from and with each other, and value one another. They need to be Americans together, working on projects that benefit the country as a whole, as well as various communities particularly.  

The Commission specifies in its National Service recommendation (6.1) that people needn’t leave their communities to serve. There is great value and empowerment in working to benefit your own in concrete ways. But I see such a dramatic benefit in bringing young people of diverse backgrounds together that I would hope many would choose to serve in far-flung locations or situations.

An ongoing influx of youth in the country experienced in working across the metaphorical aisle, and across racial and socioeconomic strata, could have a considerable influence on the country as a whole. And all that is without even getting into the potential benefits to our infrastructure, both physical (roads, bridges, campgrounds, bike paths, etc.), and in human services (child care, food pantries, social work).  

Origin Stories

Four Tuskeegee Airmen walk across a field with two planes in the background.  We need common heroes in this country.
Can we at least all agree that these guys were rad? (U.S. Air Force photo)

One of the biggest gulfs between Camp Red and Camp Blue is their contradictory stories about how we got where we are. Were the Founding Fathers heroes delivering freedom from tyranny, or were they brutal slavemasters and genocidal maniacs? No one seems prepared to accept the uncomfortable reality that they were both at the same time. Or the even worse contradiction that the advent of constitutional democracy doesn’t absolve the genocide and slaveholding, and the genocide and slaveholding don’t negate the advent of constitutional democracy. Nobody likes cognitive dissonance.  

But if we are going to navigate out of our current maelstrom of impasses, we have to accept the reality of our messy and contradictory history. The Commission’s second recommendation in this strategy (6.2) is to develop an origin story that rings true for Camp Red and Camp Blue.  

This seems a tall order in a country where a quarter of the population believes that the powerful possibly or probably planned COVID-19.  

Nevertheless, without a starting point of general agreement on the outlines of our history, I don’t see how our national road doesn’t come to a fork. The Commission suggests coming to that agreement via a series of facilitated national conversations. It seems to me that such discussions would, in some way, need to be official, so that their results could feed into the content standards for our schools.  

It also seems to me that we can and should designate some space in our various curricula for learning to sit with and ultimately live with that cognitive dissonance. Even if, through national discussion groups, we can come up with a narrative we can all accept as valid, that narrative is inevitably going to contain painful contradictions. Somewhere in the gap between our noblest aspirations and our basest deeds lies the reality of our national identity. If we genuinely value critical thinking as a 21st Century Skill, educating to this discomfort is necessary.  

The Commission says: 

Whatever new narratives emerge from these conversations, they should be honest about the past without falling into cynicism, and should demonstrate appreciation of the country’s founding and transformative leaders without tipping into deification. They should acknowledge our faults and take pride in the progress we have made. They should grapple with the reasons we have routinely needed to reinvent our constitutional democracy and how we have done it. They should articulate aspirations for the elevation of our democracy to new heights in the twenty-first century. Working through how we tell ourselves stories about ourselves is a necessary part of renewing our capacity to work together for constitutional democracy.

Our Common Purpose

As with anything else, the visible and demonstrated acceptance of a new narrative would be crucial for its adoption. If people don’t see the media, politicians, celebrities, and substantial numbers of facebookers, youtubers, tweeters, and instagrammers buying in, they won’t buy in themselves.  

Democratic Faith

A long line of voters outside a polling place in Denver in 2006.  These citizens are participating in a culture of democracy.
Voters faced long lines in 2006 in Denver, but participated in their democracy, nonetheless.

“Democracy works only if enough of us believe that democracy works.” — Our Common Purpose

John Dewey called it Democratic Faith. It’s easy to forget how many of the things we take as real in our lives are acts of collective faith. Money is just pieces of paper or electronic blips. Human rights don’t exist outside of human imagination. America itself, along with every other nation-state, is a fiction in which we have all decided to participate. According to Yuval Noah Harari, in his seminal book Sapiens, this ability to believe collective fictions is our superpower as a species. It is the secret sauce that has allowed a naked ape with small teeth and weak claws to take over the planet via staggering acts of mass cooperation.  

Democracy, like so many other elements of human life, is just an idea. It only works by a sort of mass hallucination for the common good. Even once we think this through and realize that it is a fiction, we still behave as if it were a concrete reality. But when enough of us stop believing, suddenly it becomes all too obvious that we are treating an idea as if were a real thing like a rock or a tree.  

I, for one, would feel much more comfortable if we could get back to treating the fiction as an unquestioned reality. One can’t unknow things, but I’d like it if we could all start pretending like our democracy isn’t a house of cards set to topple at the slightest collective national sneeze again.  

The Commission suggests in its third recommendation in this strategy (6.3) that the way to do this is to recreate, or perhaps create anew, a culture of our democracy.  

“Democratic faith requires cultivation. It requires culture: shared rituals or ceremonies and intentional forms of play, work, reckoning, storytelling, conversation, and gathering that allow everyday citizens to make moral sense of our times in the company of others, and to try to close the gap between our high ideals as Americans and our persistently unjust realities.”

Our Common Purpose

There are many organizations already working in this arena, creating a culture not just of democracy but also of civil society. The Commission suggests that we support them, and facilitate the advent of new organizations fostering such culture.  

Advertising Democracy

The iconic I Voted sticker that used to come with our ballots in Colorado, but no longer does.  This was a great, cheap way to advertise a culture of democracy.
In Colorado, or at least in Jefferson County, where I live, voters no longer get a sticker. I don’t understand why they discontinued this. It was brilliant free advertising. Whoisjohngalt / CC BY-SA

There is one form of behavioral intervention that we know, beyond a reasonable doubt, works. There is a century of evidence proving its efficacy, and an entire industry built upon it. It is an industry that many other industries depend on utterly. You could say it is like the gasoline in the engine of our consumer economy.  

Call it advertising, call it marketing, call it propaganda, the point is, we know how to do it, and we know it can change behavior. Is it a bit sinister? Absolutely. But it seems that we are willing to accept such cognitive manipulation from giant profit-driven corporations. Shouldn’t we then accept it when it is actually in our interest?  

The Commission suggests (recommendation 6.4) that we support and build on the efforts of organizations already extant, such as the Purple Project for Democracy, and the I am a voter campaign organized by the Creative Artists Agency.  

Graphic design is powerful. Music is powerful. Words are powerful. And most of all, seeing other people doing something is powerful. We already watch people who are disproportionately thrilled with their toothpaste, laundry detergent, or dishwasher soap. Why not watch smiling, happy, connected, and joyful people voting, going to town hall meetings, being poll workers, and going to school board meetings? In the age of social media, such images can be shared far beyond the initial audience.  

Teach Civics

Immigrants whose clothing suggests a South Asian origin hold up a Citizenship Certificate.  People who have studied for the Citizenship Test typically know more about our democracy than native-born citizens.  We need to do a better job of educating ourselves if we want to foster a culture of democracy.
These new-minted citizens probably know more about our democracy than you or me. Charles Chauvel / CC BY

The Commission’s last recommendation (6.5) is perhaps the most obvious way to shift our culture back in the direction of civic participation: teach civics. The report cites my own state, Colorado, as one in which recent legislation is reinvigorating civics education, but as far as I can tell, that bill actually stalled out in committee. Considering that all it did was give schools the option to adopt a civics curriculum, that is concerning. And it is alarming that my nieces, who are going into eighth grade, report not having any classes or units on this stuff, to date.  

Not participating in our democracy seems like a much more reasonable decision if one has never been taught what it is and how it works.  

The Commission is right to point out that this recommendation can’t just be a K-12 thing. We need ongoing civics education. A couple of generations need filling in on what they missed out on in their schooling, and all of us, adults and children, need reminders and updates.  

To train people in civic participation, civic education cannot be a passive experience of listening to lectures and filling out multiple-choice tests. The Commission is also right to draw attention to some of the ways learning can be experiential, like:

  • Civic projects,
  • Service-learning, 
  • Student government, 
  • Debate training, and
  • Participatory budgeting.  

The Commission wraps up with the following: 

“As we approach the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding, civic education must do more than teach names and dates, or even impart hands-on experience. The American citizen today must be prepared to acknowledge our nation’s mistakes, to recognize that we have grappled over time to improve our imperfect union, to find pride in those struggles, and to recognize that at our best, everyone is included. We suggest that citizens today must be able to deal with ongoing debate and argument, be able to engage in that debate, find compromise, and from it all find their own love of country.” 

America in Transition

An Iraqi Kurdish woman in exile in London places a rose atop a ballot box after casting her vote.  We all need to be this excited about voting.
In 2005, I was privileged to witness the exiled Iraqi Kurdish community in London voting in the first post-Saddam Iraqi election. Regardless of what has happened since, getting this excited about voting is something to aspire to.

All of the Commission’s recommendations under this strategy can help shift the US from a culture of political and democratic disengagement and of extreme polarization. National service can teach us to work together with a diverse cross-section of our peers, and breed an ethos of civic participation. A national story we can all get behind would go a long way toward reconciling our red and blue realities and relieving some of our cynicism. Developing a culture of participatory democracy with rituals and intentionally civic-oriented forms of work, play, conversation, and gathering can create an ecosystem of involvement. Using the practical tools we have to market our democracy to ourselves and to demonstrate reconciliation between Camp Red and Camp Blue can bring us together and turn us out in numbers we haven’t seen in generations. And teaching and learning the nuts and bolts of our participatory system of government is an absolute no-brainer.  

All of these recommendations would work in part by showing people doing what we would like to see more people doing. People do what they see other people doing. It’s like monkey see, monkey do, but with great apes.  

National service would develop a continuously renewed cohort of participants demonstrating an ethos of service and graduates demonstrating the ability to work together. Telling our national story can give us role models of civic engagement. Some of the best of them are currently lost in the shuffle of history but should be given roles as exemplars of democracy. By its very nature, creating a culture of democratic engagement will show us our peers practicing Dewey’s democratic faith. Advertising largely works by showing us how fun and rewarding others find a particular activity or item. If we can make it look like all the cool kids are doing civics, we’ll probably want to do it, too. And a good education in civics will be full of watching people participate in and enjoy the fruits of our democratic system.  

All of the Commission’s strategies and recommendations are interdependent. A culture shift toward engagement and mutual respect must take place within the context of improving equality of voice and representation, empowering voters, improving the responsiveness of political institutions, reinvigorating civil society, and reforming our digital public square. But all of these are also dependent on a cultural shift. Very little can happen in a vaper locked political culture.  

Though cultural shift is the last of the strategies outlined by the Commission, in some ways, it must be our starting place as citizens. As an individual, one has little power to expand the House of Representatives or legislate social media companies into creating a virtual public interest space. But one can participate in service. One can work within one’s community to tell our messy national story. One can create rituals of voting, writing to representatives, and going to town meetings in one’s own life One can advertise one’s participation in the process and market it to one’s social circle. And one can learn and teach our system of government.  

We’re all part of the culture in the US. We’re all responsible for shifting it.  

Part Five: Civil Society

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

I first encountered the term civil society in college, taking International Relations classes. Developing countries tended to have weak civil society institutions. It was one of the reasons their governance was so often dysfunctional.  

A graphic of a fairly big group of people demonstrating diverse races, ethnicities, disabilities, clothing, religious affiliation, etc.  Civil society teaches respect for diversity, not only in the ways we tend to think of it, but also diversity of personal attributes like attitude, mien, friendliness, and opinion.
Civil society is a nebulously defined concept. It can mean the third sector of society. If there is a public sector and a private sector, there must surely be a personal sector, right? But it is also frequently used to mean the full range of non-governmental, non-workplace activities, communities, and groups. It can additionally have connotations of components of liberal democracy, such as freedom of speech and association. The term covers the organizations that we typically think of as NGOs, such as Red Cross/Red Crescent, MSF (Doctor’s Without Borders), and Oxfam, but also includes very localized groups that aren’t issue-centered, such as book clubs and walking groups.

Without a substantial sector of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), there were no institutions formally and informally holding government accountable. Without miniature democracies operating in communities, like Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs), book clubs, and environmental interest groups, citizens had no place to gain confidence in processes used in national, state, and local government, such as Robert’s Rules of Order. And without the stability of groups, community voices on issues waxed and waned depending on a given individual’s ability to commit time and energy. All of that is not even to mention the empowerment of simply belonging to a group.  

As with so many things that I learned in my international relations classes, it was only later that I fully realized that my country has this problem, too.  

The book cover of Bowling Alone.  All the way back in 2000, author Robert Putnam documented an alarming decline in civil society in the United States.

In my senior year, I did a paper on Robert Putnam’s seminal book Bowling Alone (2000).  In it, he documented an alarming decline in civil society in the US. We used to have powerful community connections in this country. When my parents were growing up, concerned (mostly) moms nearly overpopulated PTAs. Membership in clubs like Elks, Kiwanas, and Rotary was commonplace. Most people attended some variety of religious services regularly. As the title suggests, bowling leagues were a popular way to engage with one’s community. Though many of these activities weren’t political, and were sometimes specifically apolitical, they kept participants informed of developments in the community in ways that made apparent the importance of politics in everyday life. They also connected people with different political perspectives.  

When Putnam wrote his book in 2000, all of these types of activities had witnessed a massive decline in membership and participation. I’m not versed in current numbers, but recent statistics on loneliness in America tell me the situation isn’t much improved.  

Our democracy is suffering for it.  

If nothing else, we have forgotten the importance of the civil part of civil society. Growing up with a strong community both in my school and in my home, I learned a lot about civility. One of the key insights I think many people have forgotten is that one doesn’t have to like everyone in one’s community. I have seen people jettison all the benefits of a community experience because they dislike one individual. We’ve forgotten how to be civil towards people we don’t like. One doesn’t have to like everyone. We’ve forgotten how to thrive in an environment with diverse personalities, perspectives, and mannerisms. It has made us altogether too willing to write a whole group off because one person has opinions we disagree with, a nature we see as ornery, or are just annoying. It has rendered us unable to collaborate or compromise, particularly at a political level. It has created a vacuum of identity in our lives that is too easily filled by the knee-jerk remonstrances of tribal politics.  

Be Kind written in sidewalk chalk.  Being members of a community, as found in civil society, can help us be kinder people.
Being a member of a community can help us be kinder people. Image by reneebigelow from Pixabay

The last three strategies, with their attendant recommendations, in Our Common Purpose, the report of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, focus on civil society, rather than the mechanics of government. We can make our government more representative (Strategy 1), fix our voting systems (Strategy 2), and improve our infrastructure for participation in democracy, such as public meetings (Strategy 3), all we like. But if the people don’t buy-in, it doesn’t do anyone much good. Buy-in comes from civil society (Strategy 4); in the modern world, it comes from functional social media (Strategy 5); and it comes from culture, with its norms and expectations (Strategy 6).  

Strategy 4 in the report is to dramatically expand civic bridging capacity. I know roughly what the Commission is getting at, but it is hard to pinpoint what that means. What is civic bridging? What gap is being bridged? Do they mean the space between civil society and participation in governance? Or do they mean the chasm between involvement and non-involvement, period?  

The recommendations provide some insight:

  • 4.1, Establish a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure to scale up social, civic, and democratic infrastructure. Fund the Trust with a major nationwide investment campaign that bridges private enterprise and philanthropic seed funding. This might later be sustained through annual appropriations from Congress on the model of the National Endowment for Democracy. 
  • 4.2, Activate a range of funders to invest in the leadership capacity of the so-called civic one million: the catalytic leaders who drive civic renewal in communities around the country. Use this funding to encourage these leaders to support innovations in bridge-building and participatory democracy. 

The first one is about creating the literal, physical space for civil society to operate. Book clubs, bible studies, environmental groups, and local issue groups need meeting rooms in libraries, parks with walking paths, affordable coffee shops, rec centers, picnic tables, etc. In other words, real places where they can meet, have uninterrupted conversations, hold seminars, host get-togethers, have conferences, and interact. In my observation, the density and safety of these resources vary by the income of the community. The Committee specifies that funding should go to under-resourced communities.  

An image of a community room with windows for walls in Richland, WA.  Civil society needs places like this to meet, organize, and gather.
Civil society needs common spaces for meetings, like this space in the Richland, Washington Community Center. Lori Ehlis / CC BY-SA

This is pretty straightforward. If one wants a civil society, one needs places for it to happen. We should never forestall community building for mere lack of space. It benefits democracy that such things should happen, and the infrastructure is a good investment.  

The second recommendation is a little trickier. Who counts as part of the civic one-million? Does one’s organization have to be explicitly civic, or do other parts of civil society, such as book clubs and walking groups, count? Is the Commission calling for foundations (and whoever else is part of the ‘range of funders’) to exclusively help with leadership training expenses? What other kinds of funding might be called for, here? Investing in these NGOs could mean funding many different types of activities.  

Whatever the details, both recommendations are sound, but I have the same concerns that I did for Strategy 3, Ensure the Responsiveness of Political Institutions. The average American may or may not have more leisure time on her hands now than she did in previous decades.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics says more, but it sure feels like less. And to make it worse, when humans think that a resource is scarce, be it food, friends, time, or money, we tend to get trapped in short-term thinking and make poor choices, ironically garnering us even less of that resource.  

If we don’t have time or just feel like we don’t have time, we aren’t going to invest in civil society as individuals, no matter what the government or foundations do. And if we have forgotten how to deal with community members that just aren’t our favorites, we aren’t likely to flock to community activities.  

The Slytherin logo from Harry Potter.  Putting all the people we don't like into one house, like in Harry Potter, doesn't do much for our ability to work together as part of civil society.
Of course, unlike in Harry Potter, we can’t just
put all the people we don’t like into Slytherin.

I would propose two additions to the Committee’s recommendations here. One would be to emphasize community in schools. It’s easy to avoid learning to operate within a community when you go to a high school with thousands of classmates. If schools can’t be smaller, there should be schools within schools. We could have houses, like Harry Potter, but without the boarding in a giant magical castle. Learning to cope with and, indeed, value people we disagree with or simply find disagreeable is a skill best learned in youth.  

The other would be to strengthen legislation regarding the eight hour day and to increase the minimum wage. For many, if not most, salaried workers, the eight hour day is a sort of beautiful theory that never makes it into practice. If one works overtime, one should get paid for overtime, and overtime shouldn’t be the norm. There is a reason our forebearers fought, bled, and died striking for the eight hour day. Work should be part of our lives. A big part of our lives. But not our whole lives. And hourly workers should not be working two or three jobs to make ends meet or need food assistance while working full time.  

Until we address the scarcity, or even just the feeling of scarcity, of time, and re-learn how to deal with a diverse range of personalities, I posit that our civil society and government will continue to ail.  

If School Can’t Pause, We’re Doing it Wrong

I will return to my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US next week.

Two students are shown in an old photograph shoveling dirt, working on wildfire reclamation for a botany class in school, circa 1996.  Student on right is author.
Experiential learning, back in the day. I’m shown on the right. As part of a botany class, we spent some Saturdays doing wildfire reclamation work in Buffalo Creek, Colorado.

I was really worried when I went to college. Part of my elementary and all of my middle and high school years happened in a public school of choice (like a charter school, but established long before charter schools were a thing) with a radically alternative pedagogy. I hadn’t been formally graded since I transferred to the K-12 school in fifth grade. And I was hung up on the fact that I had never had a US history class.

Classes at the Open School were and are designed to incorporate the classic subject areas (readin’, writin, an’ ‘rithmetic, plus science, social studies, history, language arts, etc.) not by teaching them specifically, but as natural side-effects of deep learning. Courses ranged from the historic and contemporary music of the American South (as a preparatory class for a trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) to a group read of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (long after my time, but a perfect example of the type of classes offered). Students also did extensive learning in the classic content areas as they pursued personal projects and self-directed learning experiences.

So, no, I had never had a class that specifically studied US history. I did not have the background that I imagined all the other kids would have from their traditional schools.

The nail in the coffin of those worries came when I spent my sophomore year abroad in Nairobi. I was hanging out one evening with some other American students and some of my Kenyan classmates. One of the Kenyans was studying US history. Having a few handy Americans available, and not wanting to look it up, he asked what year the Declaration of Independence was signed. Of course, I deferred to the kids who had been through a traditional school education. They had no idea. “I’m pretty sure it was 1776,” I told him, still lacking some confidence.

As I have gone on in life, it has become increasingly clear that our school system crams young brains with facts which are retained long enough to be regurgitated on a test, then promptly flushed from memory.

A hand with a pencil taking a standardized test -- the old school paper version, where you had to fill in the little bubbles.
Standardized tests are usually done on computers now, but many of us will remember this format. Image courtesy of flickr.com user Alberto G., used by CC2.0.

In a survey of 41,000 Americans, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (name change pending in the Fall) found that only four in ten Americans had enough historical knowledge to pass the citizenship test. If I’m reading the article correctly (the language is a little ambiguous), that drops to only 27% among those under 45. And mind you, that doesn’t refer to acing the exam, just passing it, even scraping by with a D.

In the annual Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey, only 39% of Americans could identify the three branches of government. Alarmingly, this was a significant improvement over years past. In 2017 (I don’t know why they are not citing updated numbers here — maybe they changed the wording or something), more than a third of respondents couldn’t name any rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

A graph showing trendlines for results of the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey.  Lines are plotted for survey respondents who could name all three branches of government (39% in 2019, a substantial improvement) and those who couldn't name any (22% in 2019, a significant decrease).  Even given that these are improvements more of us should be retaining this information from school.
An encouraging trend — let’s hope it is long-lived.

In the 2017 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac), a general test of workplace skills administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Americans were able to hold their own in literacy, coming in a bit above average. However, adults in the US tested 24th out of 32 countries in numeracy, and only 31.4% of the adults who took the test scored at levels 2 or 3 (the highest) in problem-solving in technology-rich environments.

A description of the levels of competency in the Problem-solving in a technology rich environment section of the PIAAC test.  In level 2, adults can - complete problems that have explicit criteria for success, a small number of applications, and several steps and operators - can monitor progress towards a solution and handle unexpected outcomes or impasses.  In level three, adults can - complete tasks involving multiple applications, a large number of steps, impasses, and the discovery and use of ad hoc commands in a novel environment - establish a plan to arrive at a solution and monitor its implementation as they deal with unexpected outcomes and impasses.  
All of these are skills we should be retaining from school.
Description of levels proficiency in problem-solving in technology-rich environments. Courtesy OECD.

It’s clear that the summer slide that so concerns teachers turns into a permanent slump once students leave school.

Given all this, people are right to be very concerned about switching to distance learning during the pandemic. But it is equally clear that this isn’t just a pandemic problem. Students are not retaining the information and skills they are learning in school, regardless of interruptions.

If our kids can’t even handle summer vacation without falling behind, and if we can’t respond to a public health crisis without jeopardizing their future, shouldn’t we be taking a deeper look at how we teach, instead of just agonizing over how to open schools safely?

A young girl sits in front of a desktop computer screen.  She may be playing a game, or she may be in school in a distance learning sense.
Hragaby / CC BY-SA

We have talked a great talk in recent years about teaching “21st Century Skills” such as critical thinking (which I posit has been a crucial skill throughout history and will continue to be one well beyond the 21st century). Perhaps our performance as adults will improve as more students are graduated from a curriculum that focuses more on such underlying skills.

But what I haven’t heard in articles and from pundits is a discussion of meaning in education. I was very lucky to go to the school that I did. Critical thinking skills have always been an important part of curriculum there, but it’s hard to think critically about something, let alone retain it, if it isn’t imbued with meaning and context.

Talking about meaningful education can sound pretty touchy-feely, but without developing a context of importance to one’s self, one’s various communities, and one’s own history, why would our brain retain facts? We retain what we care about, and it seems to me that many students in our current system aren’t shown very many reasons to care about what they are learning. Teaching to the test means that teachers are swimming upsteam, fighting their hardest to imbue learning with meaning, while the current is constantly sweeping them towards the next content standard.

W.B. Yeats may or may not have said “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Plutarch did say “the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” A student who is (metaphorically) on fire gains more knowledge during the summer break, instead of forgetting everything they’ve learned. A student who is on fire might actually benefit from a gap year during the pandemic — it would be a chance to further pursue the things she or he had found most interesting in previous years.

If we choose to use it, this horrible health crisis actually presents us with many opportunities. We can build back a better, more just, more equitable economy. We can rethink commuting. We can use it as a chance to create a national health system that brings us up to the standard of other developed countries. And we can think deeply about how we can create an education experience for our kids that creates context and meaning. An education to remember, if you will.