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It’s time to rethink how and what students learn as NYC schools look ahead, says teaching expert

Roberta Lenger Kang (center) is the director of the Center for the Professional Education of Teachers at Columbia University’s Teachers College. 
Courtesy of Roberta Lenger Kang

School will undoubtedly look different when buildings reopen next year.

Debates about the physical experience and the role of technology have taken center stage in recent weeks. Upon entering a building, students and teachers might be required to get their temperatures checked, and wearing personal protective gear could become the norm — which are among the demands in a teachers union petition that has garnered more than 100,000 signatures. School schedules could be staggered, which means remote learning could still continue in some form. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has enlisted tech titans to help “reimagine” what this could look like, tapping the Gates Foundation to help, as well as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt to head a blue ribbon commission focused on remote learning, telehealth, and broadband.

But what should the curriculum look like?

Roughly 1 million New York City children will have spent about a third of this school year learning remotely, with varying degrees of success. Their needs next year will be great and varied, academics say. Students have different degrees of access to technology, different abilities to learn virtually, and different levels of parental involvement in their studies. Many are experiencing trauma as their social worlds have been curtailed during this public health and economic crisis. Research suggests that missing school and the economic downturn has potentially harmful, long-lasting effects on students.

This moment presents an opportunity to rethink expectations and how we define academic success, according to Roberta Lenger Kang, director of the Center for the Professional Education of Teachers at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Chalkbeat talked with Lenger Kang about how schools could shift to a new model.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Is this a time for a dramatic shift in teaching and learning?

In the 1900s, the purpose of schooling was to equip students to find and recall information. Since then, advancements in technology have fundamentally changed our relationship to information and to each other. Today, we live in a global society with the World Wide Web literally at our fingertips.

Extensive research has been conducted to predict the skills that students need most in the 21st century, but even 20 years in, we have not yet seen the systematic shifts that will ensure our students will be prepared to meet the challenges that come with an interconnected world. Moving forward, students need to demonstrate how to contextualize and synthesize the information they find and use it to solve complex, real-world problems.

Our current model will not get us to this goal.

Motivated primarily by pressure from mandatory high-stakes tests that rely on finding and recalling information, educators have the impossible task of teaching for the test — or teaching for the future. And while an individual teacher, school or district may be able to make a break from tradition, we need a dramatic shift that comes from local and national policy makers who understand how to teach today, for tomorrow.

Is it a time to rethink some curricular expectations?

As educators, our work centers around four essential questions:

What do we want students to know? (Content)

What do we want them to be able to do? (Skills)

How will we get them there? (Instruction)

How will we know if they have met the expectations? (Assessment)

The answers to these four questions culminate in a curriculum that reveals the learning we truly value.

When we see massive evolutions in the central fields of study, due to advancements in technology, shifting mindsets in our culture, or discoveries in research, it only makes sense to shift our educational goals. But this is easier said than done because assessment drives instruction and curriculum is our roadmap.

We won’t find any shortcuts on this journey.

Shifts in curriculum aren’t about apps or devices or going online, and the coronavirus crisis hasn’t created any new problems — it has only magnified the challenges we’ve been facing in person.

To transform curriculum, we need to make new agreements about our shared values and agree to set new standards for students in the 21st century.

How can schools help those who have fallen most behind?

It’s important to remember that many students are experiencing the trauma of the virus, as well as challenging home environments, social isolation, and economic uncertainty. They need every opportunity to reset and restart when ready.

As schools strategize to meet the needs of those who’ve fallen most behind, they’ll want to have an action plan for student engagement that addresses academic engagement (executive functioning), intellectual engagement (curiosity and creativity), and social-emotional engagements (community building and connection).

Schools will want to prioritize student outreach, multiple pathways for students to engage in meaningful, and relevant learning activities that maximize student choice, authenticity, and intellectual exploration. On a personal level, students falling behind must feel seen, heard, and cared for. Academically, students falling behind must see a pathway to success regardless of their past history.

How do we help schools find joy again?

There is no doubt that the last two months have been overwhelming and disorienting. All of our rituals and routines have been turned inside out. For many, the magical moments of teaching come from the dynamic exchange between students and teachers as they respond to one another in the moment. The sound of the room when everyone’s working, the glint in the eye when a student finally gets it. None of these things can happen in this same way during a time of remote learning, but that doesn’t mean they won’t happen in other ways.

Digital teaching is completely different than our traditional methods. It’s challenging teachers to take more risks, be more vulnerable, and experiment with tools they’ve never used before. If we can see the opportunity in the obstacles, we’ll find these new methods can be incorporated into in-person learning when the pandemic passes.

Finding joy is a matter of embracing this harsh reality: there isn’t anything we can do to change our current circumstances — but we’re completely in charge of our response to it.

Our kids need us to show up for them, now, more than ever, and joy is waiting for us when we meet them.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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