I clearly remember the Shabbos meal when we had over a family and we were discussing the future of education. The young doctor, a resident at the time, was quite confident that within a number of years all of education would be moved to a virtual platform. He argued quite convincingly — what need would there be for fancy classrooms and teachers for smaller groups of students, when competent teachers could be hired to teach on a virtual platform and prerecord all their classes?
I was dumbfounded and quite nervous. What would my role be as a teacher if I could be replaced by a Robot teacher? As I look back at my photos that keep popping up on my on phone from “this time last year” I look at those beginning days of Covid when I was frantically trying to help my own children learn at home via Zoom, and even more frantically learn how to teach my students on Zoom. I can honestly say that the primary lesson that I learned from this very dystopian experience was that computers cannot replace teachers.
One positive outcome of Covid I suppose is that perhaps the rest of the world- including young doctors pontificating about education — would hopefully agree that Zoom is at best a temporary replacement for good teaching, and at worst, a horrible ruse that teachers are teaching and students are learning. To quote my 14-year-old daughter on her unprompted thoughts on virtual school: “It would be better if it didn’t exist because then we wouldn’t be able to pretend that any of us are learning anything.”
The truth is that I’m quite surprised that I feel so strongly about the ineffectiveness of a virtual platform for teaching my students. Ironically, since the beginning of the pandemic, I myself have returned to school to pursue a degree in Educational Leadership. While at first, I was very disheartened that I wouldn’t be able to meet a community of educators and learn together with them on a beautiful campus, I was also extremely grateful that I could switch between my mommy role, professional role and student role by walking into my office and shutting the door (not to mention an incredibly supportive spouse who picked up a lot of the slack around the house). I also found that I was able to learn the content quite well considering the restrictions placed on my very creative teachers to teach us the material. However, I do not think that the Zoom experiment worked nearly as well for my own children, in lower and middle school, and my own students in middle school.
Covid has crystallized a suspicion I’ve had all along about the purpose of school. The goal of school is not merely about the content of the curriculum. Before people presume that I should be fired from my post because I don’t care about education — let me explain. Of course, we as educators have a litany of things we’d like to teach our students, and at times are mandated to teach our students. However, I submit that the primary purpose of school is to use the content of what we’re supposed to be teaching as the platform for conveying far more important lessons to our students.
For example, while in Zoom school one of my favorite features was the mute button because it resolved all the messy discipline that I have to engage in at school. However, over the course of the months of virtual teaching, I grew to hate that little mute button. I missed the opportunity to communicate with my students in a much more subtle manner on how to behave. For example, one student laughed at me today when he said: “you usually give me that ‘look’ when you want me to stop eating in class, but today you didn’t even notice that I was eating.” While this may not have been my finest teaching moment in class, I think that this anecdote demonstrates that there’s a lot more subtlety than goes into asking a student to show self-discipline than merely pressing a mute button. Students gain the opportunity to learn how to self-regulate and listen to instructions in a much more nuanced way when they have to confront their peers and their teachers in a live setting.
Today as my students were happily finishing up a project in class, I looked up and noticed how many of them were collaborating and communicating with each other, using both verbal and non-verbal cues. As helpful as the breakout room feature was on Zoom, meeting people in person is simply not replaced through a screen. The skills my students are able to learn through collaboration and communication in a natural environment is just as important — if not more important- than the information that they were discussing for their projects.
In fact, as I write this article the following idea strikes me- if a teacher can completely replicate his/her teaching from the live forum to the virtual forum- then they are doing something wrong. The goal of teaching is to create and help the students navigate the messy and beautiful moments of real-life: From the lessons learned from speaking out of turn during a class discussion, the feeling of presenting a rap to a live audience comprised of your teachers and peers, or the feeling of getting to play outside with your friends and throw around a football. None of these essential experiences can be replaced by a robot teacher. All of these experiences need to be cultivated and carefully orchestrated by the team of teachers who have the privilege of teaching students in a live setting. Students who miss out on these real-life experiences that can only be gained from being in a live setting — may still have learned all the content of their teachers’ lesson plans, but they have not gained the most essential part of school — learning how to live in the real world with real people. Both the joys and the challenges. For all those students still learning remotely, like my nieces and nephews in Toronto, my heart breaks for them and for their missed moments of real learning.
When everyone on the planet finally emerges from this pandemic, let’s cherish at least one upside of this experience for the educational world- realizing that the curriculum is simply the platform for connecting the teachers and the students to each other. Deep and meaningful learning can only happen when we are committed to growing and learning from each other in all the messy ways that can only happen from being together in person.