For educators, this was a strange spring semester. This is not the way it’s supposed to be, but the strangeness of a pandemic can prompt productive conversation on the fundamental purposes of education.
We have already tried a number of educational reforms, but national centralization of education and billions of dollars spent on new programs have not produced the desired results. In response to COVID-19, let’s try a different direction — a return to the basics, a refocus on what education is really about: equipping students with the tools for learning so that they can become free and independent thinkers.
COVID-19 forced educators to prioritize what was to be taught due to the limitations of online learning. The problem is that educational programs have become so large, complex and busy that it was not immediately obvious what to do. Faced with the challenge of paring down, the pandemic revealed to us that we have an unhelpfully complex system and that we have lost a focus on the basic tools of learning.
Our curricula are increasingly sophisticated and complex, but do they teach our students how to think and how to learn for themselves? Dorothy Sayers already anticipated this very problem in her 1947 paper, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” where she wrote, “Is not the great defect of our education today…that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”
Prior to recent educational reforms in No Child Left Behind and in the Common Core Standards, we had a sharper focus on these tools for learning. In these recent curricula revisions, we find a new focus on vague aspirations for “21st century skills,” which have actually turned out to be harmful insofar as we lost the primary focus on the basics of learning.
Dorothy Sayers derived a brilliant insight from the classical tradition of education: Education is about teaching students how to think by equipping them with the tools for learning. These tools, sometimes referred to as the “liberal arts,” involve a training in grammar, logic, and rhetoric along with mathematical and scientific studies. This course of study teaches a student not merely what to think but how. That is to say, it gives a student the tools for learning anything because all subjects derive in some way from the fundamental arts of language and mathematics. By contrast, modern curricula find no priority of place for the skill of logic. But we should ask, “What good is it if our students can read but they cannot distinguish between fact and opinion?”
If we prioritize these tools for learning, it follows that the true measure of education is not simply a list of courses or numbers on report card but whether or not a student is becoming a free and independent learner. If educators aim to equip students to think for themselves, then these past several weeks have been perhaps the greatest test of our educational system that we have seen in recent history. Before we rush forward with new educational programs, let’s reflect on how we have scored. The fact that so many school systems stopped assessing student work altogether during the pandemic suggests that we were not so optimistic about the likelihood of independent learning.
We need to reflect honestly about what students did with these new levels of unstructured and unregulated time. Did our students show an ability and desire to learn without the imminent authority and direction of the classroom? I suspect that some students have thrived in the time of the pandemic, choosing to learn on their own and for its own sake. We should be examining these successes to uncover the conditions that made it possible. The dispositions of an independent learner are difficult to measure, but this has been a test. Let’s not miss the opportunity.
COVID-19 has radically disrupted the education system, but there is something to learn from all of this. For at least the last five decades we have tried to centralize and to expand educational programs. This pandemic has stripped almost all of it away and has reminded us to focus again on the basics. The purpose of education is to equip students with the tools for learning, and more than ever our society needs a generation of independent thinkers and learners.