Even Though Schools are Closed, Learning Must Continue

Commentary, Education, Michael C. Zwaagstra

School is out across Manitoba. 

Earlier this week, the Minister of Education announced that classes won’t resume until the Chief Provincial Public Health Officer says it is safe to do so. 

This means that teachers must become distance learning educators. School divisions are scrambling to ensure they have the proper supports in place for families who don’t have internet access or computers at home. 

Unfortunately, some people are using this pandemic to promote their particular education ideologies.

On one side, we have those who want to fully privatize public education. Instead of a well-funded public system, they would love to replace teachers with online tutors. These proponents suggest that, when things go back to normal, at least some online instruction should continue to be mandatory. For them, this pandemic is a convenient excuse to get rid of classroom teachers.

On the other side, progressive educators see the pandemic as an opportunity to take the next step in 21st Century Learning. They want schools to ditch prescribed content knowledge and focus on transferable skills such as creativity and critical thinking. At long last, they argue, each teacher will be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.”

Both sides are wrong. 

Education will look very different over the next few months, but not because a fundamental transformation is taking place. 

The distance learning programs being implemented now are stopgap measures designed to ensure students keep learning during this emergency period. While some students will thrive in this newly-created independent setting, parents and teachers are seeing firsthand that, for most students, in-person courses are a much better delivery option than online courses.

If anything, this pandemic has reminded us that technology is an extremely poor substitute for in-person teaching and learning. For young students, personal contact is, in fact, vital.

As for so-called 21st Century Learning, the reality is that students learn best when they acquire substantial content knowledge beginning at an early age and learn a number of important skills (such as standard math algorithms). Practice and repetition are important ways of committing these skills and a substantial amount of knowledge to memory.

Obviously, it’s harder to cover the academic basics when students are learning at home. Schoolwork over the next few months is going to be a lot more open-ended and flexible than normal—and that is to be expected. After all, we are in the midst of a global pandemic.

However, this is not an excuse for schools to jettison the academic basics when classes finally resume. The worst thing we can do is turn schools into progressive bastions of fluffy self-exploration where students are never forced to grapple with meaty academic skills and content. 

The long-term changes likely to result from this pandemic are considerably more modest. Creating effective distance learning options for students who cannot attend regular class is certainly one. We should also expect better access to technology for all students and improved communication protocols in the event of future emergencies.

There is an old legal maxim that hard cases make for bad law. This is certainly true in public education. No one should assume that what schools do over the next few months will become the model for how schools should look like in the future.

Meanwhile, the work of teaching and learning continues. 



Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.