In-Person Learning during the Pandemic
I recently began listening to a new podcast called Cautionary Tales, in which Tim Harford, Financial Times columnist and BBC broadcaster, weaves together a series of real-life stories to teach an important lesson. As I was listening to a recent episode—How Britain Invented, Then Ignored, Blitzkrieg—I was amazed by the parallels that could be drawn to education. In the episode, Harford explains why organizations often cannot adapt to new ideas. As he says in the show notes: “This is a common story: Sony invented the digital Walkman, Xerox the personal computer, and Kodak the digital camera. In each case they failed to capitalize on the idea. Why?” The key story in the episode involves J. F. C. Fuller, a major-general in the British Army during World War I. Fuller was a pioneer in developing tactics for tank warfare. His ideas, in Britain at least, were roundly ignored. They were welcome, however, in Germany, where Fuller was invited to attend Nazi Germany’s first armed maneuvers in 1935.
As Harford explains, Sony, Xerox, Kodak, and the British Army couldn’t readily adapt to new ideas because of their organizational structure. Teams of lawyers who were used to negotiating large contracts with banks and government agencies did not translate well into marketing and selling a computer to a single consumer, and a regimented military with centuries of tradition could not readily adapt to the advent of mechanized warfare.
So what does this have to do with in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic? The issue is one and the same—traditional school systems are simply not organized in a manner that allows them to adapt to the new challenges presented by this virus.
Think about the two big issues that school leaders must address in light of the coronavirus—social distancing and the mixing of students. For social distancing, students should be able to sit in classrooms with several feet of space between them and their nearest peers. And, to the extent possible, the number of other students that a student encounters each day is supposed to be limited. If a student is in one class with a total of 20 other people, they only have 20 possible chances of exposure to COVID-19. If, however, they switch to a new class every hour, the possible chances of exposure increase exponentially.
The solution to this seems simple enough: reduce class sizes and reduce the number of times students switch classes. As we have seen throughout the country, however, this has been difficult for school districts to accomplish in practice.
The reason schools are not able to meet in person is because they are trying to deliver education in the same way that they have always delivered education. Some states have laws that dictate when the school year must begin and when it must end. In many school districts, contracts spell out when teachers may be asked to begin work, how many classes they may be asked to teach, and a host of other issues that shape a school system’s operational plans.
The current structure, from the school board down to the kindergarten teacher, is designed to deliver an in-person education that packs 20 to 30 students in a single class. Additionally, at least at the middle- and high-school levels, a bell rings every 50 minutes to tell the students to shuffle through the halls to a new classroom filled with different students.
Most school districts have responded to the pandemic in one of three ways: They’ve gone fully virtual, they’ve gone hybrid with half of the students coming to school each day, or they have rolled the dice with students returning to “normal” as much as possible. None of these scenarios fully meets the challenges of social distancing and mixing. Virtual learning gives up on in-person learning altogether. Blended learning only addresses the social distancing by having half as many kids on campus at a time, but typically still has kids mixing in different classes throughout the day. And doing school “as usual” almost ignores the problem altogether; which may be possible (even desirable) in small schools, elementary schools where the effects of COVID have been mild, or in communities where the number of cases is extremely low. Nevertheless, school as usual does not address the issues of distancing or mixing.
Addressing both the social distancing problem and the mixing problem caused by COVID-19 would require school districts to be nimble and to rethink many of the norms governing how schools operate. Do we have to have two semesters and four quarters, or could we spread the school year over the entire calendar year? Could we use trimesters? Do students have to take seven or eight classes at once, or could they take two or three classes at a time? Do we have to meet all day from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., or could we have two shifts of in-person learning?
If we reconsidered the norms around school and how schools must operate, we would have a much better chance at coming up with solutions that allow us to social distance in classrooms and to keep student mixing to a minimum. But we don’t do these things. We simply say it is all too hard and do virtual learning, we force a blended model on our old structures, or we just put our heads in the sand.
Tim Harford’s cautionary tale helps us to understand why organizations often do not adapt to new ideas and inventions—their organizational structures aren’t designed to do so. It also helps us understand why school districts are struggling to provide robust in-person learning opportunities for students during the pandemic. Our public schools simply aren’t equipped to be nimble, out-of-the-box organizations.