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Keeping it Human: What COVID-19 is Teaching Us (Again) About Learning

Updated: Jul 16

By Jessy Polzer |



My mom messaged me yesterday. I hear a lot more from her these days. A local plastics manufacturing company near my hometown jumped right into the fray, prototyping and producing critical PPE (because I know that acronym now) for our local hospital in under 48 hours. They’ve never seen the company “pivot faster to design, manufacture and ship an all-new product.” 


There’s a lot of pivoting going around.


People are working within their newly-legislated boundaries to creatively offer time, talent, and resources to fill any and every need (and there’s a lot of ‘em). A local teacher has offered to be a phone call away . . . for every parent in our 18,000 person valley . . . if they feel confused doing this ‘school at home’ thing. The Heart Hunters Facebook Group, started by a small-town teacher, is already an active half-a-million strong, nation-wide scavenger hunt with an unflinching message, “We’re all in this together.” From top to bottom and left to right, real folks are making compassion-fueled, people-first choices in their sphere of influence. And surprisingly, each one of us is discovering how large our sphere of influence actually is, all without stepping a foot out of our home. 


I’ve seen a sentiment popping up around social media. It’s a call to reflect, even as we react. 


“In our race to return to normal, let us consider which parts of normal are worth returning to.” 

From what I’ve seen in our clients and in education at large, educators are leading the way to innovate by returning to our roots . . . people first. Like a closet ethnographer, I’m scanning the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ‘Higher ed and the coronavirus’ group daily to understand the ideas and tools university teachers are building from this shared human experience. Here are a few emergent themes from my observations. 


Activate the Learning Brain

OR, We always come back to Maslow’s


We know that a person in fight/flight response is ‘closed for business’ when it comes to learning. The most important thing we can do as teachers is to ‘hold space’ for ourselves, each other, and our students right now. Teachers have always been front lines for student mental health. If we’re going to do anything really well at this critical moment, let it be this. Give yourself permission to take course rigor down a notch and make more room for student check-ins - person to person. 


Make Room for Post-Liminal Variation

OR, Everyone is different and that’s good


The idea of ‘post-liminal’ variation (Meyer and Land, 2005) acknowledges that learning is a fundamentally unique endeavor as each individual builds a distinctive set of integrated conceptual schema (e.g. meaning), even given the same building blocks. In short, we don’t always come to the same conclusion. That’s a good thing. Give small nods to the creative ways your students will think about your content by allowing students (manageable) choice in how they submit evidence of learning, creating rubrics that honor different conclusions, and handing that rubric over to students for peer review activities to take a load off your shoulders. 


Plan for a New World

OR, We don’t have to do it the same way we did it


Businesses are finding out they really can trust remote workers with the right technology and support. Likewise, as semesters, culminating experiences, and graduations are interrupted, educators and administrators will discover that people really can be trusted to shape their own learning pathway. I suspect that micro-credentialing across the career lifespan will become the new norm quicker than we thought, and teachers will remain indispensable as guides, mentors, and coaches to support individual human advancement.


To dip a toe into new forms of educating, we return to an old tool - course mapping. Take about 45 minutes to map your course using Backwards Design. Start with the question, ‘What must the learner be able to do by the end of this course?’ Shaping learning this way doesn’t diminish the life-changing, eye-opening, liberal arts “aha” moments . . . I promise. It just scopes that particular learning experience to a manageable size so the learner can chew on the best parts. 


The Guardian summed it up well - “The task today is not to fight the virus in order to return to business as usual, because business as usual was already a disaster. The goal, instead, is to fight the virus - and in doing so transform business as usual into something more human and secure.”

If we’re forced to do this, let it make us better. It’s a chance to deconstruct old ways and choose better ones . . . ones that put people at the center. It’s going to be a bit messy, but it’s worth our best shot. 

AUTHOR

Jessy Polzer - Head of Learning, Construct (Salt Lake City)