What I learned parenting and watching my child navigate a socially distant education system
The freezer door of my parents’ fridge has always been the family clipping file. For the longest time the centrepiece was a photocopied poem carefully cut from a magazine’s long forgotten Christmas issue entitled ‘What Shall We Give the Children?’ by Margaret Cousins. (reprinted in full below).
The words and message caught my imagination. Looking back I realize that fridge wisdom was one of my earliest introductions to the concept of deep change and as I’ve moved through life researching and writing about the massive changes rolling through our lives, one line of that poem has repeated in my head.
“What shall we give the children? It seems certain that they will travel roads we never thought of; navigate strange seas, cross unimagined boundaries, and glimpse horizons beyond our power to visualize.
What can we give them to take along?”
We and our children have done all of these things over the past three months, crossing the until now unimagined boundary that is our front door, walking in instead of out and in doing so navigating the strange, isolating seas of teaching our children at home without the familiar structure of a formalized education system.
Covid-19 has revealed the weaknesses, gaps and limitations of the physical classroom and how it operates. Parents are experiencing in real time what the experts have warned against: that traditional ways of learning, with a teacher at the front delivering a lecture to students grouped by age is inadequate for the knowledge-based society we are becoming, whether we are ready or not. In this brave new world success will come to people, communities, industries and regions best equipped to enable the mobility of ideas, information and people in service to creating new products, services and workflows to solve increasingly complex problems.
Education is awash with ideas on how to do this. Everything from TED Talks, best-seller lists, conferences, town halls, faculty lounges and back deck conversations have give us ample amounts of musings on changing how young people learn, how teachers are trained and how technology can improve access to information. However education, like health care, has long faced strong resistance to change from all the adults in the room — parents, teachers, administrators and politicians. That’s left the kids with a hodge podge of options and great uncertainty about how and when learning will happen.
Over the last three months parents that can have muddled through on our own, trying to keep our children from falling into the abyss of boredom while we adjust to our new working conditions. In my case, my teen daughter has been a trooper but her spirit began to wane once she realized everything might not return to normal in September. That’s when my worry truly set in, as I helplessly watch the quieting of her curiosity.
Here’s the problem: I can direct her to websites on her favourite topics, listen to her thoughts on the news of the day, and give her tasks around the house (gardening is biology with colour! baking is just math that tastes good!) but it falls short of giving her what she craves. The company of friends. Group activities. Interaction with people who aren’t her parents. Independent experiences. She, like most kids, misses the social aspect of school. Of course she does. That is where curiosity, interest and engagement lives. It is where learning happens.
Humans learn best in and from the company of others. Scientists call it ‘social learning’ and it is distinct from the way all other animals learn in one important way: over time, social learning leads to more sophisticated and refined behaviour. In other words, we improve over time by learning from each other.
Knowing that, what have we been teaching our children during the pandemic and what shall we teach them going forward? Are we educating students to be indifferent to the multitude of challenges facing our province, our country and our world? To be rudderless and adrift in a sea of endless choices? To retreat behind walls of self-interest in the face of opposing perspectives? Or, are we teaching students to approach the problems of our time with confidence, desire and a willingness to invest their time, talent and creativity in learning how to make life better here at home and beyond and to share that knowledge with the world?
The role of parents, teachers and other adults is not to be distributors of information: it is to teach our children how to be critical interpreters of information. A far more difficult task and one that demands our active engagement. We can not raise active and informed citizens unless we model that behaviour first.
We have a lot to consider if we are to use this pandemic-induced pause to design a truly integrated education system for students from pre-school through to post-graduate studies. It will require a whole-of-society approach that will rely heavily on the collaboration and knowledge found within multi-sectoral networks. Schools and teachers alone can’t get us where we need to go, despite their best intentions.
We all have a role to play. For parents that means rethinking how we guide and coach our children to become active and engaged citizens and how others such as community non-profits, amateur sports teams, artistic organizations and employers contribute to shaping and reflecting shared values and purpose.
As we begin to rethink how we educate young people during and after Covid-19, we need to widen our definition of what an education system actually is and where we want it to take us.
What Shall We Give the Children?
Originally published in McCall’s Magazine, 1964
In the long twilight of the year, the faces of the children grow luminous. Rosy with cold, arabesqued with snowflakes, leaning into the wind, or drowsing before the fire, their eyes large, they look and listen, as if they glimpsed the peripheries of miracle or heard a soundless music in the air. From the innocent kingdom of implicit belief to that uncomfortable arena where the implacable mind battles the intractable heart, the faces of children at Christmas are lighted with visions of things to come.
What shall we give the children?
It seems certain that they will travel roads we never thought of; navigate strange seas, cross unimagined boundaries, and glimpse horizons beyond our power to visualize. What can we give them to take along? For the wild shores of Beyond, no toy or bauble will do. It must be something more; constructed of stouter fabric discovered among the cluttered aisles and tinseled bargain counters of experience, winnowed from what little we have learned. It must be devised out of responsibility and profound caring — a home-made present of selfless love. Everything changes but the landscapes of the heart.
What shall we give the children?
Attention, for one day it will be too late.
A sense of value. The inalienable place of the individual in the scheme of things, with all that accrues to the individual; self-reliance, courage, conviction, self-respect, and respect for others.
A sense of humor. Laughter leavens life.
The meaning of discipline. If we falter at discipline, life will do it for us.
The will to work. Satisfying work is the lasting joy.
The talent for sharing; for it is not so much what we give as what we share.
The love of justice. Justice is the bulwark against violence and oppression and the repository of human dignity.
The passion for truth, founded on precept and example. Truth is the beginning of every good thing.
The power of faith, engendered in mutual trust. Life without faith is a dismal dead-end street.
The beacon of hope, which lights all darkness.
The knowledge of being loved beyond demand or reciprocity, praise or blame; for those so loved are never really lost.
What shall we give the children?
The open sky, the brown earth, the leafy tree, the golden sand, the blue water, the stars in their courses, and awareness of these. Birdsong, butterflies, storms and rainbows. Sunlight, moonlight, firelight. A large hand reaching down for a small hand; impromptu praise, an unexpected kiss, a straight answer. The glisten of enthusiasm and a sense of wonder. O long days to be merry and nights without fear. The memory of a good home.