Now is Not the Time for Safe Mode

Is it a stretch to say that the pandemic is pushing education to a crisis? There were struggles prior to the pandemic and the pandemic has both put a spotlight on the cracks and weaknesses in the system and exacerbated them. I think it is absolutely crucial we don’t lose sight of those cracks and weaknesses as much of education has shifted into “safe mode.” I get the desire to just get through and therefore just focus on the “essentials,” especially as we approach spring math and reading testing season. But let’s be careful here. Already, in elementary classrooms, science, social studies, and the arts had been relegated to second priority over basic decoding skills of doing math calculations and decoding language. Now, as a response to get caught up, many schools are focused even more on basic reading and math instruction and have pushed the other subjects even further to the side.

Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy. Teaching to the upper reaches of Bloom’s is like pushing a boulder up a hill. The higher you go the harder it gets and if you stop pushing and rest, it just might roll back down and squish you and settle at the bottom. In many cases that’s what has happened as a result of the pandemic.

Humans retain what they are taught when learning about things relevant to them and the world they live in right now, not just practicing skills for future use. Take a look at this graphic of a curriculum continuum.

The more the curriculum we teach would be plotted in the upper right quadrant, the higher up on Bloom’s our students will reach as well. First and foremost, conceptual themes have the possibility of being more authentic, and therefore more engaging and meaningful to students, which according to research on the brain means they will connect what is learned in those lessons to their own emotions, experiences, and prior knowledge and experiences and then retain more of it. Practicing math calculations and decoding written language outside of any context primarily results in short-term knowledge and skill retention. These disconnected lessons and skills, while might be fantastically designed individual lessons, to the student, without that meaningful context, it’s just random crap. I call this random-craptastic. If they are about an interesting thing (thingatic instead of thematic) they might be of more interest to some, but still may not require conceptual thinking and connection of disparate ideas and subjects via critical thinking. This approach hasn’t and won’t close the achievement gap. In fact, I think it might make it worse.

I dare say that we are seeing a crisis in lack of these critical thinking skills in our population. If we respond to the crisis of the pandemic by leaning harder into just teaching these basic decoding skills and less understanding of the world around students (science, social studies, the arts) then this will only be worse with the next generation.

There’s another factor working against educators here. Let’s look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I think it’s safe to say that many students (and teachers) are coming to school each day with a deficit in the needs lower on the pyramid.

The brain is designed to prioritize survival first. Therefore, when the needs lower on Maslow’s hierarchy are not met, the brain interrupts any sensory inputs coming in (so any lessons being taught) and focuses just on survival and sends only necessary inputs to the lower brain to decide to fight, flee or freeze. All other inputs are discarded.

Because so many students are stuck right now in safe mode of mere survival (and the lower brain is doing the majority cognition), they are not going to learn what we want—even the basic skills. Even if we adults don’t think the student’s situation or trauma doesn’t warrant fight, flight, or freeze mode, telling them to get through it or toughen up a bit, is irrelevant. I’m not talking about struggling with a difficult concept or achieving difficult goals, which is necessary to learn, I’m talking about the brain perceiving it is in danger. If that’s where they are (whether you think they should be or not), they will most likely not learn from the lesson taught that day. Then, teaching focused more and more on drilling these basic skills without and meaningful context for that learning, results in further disconnection from the learning, leads to further conflict with the teacher and disengagement in school, and pretty soon we’re in a downward spiral with that student.

Therefore, it’s more important now than ever to use curriculum that allows students to authentically explore and understand the world in which they live. This allows them to make connections between subjects, and most importantly apply that to relevant aspects of their life as they are living it right now, not just because they will need it in the future. If you aren’t able to see a future, there’s not meaningful engagement to learn skills and information for that future.

Yes of course we need specific, effective instruction on language decoding skills (math calculation and reading and writing), but why not teach those skills in the context of and as part of exploring the world around students in meaningful ways and requiring higher-order thinking, problem solving, and creation of new ideas. This can be done concurrently. It doesn’t have to be consecutively done. If we continue with that model, especially with students struggling to get out of safe mode, then they never develop the higher order thinking, or even learn about anything (like basic science and civics) because we never get to it. We must as a society address these physiological and safety needs of our students and not do anything to further push them (or the system) into “safe mode.”

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