Did Gov. Cuomo Ask the Right Question?

At his Tuesday news conference, NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo seemed to channel his former, late father-in-law Robert F. Kennedy.

One of Robert Kennedy’s beloved quotes reads: 

Quote by the late Senator Robert Kennedy

And Governor Cuomo asked a “why not” question when he posited this idea about the future of post-pandemic education.

“The old model of everybody goes and sits in the classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms,” he said. “Why, with all the technology you have?”

To answer that question, Cuomo announced New York State would partner with the Gates Foundation to reimagine teaching and learning. (They called it education; I prefer teaching and learning!)

“It’s hard to change the status quo,” Cuomo said. “But you get moments in history where people say, ‘OK I’m ready. I’m ready for change. I get it.’ I think this is one of those moments.”

I believe Cuomo’s vision will fail if he and the Gates Foundation make technology the question and the answer to what’s next in education. Technology is a tool; it’s not a human teacher. On the other hand, I think Cuomo is partially right about reimagining teaching and learning.

However, age is a beautiful lens, and my answer to “why not” has developed over time.  Why not? Money. There is never enough money for endless visions. And maybe, more importantly, I have too often seen that “have nots” don’t get to participate in “why nots”. Or if they do, like the Facebook experiment in Newark, the vision becomes blurred and potentially falters.

I believe we need a much broader question: 

What should teaching and learning look like after this pandemic? 

We should be ready for uncomfortable answers. Cuomo is correct in saying teaching and learning can no longer happen just in buildings. But, I think that also means the definition of equity will have to change. Equity will have to focus more on the learner, not on what a school district provides to the learner. In other words, those who need more hands-on instruction might go to school; those who need school as a sanctuary from chaos might go to school. But those who can learn with minimal classroom time should be allowed to advance. If a high school student can take an MIT class online, why not? And the teaching of special education populations can not get lost in these discussions. But we have to come to the realization that on a certain level, we all have strengths and weaknesses. We are humans, not widgets. We can’t homogenize humanity with education. We can teach people how to learn.

In my perfect world, tax dollars would robustly fund K-5 education. Montessori schools would cover the landscape. Students would get the grounding they need in what matters: reading, writing, math, science, history, citizenship, and a foreign language. Why Montessori? Her method was designed for all children based on human development; yet, left enough wiggle room with class groupings so everyone can excel and move at his or her own pace. Montessori developed her method having been assigned as Italy’s first female doctor to tend to the most disabled children in an Italian hospital. But every child benefits from her method.

Montessori was only beginning her exploration of adolescent education when she died. But she left enough behind suggesting preteens need not sit at desks. While children explore their physical world (concrete-operational stage) adolescents explore social structures (abstract). I think some of the most exciting school environments connect students to nature. Green Chimneys has a farm and a wildlife rehab center. Millbrook School has the Trevor Zoo. At the Hershey Montessori School in Ohio teens learn to run a business.

If we teach well from K-5, and give students a view of social organizations in grades 6-8, then why couldn’t high school be more self-directed? There’s a whole self-directed movement in education spawned by those who believe kids can (and should) follow their passions. Of course, there will be those who will still need the structure of a classroom, the personal touch of a teacher before them.

So ultimately, teaching and learning will have to become a very blended option. Schools might become learning centers. Virtual classrooms, as Governor Cuomo pointed out, could contain students from around a community, around a state, around the US, or around the world. We need to think about Vo-Tech. Apprenticeships. Mentoring.

Can you imagine the gasp from those who toil in state departments of education who would have to cede on academic requirements to make that happen?

In closing, I offer this perspective from a 13-year old New York City student. No matter what educational leaders, business leaders and government leaders decide about the future of teaching and learning, remember to give students a voice–a big voice. Why not?

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