In the wake of a global crisis, the future of education must exist in a system that teaches us to live with who we are and how to survive in the bodies we have
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Valeriya Kim // Illustration
We would not be here if Chucxulub hadn’t ripped open a 150-kilometer crater into a Mexican peninsula, or a scintillating swirl of space dust had not been swooned by the gravity of the sun. Human civilization reflects the beating heart of a planet born from catastrophe. Which is to say, all it takes to bring civilization to its knees is an organism about 10,000 times smaller than a grain of salt and a sneeze.
COVID-19 not only ravages the body, but also pillars of human culture like connectivity, learning and community—things that function the way fangs and claws do for a pack of wolves. Stripped of our survival mechanisms, we’re revealed as the vulnerable animals we are. Yet, disaster is always a catalyst for reform. The Black Death ended European feudalism. Labor shortages from the loss of half of the European population hiked wages and crescendoed into the Peasants Revolt of 1381.
The first de-facto law of evolution is crisis demands adaptation, even when the form it takes isn’t immediately evident to survivors. It’s not schools themselves that caused hurricane Katrina, and now COVID-19. Yet, Katrina swept away an entire city’s educational system and replaced it with arguably the most revolutionary attempt at reform in modern American history. The school board fired all 7,500 employees—mostly Black and unionized teachers—in a complete restructure from democratically-controlled urban districts to a technocratic system. It’s a system where privately-owned charter institutions are publicly funded, and charter operators like White Hat Management have total authoritarian power over the schools they run. In other words, they turned schools into a free market.
“Education is first, last and always a business. If it’s run like a business it can be done profitably.” That’s industrialist-turned-education reformist David Brennan in an interview from the early noughties. Brennan was the founder of White Hat Management, pioneering what he advertised as something like a ‘creative alternative’ to traditional public schools. What it ended up being was, in at least one instance, a violation of the state constitution. Under White Hat in Ohio, each school, including most of the lowest-performing in the state, paid 95 percent or more of the public money used for operation to White Hat. Once a force of nature, all that’s left of the White Hat empire is a single online school.
With the world boarded up and bunkered down in global shutdowns of an unprecedented scale, schools and campuses shutter, bringing the classroom into the home in newly problematic ways.
“There’s an opportunity to re-imagine what we do in education,” explained Laura McConnell in a soft Scottish lilt. McConnell is a teacher, writer and neurodiversity advocate from Edinburgh who routinely engages with the complex interplay between childhood adversity and disability. Now, she worries the chance for real, positive evolution is being overlooked. Between the lack of comprehensive virtual education, the dangers of returning to a physical classroom and ongoing ideological debates, McConnell feels that re-imaging education isn’t only necessary—it’s inevitable. “If schools go back to some normalcy, at some point, alternative provisions will have to be looked at.”
According to McConnell, the online model in the UK and Scotland was largely pushed by politicians under the premise that teachers must be standing and delivering in front of the screen. “Most faculty have had no training in online learning,” said Vancouver-based online education expert Tony Bates in an interview with CBC’s Spark. Bates is an author of over a dozen books on technology in education, and cautions that the present switch to online classes is charting a course for failure. “There’s all kinds of problems for students, such as cognitive overload, giving students too much information too quickly. You really have to start redesigning differently, and particularly to enable students to be more active in their learning.”
In American online charter schools, on average, students lost 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days in math, during a single 180-day school year. In the three months following school closures in March, school districts across the United States documented tens of thousands of students failing to log in or complete their work—15,000 high school students in Los Angeles, a third of all students in Minneapolis public schools and at least a quarter of the Chicago public school population.
If the current approach to online education is to replicate a classroom environment, the issues aren’t just a product of the online environment, but rather something bidirectional. Beyond crises like Katrina or COVID-19, the traditional educational environment itself is what’s often responsible for destroying the desire to learn.
The primary architecture of the internet as it is today is based on what Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism,” a method of revenue production and market control based on predicting and modifying human behaviour. It’s the building blocks of algorithms that inextricably lead to digital redlining, the tech equivalent to societal division formalized in 1934 under the National Housing Act. Digital redlining is already integrated into tech, but is especially prevalent in education technologies, and it’s producing discriminatory results.
Fully online course work contributes to socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps while failing to be more affordable than traditional courses. A broadside review by Sandy Baum and Spiros Protopsaltis, former aide in the Obama Administration’s Education Department, revealed that students in online education (particularly disadvantaged and minority students) underperform, and on average, experience poor outcomes.
“Katrina pulled back the blanket on what education is like for poor kids,” wrote educator-turned-attorney Averil Sanders. When the levees broke in 2005, so did the reality that trauma is the ongoing storm that keeps kids out of school. And as with Katrina, closures hit poor and minority students the hardest.
Something of a veteran in the ongoing fight for cultural change in education, Laura McConnell has a head full of dark spiral curls and plenty of informed ideas about making the classroom a safer place. Alongside teaching, she is a support for learning aid which means she assists those that naturally tend to get displaced: the disabled, the neurodiverse and those recovering from trauma—including herself. “I’m autistic and I have ADHD,” she said, adding that by June, she was experiencing computer burnout. In the rapid shift to online learning, many of her students were struggling in the undertow as well. “Online is not a suitable model,” McConnell said, emphasizing that many of those with disabilities struggle.
“It’s a lonely experience learning from home, you don’t have the motivation,” she explained, adding that “there’s a very big digital poverty issue here.” 58 percent of households with internet access have less than one device per household member according to Statistics Canada. At Capilano University, many students, particularly international students, rely on accessing computers on campus. While the library has recently opened, only a select number of computers are available for student use in order to adhere to COVID-19 precautions. It’s unclear at the moment how this student population will be able to attend online classes without additional provisions.
McConnell says the switch to online provided a lot of issues for students in alternative settings who were already struggling to access education in a mainstream environment.
“So many disabled people are considering quitting academia due to their lack of supports (yes, even from disability services), lack of understanding, and lack of accessibility,” wrote Twitter user @AspieHuman. They also stressed the necessity of accessibility training for faculty, staff and students teaching online: “I honestly cannot believe that it is not required. Students are going to lose access to information because teachers [who] don’t know screen readers can’t read PDFs.”
McConnell corroborates the notion that abled people don’t appreciate how their notion of accessibility strategies don’t often work for disabled people, “I have a deaf girl in my class who lip reads, and wearing a mask is cutting off communication to her.”
Buried beneath the many enduring monuments of traditional education is an assumption that everyone who wants to learn simply can. When a student can’t, it’s conflated as won’t. There’s no further discourse, because apparently, there’s nothing to teach. “Students won’t learn anything until they feel good about learning,” says McConnell. Except the story sold to the silver screen is that learning is some Shakespeare and a book of poetry in the hands of a Robin Williams, or a Mr. Kotter, or some other slightly eccentric but passionate figure to straighten out disengaged students. As if all it takes is a bit of jumping up on a desk and reciting Walt Whitman to buck it to the proverbial Man. The rebellious kids fall in line, roll credits.
The outcome of fiction like this is a 15-year-old Black student in Michigan with ADHD in a detention center instead of at home after a judge ruled that her inability to complete school work after the switch to online learning violated probation. Despite pleading her anxiety and overwhelm with the work, she fell back asleep one morning after check-in. The prosecutor argued, “she clearly doesn’t want to abide by the rules in the community,” while acknowledging the prosecutor had no knowledge of her disabilities. In an email, her teacher explained the teenager was working at a similar pace as most of the other students in class. She left the courtroom in handcuffs.
It’s an essentialist epistemological nightmare. It’s the Katrina generation, the neurodivergent, disabled and minority youth all churning around in a Judge Dredd style ideological meat grinder: “People go in one end, and meat comes out the other. All we do is turn the handle.”
Every system, both physical and digital, has an architecture regardless of its intentionality. Recovering education from the depths of the meat grinder means good architects as well as people like McConnell driving us forward into a shared understanding. In the words of architect and educator Peter Blundell-Jones: “Society has suffered long enough from finished architecture: buildings must be allowed to grow and change.”
Before Katrina, there was the fall of the Church’s vice grip on education during the Old Regime; before that, the French Revolution. After all, architecture, like education, is the manifested visions of the dominant state and private entities in the flesh.
Architect and academic Frank Locker once asked what comes to mind when looking at a long, empty hallway of closed doors that can only be accessed with permission; or a bell acting as the adjudicator of every chronological movement. “Many of the same people who designed prisons also designed schools,” answered Locker. This idea is not far from the lived experience of every new face that’s walked through the front doors of Alternative High School in Calgary, Alberta.
The first thing most people see at Alternative High is their own reflection in the glass cabinet on the wall. Inside that cabinet there’s a few things that haven’t changed: a photo of alumni musician Feist with several students when she visited in 2007. An obituary of one of those students, John-Michael, and a crystalline “Class Act” trophy with a clipping from the same newspaper. The Calgary Herald’s Class Act award is a recognition for a local student of exceptional academic prowess. In 2008, the entire graduating class of Alternative High received the award. The common thread between each student, according to former principal at the time Rolf Haensel was, “they all arrive completely disengaged from learning.”
Disengaged is a comforting way to describe the jagged chip carved into a lot of these students’ shoulders: a defense mechanism acting as a buffer between reality and hope. “In a big high school, they’re lost, they fall through the cracks,” Haensel echoes from the clipping in the cabinet. School is comparatively irrelevant to those trapped in the infamous cracks with police, administrators, or substances—convenient colloquies for trauma. These are the kids that are lost because they want to know why they’re just another proverbial brick in the wall in a room full of eyes that want the clock to move faster.
Alternative High opened in 1974 as the brainchild of a parents group inspired by the philosophy of A.S Neill’s Summerhill School in the UK. Today, it has close ties to the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Center, assisting in integrating youth back into school after recovery. Alternative is a haven for neurodiverse kids, those with mental illness and anyone left traumatized by their encounters in mainstream settings, which are often comorbid. It’s also an endangered species as one of the only schools in the country designed around a democratic community.
There’s never been mainstream interest in democratization as a system because it requires renouncing authority, that ugly myopic thing that shrinks the world into a classroom-sized weapon to bludgeon difference out of pupils with. It’s the same reason a lot of people fear the concepts that comprise the Alternative maxims: no remedials, no locks, no bells. An evolving pastiche of completing personal challenges under mentorship, small class sizes, community events and democratic meetings to vote on the needs of the community every week. Anyone is free to walk out, but agreeing to take on an apprenticeship means making a commitment to themselves and the community—something most in mainstream settings haven’t had the freedom to think about before. The responsibility of freedom can be terrifying.
“Have we asked the kids what they want, what their needs are?” McConnell mused. She’s alluding to a deceptively simple idea, and not as radical as a century of bad rhetoric over the ‘unruly anarchists’ of Summerhill: schools need to be designed to fit the needs of students, not the other way around. Transferring the classroom structure as it is into the virtual space isn’t meeting those needs.
“The essence of trauma-informed practices is realizing that the people that show up in our schools are people,” says educational psychologist James McTaggart. For many students, attending a democratic meeting is the first time they’ve had real, tangible decision-making power over their own lives. “They have experiences, they have internal lives of emotions, thoughts and plans; and [trauma-informed practice is] trying to respond to those as we see them.”
McConnell hasn’t heard of Alternative High before, but the concepts are familiar in her line of work. As an advocate of trauma informed practice in schools, McConnell published a chapter in [Adverse Childhood Experiences] ACEs In The Shadows and has a forthcoming book on the subject scheduled for publication in 2021. She pauses for a moment to reflect on a similar school in her native Scotland. “They do all the same things, but they do them in a way that’s accessible, in an environment that’s accessible.”
Whether students step back into the classroom or log back in to a virtual one in the fall, educational institutions must answer a lingering ontological question masquerading as an existential one: who are we, and how can we learn to live in the bodies we have?
Like the threat of a looming storm, it’s dangerous to believe there’s something alternative about democracy, individuality and embracing the diverse needs of students. The success of Alternative High is that it shouldn’t be alternative at all—there’s no magic inside an old elementary school building where teenagers wander through the hall noodling on guitars. What there is, is an architecture of power: in smallness, autonomy, community and in the shared notion that they’ve survived.