Online vs. In-Person: A Manufactured Dilemma

On 30 November, I was listening to Novara Media’s stream of Tysky Sour with Michael Walker where, in discussing the UK government’s plans for Christmas, he made a reference to UK schools, saying the following:

“The government wants us to be having a binary debate between people who want to cancel Christmas and people who want to give you Christmas. Or a binary debate between ‘Kids shouldn’t have any education’ and ‘Schools should be open as normal’. And in all of these questions, there is a midway. I mean, school should be open but maybe we should fit them out so that they have greater ventilation than they already have instead of essentially, I think as the government did, mislead people to say they were safer than they were. So, there is just a great deal of honesty lacking from the government’s response. — And also imagination.”

This comment has kind of stayed with me for the past few days, jumping out from some corner of my mind. One reason for this is that no one is saying that “kids shouldn’t have any education” because that’s a ludicrous statement, but my assumption is that he meant “kids shouldn’t be in school.”

The other reason is that he’s right that this is a binary debate that simply is not binary. There are so many options if people were willing to be creative and think outside the box, utilising a skill that is ironically “taught in schools” though every curriculum has tried to beat it out of everyone.

Yet, the majority of governments have done nothing to improve this situation beyond criticising teachers for “not doing enough” or claiming that parents “aren’t being responsible enough,” and they’re definitely found a way to throw everyone under the bus and use the situation to score political points. They’ve squarely refused to look at themselves and what they’ve done to create this environment.

Things didn’t have to be this way.

And these problems are fairly global. These debates are happening in Slovakia where the government can’t make a decision about how to get kids back in school and the Prime Minister can’t even agree with the members of his own coalition, including the Minister of Education. This isn’t surprising, as he seems to have bent to nearly every complaint that has come across his desk from the Church and sports with regards to COVID lockdown measures. Members of the opposition are claiming that “children are being held hostage” and that their education is on the line because of political infighting among the ruling coalition. The Prime Minister has, as a result of being unhappy with the Minister of Education, decided to “create his own plan” and push for the private school his own children attend to open as a “pilot” for it.

The opposition sees this as him playing favourites, continuing to give priority and access to businesses that are close to him. Perhaps that might be where they attack him and his party in the future; he did make anti-corruption the largest part of his platform. But they aren’t wrong: it’s really bad optics.

In the United States, this argument seems to be raging. Despite an increase in COVID-19 cases, the mayor of New York City has apparently scrapped the benchmark that would keep schools closed, claiming that “kids are less vulnerable” (seemingly forgetting that children often live with adults and are taught by adults). Frustratingly, many other institutions were left open as schools closed, including gyms and restaurants. The notoriously rubbish governor of New York state agreed.

Across the United States, the debate looks similar, forcing more and more people into unsafe situations that are only exacerbated by the absurdity that is the United States’ failure to provide adequate and free healthcare for its residents. A lot of people, especially due to an increase in evictions and a failure to provide them with more than $1200 to hold them over for nine months (which not everyone received), feel as if they’ve been left to survive on their own.

The UK is unfortunately stuck with a Prime Minister whose indecision has left many people struggling and frustrated. Their situation looks very similar to the United States. Some schools are closed, others are open. Regardless, the government seems to ignore the fact that schools are high-spread locations for disease. People complain of backtracking and an inadequate online learning environment.

Meanwhile, his government seems to have much more interest in focusing on harming as many people as possible through deportations fueled by racism, trying to push them through in what feels like secret while people are focusing on a range of issues caused by their lack of COVID support.

And these countries aren’t alone in these behaviours. They’re not alone in creating problems for teachers, school staff, students, and families; they’re not alone in having struggling and overburdened school infrastructure that isn’t equipped to meet the needs of the people using it.

This is a global problem that has a lot of solutions, but those solutions do not benefit the people in power or their friends.

They do, however, benefit us all.

The first thing that we need to realise is that our public and state school systems are not adaptable. There is a reason for this: they’re not meant to be adaptable because the primary goal is to perpetuate a system that is largely a form of racist nationalism, ableism, and capitalism. Schools have been developed and organised around most of these concepts since their inception. Though schools are legally required to include students from marginalised communities, they still often leave a lot to be desired. The curriculum is often focused on maintaining hegemonic structures of power; we’ve seen this through the many people who fight to continue excluding LGBTQIA+ topics and people, in the way that textbooks gloss over colonialist and imperialist history, and in the way that schools with poorer students often lack the resources they need to help students “catch up” to what’s expected of them. We see this in how disabled students have to fight for accommodations that should already exist within the school itself, how attendance policies harm all students but directly hurt disabled and chronically ill students who may need more time off, and how there are still schools that completely segregate some disabled students from their non-disabled peers.

And capitalism? Well, the UK has been the most blatant in banning anticapitalism in schools in 2020. However, almost everything is taught through a capitalist lens, and the entire school is structured on a capitalist organisation. There are so many hidden elements of capitalism in the school that people don’t recognise them as being capitalist: competition over grades and placements in universities, not having a clear or consistent grading scale applied across the school, and many of the positive behaviour systems that teachers utilise (sometimes shops, sometimes points, often a competition among peers).

Not to mention the fact that so many of our texts have been written from a capitalist perspective. I taught Business Management in the IB for years, and there was never an option to include information about how business practices could be applied from another economic perspective. Even when discussing co-operatives, there was nothing about how they fit into a socialist society. It was always from the perspective of capitalism. (And if I deviated too much from the prescribed curriculum, my students’ marks could’ve been much lower, thus disincentivising me from including additional material in my courses.)

So where do we start with actually changing education? Well, at this point, we should be asking about who education is for and why it’s important.

In reading a few texts about anarchism and pedagogy, the common thread is that education should be for the good of the individual and the community. Everyone has the right to learn and to explore topics and subjects that interest them, and this should be done within a community and with the understanding that the individual is part of the community.

This element is already torn away from the student based on the structure of school. It takes place in a building away from their culture and is separate from ‘the real world’. Kids often recognise this, even if they don’t know how to articulate the point. These are those moments where they’re asking questions like “What’s the point?” or “Why do we need to do this?” And they’re the questions that teachers have been trained to give canned responses about its usefulness, even when they also disagree with it.

And yes, many of us are trained to do that. I remember my own History Education instructor giving us a bunch of responses for kids who asked those exact questions during a lecture. That should’ve told him something about the history curriculum or how it was being taught, but I suppose it went over his head.

But I’m a person who does things very deliberately, so I found those questions helped me plan my classes. The moment a kid hit me with them, I found time to sit with them and discuss it; if a majority of the class had the same question, we took class time to discuss it. Most of the time, we all recognised how the things we were doing could be useful. But the moment that I couldn’t answer why something was useful, I started working with my students to figure out how it could be useful or if we should just scrap it and try something else.

When start the ‘online teaching’ during the first wave of COVID-19, I applied this logic to my classes and worked with my students to figure out how I could accommodate their needs as best as possible could (and without the support of my school director who told all the teachers to “just figure it out”).

It was still really hard, we were all trying to figure out what was best or most useful, but it was largely successful because we were working together. It didn’t always go perfectly and sometimes we had to reorganise and try again, but that’s the point of education: we’re all learning together.

But collaborative  and flexible environments aren’t necessarily supported throughout the school, and it really shows in how things are prioritised and structured. 

The curriculum and overall policies that are given to schools are often designed by people who aren’t in them; they’re often rigid and seem to require an ever-increasing amount of administrative work for everyone except the people creating those guidelines, even though they’re often pointless or provide little evidence of learning for the teachers to inform their practices. 

The most common structure of schools is one that many school reformers have referred to as industrial; students are pushed into subjects regardless of whether or not they feel ready for them. Students get little agency in how they spend their day of learning, being pushed between random subjects whenever bells ring even when they aren’t ready to move on; they’re provided constantly decreasing hours for a range of subjects, and they’re often sitting in classes that are preparing them for upcoming tests. These tests often directly impact the schools or teachers, deciding how many resources they’ll get or how much interference they’ll have from their respective governments. None of this testing, however, actually does anything to help students; it just causes them more anxiety and decreases the amount of time they could be doing anything else.

There is little flexibility about how students can attend school; there is no flexibility of time, enabling students or teachers to practice when they feel most capable and when they’re most awake. Instead, we continually force people to fit into one specific chronotype and refuse to acknowledge that a spectrum of chronotypes exists. We do this so that students “get used” to a normal working day, which is sometimes done to their detriment.

Teachers are often pressed for time because of a growing number of unnecessary administrative responsibilities, finding it difficult to find time to collaborate on developing a curriculum that benefits their students. Teachers are directed by everyone above them about what to do and how to do it, and teachers who don’t fit certain molds or try to instigate for beneficial change often find themselves being targeted by their so-called superiors and pushed out of a career that many love. As students get older, the curriculum is more strict and tests are more important, removing opportunities to explore topics that students might actually engage with. Professional development is generally one person (usually a non-teaching administrator or non-educator from another sector) telling teachers what to do and how best to do it without considering the realities of the classroom; the time given to “collaboration” is superficial, as it’s most often wasted because no one knows what they’ve been asked to do.

All of this impacts the entire school system. It creates segregated departments of people who rarely collaborate, maintaining segregated subjects. It creates hostility between the departments, as some are viewed as inherently more important than the others (currently, the arts are among the first to be on the chopping block with humanities somewhere behind them). We divert resources to some classes and extracurriculars more than we do others, communicating what’s considered most important while leaving others to struggle and beg.

We segregate our “better” students from our “worse” or “difficult” students through a variety of means, including separating them based on language fluency (when it’s not inherently necessary), placing disabled children in euphemistically named “special needs” classrooms (when it’s not inherently necessary), and creating “gifted and talented” programs that often set up some students to view themselves as ‘better’ than their peers. Some students are placed in “special education” classes because of systemic racism, such as how many schools often place Roma children in ‘special needs’ schools or classes in Slovakia, and xenophobia across the planet often decreases access for multilingual children who aren’t receiving the services they need just because they can’t access them linguistically.

Meanwhile, a lot of families feel like they don’t even have a voice simply because of how the school is organised, which really stems from the fact that many schools just don’t have people from the communities they’re teaching in. This is something that’s been perpetuated by groups like Teach for America sending predominantly white participants into “inner city” or “urban” schools, especially because many of these people are not prepared to teach in any school and  do not stay, creating a constantly unstable environment for the students in these schools as teachers rotate in and out. These teachers also bring preconceived notions of what things are “important” and how things “should” be done, without having a connection to the values of the community they live in.

This often causes more ‘policing’ of students from marginalised communities in schools. They’re targeted with more negative attention and punishment from their teachers, often receiving more detentions and suspensions. And while I initially used the word ‘policing’ figuratively, many schools with more students of colour (especially Black students) actually have police officers in them, adding to their anxiety and frustration in schools and providing the police more opportunities to terrorise communities of colour.

Everything governments and schools do make it harder to build a genuine community, and they perpetuate systemic problems, even when schools claim they’re designed to be the “heart” of the community.

They just aren’t.

And all of this is something that needs to be addressed, but we also need to be addressing how systemic oppression of marginalised people and capitalism impact our ability to make severely necessary changes to our schools.

There are a lot of possible solutions and places to start. Some of these things have already been implemented with some success in a variety of anarchist and socialist schools of the past; others exist within organisations like Waldorf schools, which has a pedagogy that focuses on developing students in a “holistic manner,” including equal focus on artistic, intellectual, and practical skills.

Recreating schools as community centers would force them to be more accountable to the community; it also helps them build connections to the people who are already there, making residents feel like they belong and both impact and are impacted by those around them. These ‘new schools’ should include things that benefit the community: recreation centers, entertainment spaces, community gardens, food, health clinics, and libraries.

Providing more flexible schedules is possible, especially when we take into consideration that there are options that currently take place outside of school hours. These options could take more priority in order to fully develop them and help incorporate multiple skills in them. Among the many choices we could develop, this could include properly developed online courses, a variety of sports programs that are fully supported, flexible apprenticeships and internships to learn practical life skills, participating in organising and mutual aid, and working with a mentor who guides them through research of personal projects.

We could even remove the specialisation of subjects for all students in the age range of primary schools in order to facilitate a form of learning that shows they are all connected.

All of this should help foster education as a lifetime goal and not just something you do until you graduate from school or university. Adults could come back to both learn and teach so that they’re not afraid to change fields should they want to.

Other solutions require that we look at expected outcomes. In this area, there are so many questions that we need to ask ourselves: Do we really need people to specialise in fields and skills? If someone wants to specialise in a field or skill, how can we enable them to do so? Which fields and skills do we actually need certifications and examinations for? 

Related to this, we need to start thinking about levels of credentials and where credentials are received. These questions are more systemic and point towards our racism and xenophobia: What is the actual difference between a degree that’s obtained in the United States and the same degree from Pakistan? If there are skills missing from either location, why couldn’t that person continue learning until they have them instead of denying their abilities and knowledge outright? We should appreciate the skills and knowledge that people bring to our communities rather than ostracising someone because they’re “foreign” and “different.

Instead of setting an individual to needlessly compete with their peers, the goals of education should be for the individual to rely on their peers because they can learn from them. With few exceptions, all assignments and projects should encourage collaboration between others; students do not have to work explicitly with each other and can work on projects on their own, but they do need to learn how to interact with each other.

None of this would deny students who need more structure, either. The staff working in these schools could work with families of disabled and neurodivergent students who require more time and structure in their courses, trying to figure out where more support is needed and where students feel most comfortable being more independent or less structured.

The most important element of this is that the schools should have a horizontal structure where teachers and students work together. School directors, managers, and principals should become a thing of the past; the decisions in a school should be handled by the people who are most likely to be impacted by them. While there may be a need for a centralised person for the purpose of communication, this role could be a rotating responsibility; this would provide the teachers with the experience of communicating with the community, build camaraderie and understanding between the teachers, and also help decrease the likelihood that any one person should ‘take over’.

These ideas are just a jumping off point, and none of them are perfect; it does show, though, that we could create truly amazing schools that are genuinely part of our communities and provide us with what we actually need if we’d just think outside the box and be willing to make mistakes that we could learn from.

Instead, our governments have wasted so much time and continue doing so even as I write this.

All of the plans that we needed for COVID are plans that we should’ve had in place for decades to accommodate for disabled students and those who suffered from a medical emergency; they should’ve been there to help poor students and those who have to travel long distances. We had so much time during the summer to make the improvements we desperately needed anyway and to consider the options, but the politicians preferred to pay lip service by simultaneously applauding teachers for “doing so much” to keep schools going while shaming them for “not doing enough.” They made claims that we should “improve schooling,” but they never made any attempts to make any actual changes to what we were doing. 

What they really meant is that they’d rather harm us, as Wisconsin’s Assembly Republicans showed this week by trying to penalise schools that needed to close due to COVID.

What they really meant is that they’d give us a few meagre dollars or euros to fix problems that should’ve been addressed years ago, as Slovakia did when it gave a combined total of €6 million to all schools so they could update their technology infrastructure, as if that would solve all the problems they were having. Suspiciously, they made no moves to improve national infrastructure and insure that all students had access to free, stable internet or computers. (But they did provide a very small printing allowance so schools could make packets for those kids.)

And it’s because they don’t actually care about schools, and the education that the majority of people receive is not something they really care about. What many of our governments care about is maintaining borders and oppressive systems; they care about maintaining hierarchies where they’re on the top and continually benefit while everyone around them struggles to survive because the politicians don’t really participate in the communities they rule over.

But our teachers and students don’t deserve that. They deserve support to be as successful as possible, and they deserve to be safe from potential dangers; they deserve to work with communities full of creative people who come together to develop genuinely innovative ideas that bring people together, ripping the irrelevant policies and unnecessary administrative tasks from their structures.

It’s just worth remembering: what we have now didn’t have to be like this. Our governments manufactured this problem, and they will do as little as they can (if that) to help us.

We can make what we need, but it will require a lot of organising and working together. It will require trial and error, as we learn what works best for our communities.

But it is possible, and we can do it.