Go back in time to the early 1900s. What defined essential education in those days? Most would answer, “The three Rs: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic.” Anything else was icing on the cake, but a student was expected to learn those three basic subjects. Of course, there were more subjects than just these three, but today’s knowledge explosion has made us realize that these were indeed simpler times. Life moved a little more slowly for the average citizen. But society still recognized the need for education, and soon compulsory school became a reality. Students were expected to complete school to give them a proper foundation. For many, this was enough — they were able to earn a decent living without much further education.

Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic that has turned current mainstream education on its head. Schools were closed (and some still are, at least for in-person teaching) and parents were tossed into the role of teaching their children at home. Most teachers have been forced into long-distance learning for all of their students, with mixed success. Many parents were not prepared to take on such a huge responsibility so suddenly, but even more parents were shocked to see what their children have been learning in school. The Three Rs have been buried beneath a wide array of complicated materials that sometimes seem arbitrary, and some have no purpose of preparing a student for their future career or life after school. Parents are asking the questions, “Is this material beneficial to my child?” and “How does this prepare my child for life in the world?” With nearly three in four employers reporting that it’s difficult to find graduates with the skills businesses need, these are legitimate questions that are relevant to all levels of education.

Now, with schools having closed and parents’ eyes wide open, essential education is ripe for redefinition. Restarting an engine in need of repair will only result in chronic problems until ultimately that engine coughs, sputters, and dies. The engine of education needs to be rebuilt before it can be successfully restarted. Since parents are now also considered teachers, what better voice can be heard at the drawing board?

Parents are in the workforce. They understand today’s society, and they are also helping to rebuild the post-COVID world within their own industries. They have the vision to see the future needs of our society, and they want to create a safe and successful environment for the next generation to enjoy. If a team is assembled for redefining essential education, parents need to be key players on that team.

Of course, other visionaries need to be included on the team to lend expert opinions regarding academic subject matter, life skills classes, and vocational training. The big question is: “What type of education is essential in a post-COVID world?”  The original Three Rs provide a good foundation to build upon, but well-rounded students are enhanced individuals — not collective robots. Each student possesses a different skill set and a unique quiver of talents. Group-think teaching tends to blur those individual aspects into a watercolor classroom painting of sorts; the lines of individualism all run together. While this is beautiful in the world of art, it’s decidedly not ideal when it comes to education.

Children learn by doing, experimenting, testing, and living; they are learning machines. They learned to walk and talk without a single lesson, test, or letter grade. The reality is — education extends far beyond the classroom, and most children learn best in small groups or one-on-one with a teacher, parent, or tutor.  The atmosphere is much more relaxed in this setting, and a child can explore subjects of interest at his own rate of speed. A classroom full of students can only progress as quickly as the slowest pupil. Or, the worst-case scenario has the slower students left behind while the faster ones stew in boredom. Individual or small-group learning also allows a student to explore an endless quantity of subject matter, tailored to each student’s areas of interest. Learning is much more fun and content is most easily absorbed when the student is curious and shows a genuine interest in the subject at hand. Those who say that a lack of resources and too many students prevent achieving this ideal haven’t considered that a teacher simply shifts from a lecturer to a supervisor, guiding each student through their own study programs. With children moving at their own pace and interested in what they’re learning on their tailored curricula, it will require far less effort on the teacher’s part to keep everyone moving. 

Some skeptics may try to argue that small groups and individual tutoring sessions don’t teach social skills — but neither does having students sit quietly in rows to listen to what a teacher lectures, write it down, and then regurgitate it for a test. In fact, social skills may be taught more easily in small groups and individual tutoring settings as there are more opportunities for interaction when a student isn’t just a passive listener. And, of course, there are so many additional chances for social development even beyond this — a parent or student need only look as far as the local playground, ball field, or YMCA branch. There are also numerous elective subjects in the arts that offer social interaction with like-minded students. 

COVID-19 is forcing us to rethink what essential education really is and the best way to deliver it. This is a good thing. We’ve reached a pivotal point where education at every level can evolve and become more effective than ever, so long as we apply the lessons this crisis is teaching us. When we build education on the basics, necessary life skills, and a student’s own interests, we will discover what is essential and what isn’t. 

Students want to learn and know about the world. They want to learn to do things. Let’s design a system that helps them by getting out of their way, one that lets their natural curiosity drive their learning. If we work together, we can give that to them.

This article was written by Dr. Mark Siegel, Assistant Headmaster of The Delphian School.