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Don't Lose H1N1's 'Teachable Moment'

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The H1N1 flu epidemic has posed a significant challenge to school districts across the country, as they wrestle with plans for how they might cope with a serious outbreak that forced schools to close for significant periods of time. Though the verdict may still be out on the ultimate severity of this flu, what is not in doubt is that the education experience for students must go on whether or not the classroom is up and running.

The immediate challenge, of course, is to keep students healthy during a highly contagious flu outbreak. But educational planning will always face such contingencies from unforeseen events, from hurricanes, floods, and health emergencies, to other incidents that affect school campuses. Such interruptions can’t always be planned for, and they cost teachers and students precious learning time. In a globally competitive environment, students and school districts don’t have the luxury of taking a lengthy “timeout” simply because the traditional classroom is not available.

The H1N1 epidemic can be a wake-up call for educators, forcing them to examine their approaches to student learning and to re-evaluate how they leverage the digital environment that kids inhabit for substantial portions of their day. In this unexpected “teachable moment,” we also have the ability to think differently about what we do in normal times with the tools available beyond the regular classroom.

Leveraging technology is the obvious answer to closed school buildings. Districts with a forward-looking view (and the necessary resources) are already equipping students with laptops so that the instructional process can be a two-way experience in and out of the classroom. At my district in Henrico County, Va., a one-to-one laptop initiative was begun nearly a decade ago. Every student in grades 6-12 now has a laptop computer, as does every teacher in the school system, creating connectivity beyond the school day and the school building.

But technology is simply the tool for providing such continuity, not a substitute for teaching. What’s important is how technology is leveraged both to meet the lifestyle of today’s students and to provide a learning environment that matches their expectations, experiences, and needs. Sitting passively in a classroom while being lectured to is no longer good enough given today’s rapid cultural change. Technology now allows kids to interact socially on a 24/7 basis, and our way of educating them must incorporate that reality.

This will represent a significant shift in how educators interact with students. As the Obama administration has been emphasizing, learning cannot be limited to the hours between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has argued, in fact, that there is simply not enough time in the school day or the school year to get kids to where we need them to be.

More and more, teaching and learning will need to allow students and teachers to interact, blog, and converse after school hours. Schools must be prepared to let students hand in papers online, get help from teachers and classmates via e-mail, and conduct research outside the confines of the school library. Parents know that today’s young people work as efficiently in the evening as they do in the morning, sometimes more so. With additional learning time available at home through students’ access to their classes via Blackboard or other systems, we have a chance to let kids learn at their own pace, rather than fill their online world with video games or Web-surfing.

This cultural shift will require a major change in how we approach learning. The traditional classroom is evolving into a segment of the learning process, which also encompasses work outside school, virtual field trips, online assignments, and even on-vacation work. In the future, it will become supplemental to the learning experience, not the other way around.

This competency- or performance-based approach—allowing students to meet their next requirements outside the classroom—is gaining traction in school systems across the country. The Adams 50 School District in Colorado, the Chugach School District in Alaska, and the state of Maine are just three examples of systems moving in that direction. Each is being driven by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, or RISC, model, a validated approach that helped the Chugach district win the 2001 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the smallest organization ever to do so.

I’ve seen the same effect in my own work with the DaVinci Design Team, an informal working group of Virginia superintendents (together representing some 60 percent of the state’s public school students) working to drive 21st-century learning skills into classrooms. Such skills go far beyond our traditional content-based approach, and expand to include areas such as decisionmaking, collaboration, and team-building. We must shift from a bias here in the United States that is deep in content but shallow in personal skills, and move toward a more self-directed process that happens literally 24 hours a day. That’s what technology makes possible.

Taking advantage of these possibilities comes down to securing the ability for students to be connected through technology both in and out of the classroom. This means laptops, personal computers, and online learning environments that are always open. Increasingly, it will mean mobile devices such as cellphones. The challenge for educators will be to transform those devices into learning tools.

This is the direction that technology is taking us, and it may be the most important lesson we can take away from the H1N1 epidemic. Let’s not fail to grasp the significance of this lesson—not only for our future crisis-planning, but also for the future itself.

Vol. 29, Issue 18

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