Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Don’t Lose H1N1’s ‘Teachable Moment’

By Patrick Russo — January 11, 2010 4 min read

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.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
The Social-Emotional Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on American Schoolchildren
Hear new findings from an analysis of our 300 million student survey responses along with district leaders on new trends in student SEL.
Content provided by Panorama

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Infographic Statistics on School Sports: How Many Students Play Sports? Which Sports Do They Play?
Browse key data on school sports, including how often girls and boys are participating and which ones they are choosing to play.
2 min read
Sports balls overlayed with data charts.
Getty Images Plus
Student Well-Being When Teachers and School Counselors Become Informal Mentors, Students Thrive
New research shows that informal school-based mentorships lead to academic success. But not all students have equal access to mentors.
6 min read
Image of an adult and student talking as they walk down a school hallway.
kali9/E+
Student Well-Being CDC Calls for Return to Universal Masking in Schools
Reversing a decision it made earlier this month, the federal agency said even vaccinated students and adults should wear face coverings.
6 min read
White Plains High School students walk between classes, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in White Plains, N.Y.
Students walk between classes at White Plains High School in White Plains, N.Y., earlier this year.
Mark Lennihan/AP
Student Well-Being What the Research Says Here's One Way to Keep School Buses Safe During the Pandemic
With nearly all students expected to return to campus in the fall, districts will face big challenges transporting large groups safely.
2 min read
Elementary school students sit on board a school bus after attending in-person classes at school in Wheeling, Ill., on Nov. 19, 2020. Keeping masks on and windows open can reduce the risk of COVID-19, even when students cannot keep distant, new research suggests.
Elementary school students wearing masks sit on board a school bus after attending in-person classes in Wheeling, Ill., last November.
Nam Y. Huh/AP