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Before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19, we were already living in times that leadership theorists call “VUCA”—or volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Throw in an inept government response to the virus, and we’ve taken VUCA to historic new levels. As a psychologist who has spent the past decade drawing attention to the under-recognized and devastating trauma caused by our current educational system, I’m particularly concerned about how learning during the pandemic affects students.
I’ve developed a typology to describe the various forms of what I call “educational trauma.” Educational trauma is the unintentional and inadvertent harm experienced in schools: by students, teachers, staff, parents, and communities. Students that are affected by it have a range of mental health symptoms: from school refusal, test anxiety, perfectionism, depression, and attentional problems at the mild end, to self-harm, suicidality, and homicidality at the most extreme end. A rise in all of these symptoms has been documented in people ages 5 to 25 over the past 20 years.
“Ex-situ educational trauma” refers to the traumas that happen to students outside of school and harm their ability to learn and perform academically. Children who live in poverty and/or experience abuse and other Adverse Childhood Experiences suffer ex-situ educational trauma. These traumas aren’t necessarily related to education, and do not occur on school grounds, but they do affect academic achievement. COVID-19 is the greatest ex-situ educational trauma ever because it has touched everyone. For students battling racism, poverty, and other inequalities, it is particularly dire because all of those oppressions have been compounded by the social, political, and economic stress wrought by the pandemic.
The pandemic also offers us an opportunity to reflect on whether we want to return to ‘normal’ or to rethink our education system.
For all of its hardship, the pandemic also offers us an opportunity to reflect on whether we want to return to “normal” or to rethink our education system. Current U.S. educational methods are harmful to students because they create the conditions for trauma and mental health problems to take root and thrive. In general, school days are very restrictive. They disempower students and deprive them of movement and activities we know are necessary for healthy brain development. Consider that most students show open curiosity and self-agency in kindergarten, but lose it by 5th grade. Schools suppress the natural talents of youth by controlling and directing learning and stressing rote memorization over critical thinking. The standardization of curricula and emphasis on testing instilled by programs such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have stymied teachers’ ability to bring creativity and innovation to the classroom.
With the pandemic forcing learning online, teachers, students, and families have had to scramble to keep up. This has put the long-standing racial and socioeconomic inequalities of the United States in sharp relief. Income disparities are reflected in who has access to Wi-Fi and who gets tutors to help manage the burden of home education. In addition, students who are disabled and/or access special education services and/or receive free or reduced-cost meals are affected hard by COVID-19. The number of students accessing free meals has dropped significantly because their families either don’t have transportation or must work during the narrow window for picking up food.
A lot needs to change. Both online learning and in-person activities have value. The sweet spot would blend both, and give students skills and experience to cope with a high-tech world. The hybrid solution is actively used at USC Hybrid High, a flagship blended learning program in Los Angeles Unified School District serving low-income teens who need to work and/or care for their families. It blends online learning with in-person support, which gives students more flexibility around times for attending school. Schools all over the U.S. are experimenting with this model, including those with younger students. The ability to move at a self-directed pace, interspersed with either mandatory or self-chosen activities, is a key to its appeal, and the program’s person-to-person support is critical to its success.
The best alternative pedagogies allow students to play, explore, and learn at their own pace, according to their gifts, talents, and interests.
Other alternative pedagogies include the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, inspired by Summerhill, called the “oldest children’s democracy in the world,” a bold experiment launched in England by A.S. Neill in 1921. It was the first school where students were respected as equal to adults and offered freedom to discover their unique educational path. Several schools across the U.S. have adopted the Sudbury Valley model, in which students direct their own educational course and participate in key policy decisions.
Free Schools are another variation on democratic learning. They tend to spring up in communities to meet the needs of the population, and are more tied to communities than stand-alone children’s democracies.
Unschooling is yet another method of education that involves student self-direction. It occurs mainly in homeschooling families where students receive the freedom and support to make daily choices about their educational activities. Many homeschooling families have rejected the structure of formal, traditional schooling with impressive results. Some do so through unschooling, others use Free Schools, and still more have brought traditional methods into their homes through online learning.
The best alternative pedagogies allow students to play, explore, and learn at their own pace, according to their gifts, talents, and interests. Adults support and provide enrichment around topics that students are interested in—a method that tells students they matter and are trustworthy. These models can integrate online and in-person learning in the service of a pedagogy that nurtures creativity, critical thinking, and excitement about education. They may also limit the educational trauma that is so prevalent in American students.
In 2014, I established the Connect Group School, which my own children and others participated in. It was a democracy in which students had a voice in critical decisions that affected them and their education, an experiment that tested how freedom affected their motivation and achievement, and whether this alternative could mitigate or prevent educational trauma. We incorporated Design Thinking activities, which encouraged students to creatively and cooperatively solve problems. Students generally self-selected around their interests and the activities they spent time on, capitalizing on their gifts and talents.
The Connect Group School was unique in many ways. For one, we had no brick-and-mortar building. We met in parks, libraries, and museums. We went on field trips three times per week, so students could learn local history, culture, politics, agriculture, and art. Many, though not all, participated in the Design Thinking activities, which fostered an open and curious beginner’s mind and taught youngsters how to be active and successful agents in their own lives. The students in our little school have had diverse experiences since their time at The Connect Group School. One is a graphic designer, others are still in school and thriving. All are trauma sensitive and have cultivated mindfulness and compassion as guiding lights in their lives.
In times of crisis, we often see our problems with the greatest clarity. COVID-19 will eventually abate, but the trauma it engendered will remain. At this point of widespread confusion and worry, the best education is the kind that supports all members of the school, the community, and families to move through the crisis of the pandemic with the least damage possible. To do this, democratic approaches to learning, like the kind at Sudbury Valley School, whose model has been replicated all over the world, are crucial. We should work toward a world in which these models of teaching are the norm and the full humanity of students is valued. Then, when crisis hits again—and it will—we will be better prepared to limit its harm to all students and families.
Lee-Anne Gray is a psychologist, educator, author, and national speaker. In her private practice, she served as a forensic and clinical consulting psychologist to public defenders, families, students, and school districts throughout the state of California. She is the author of Educational Trauma: Examples from Testing to the School-to-Prison Pipeline.