It's Time for an Academic Reset

February 2, 2021

A classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over in the hope of getting a different result. That’s what we’re doing in the nation’s schools. Trying to conduct business as almost-usual in our schools after COVID-19 hit this past spring resulted in pure chaos. It won’t be any different this time around. We need to push the reset button.

Part of the problem is “progress” as we measure it. People are panicked about “learning losses” – we hear about schooling being set back. But as every teacher knows, a lot of academic progress is illusory. During the “summer slump,” students forget a large chunk of what they learned the previous year. Why? Because they didn’t learn or understand it deeply, but crammed it so they could pass standardized tests. After the tests, much of this “learning” evaporates.

What really matters? First and foremost, students’ mental and emotional well-being. COVID’s impact has fallen disproportionately on communities of color and people who are economically disadvantaged. Privileged students often have good technology, good wifi, and nice places to study. One of my former students, who teaches in a low-income, highly diverse district, had to find her students to give them electronic tablets they could work on; then some of those students had to park themselves outside of schools to get a wifi signal. The current crisis magnifies longstanding inequities. Making believe we can make “normal” progress under these circumstances without doing serious damage to the most disadvantaged students is just plain crazy. We need to find modes of schooling that support students socially and academically.

What matters academically are the big ideas – the things we hope students will remember months and years from now. That’s what we need to focus on, not the minutia we typically test and then panic about when testing reveals “learning losses.” Learning isn’t about answer-getting, it’s about thinking and understanding.

Some years ago a professional mathematician visited my lab. I gave him a high school algebra problem to solve. His reaction was, “Oh geez, I haven’t seen stuff like this for forty years. I don’t remember any of the formulas.” But then he asked, “what counts here? How do things fit together?” Using basic ideas, he figured out how to solve the problem. That’s what we want. Our goal is not to compel students to be test-focused memorizers. We want them to be sense makers, meaning makers, problem solvers – pick the phrase that works for you. This is true not only of the sciences, but of the humanities as well. What does it take to grapple with the problems that surround us, such as how to deal with COVID, how to deal with social inequities?

Let’s think expansively, viewing COVID-induced interruptions of schooling-as-usual as a special kind of gap year for teachers, students, and schools. Forget the small stuff. Let’s figure out what we really want students to learn, and focus on that. Let’s focus on how we can help students grapple with big ideas. Let’s declare a moratorium on testing and figure out what matters. Let’s figure out how to support all students, in the world we face today. This is an opportunity to re-think what’s really important in education, rather than being bound by traditional tunnel vision. If we do, we’ll come out ahead in the long run.

About Alan H. Schoenfeld

Professor Schoenfeld is the Elizabeth and Edward Conner Professor of Education and Affiliated Professor of Mathematics at UC Berkeley. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), and a Laureate of the education honor society Kappa Delta Pi; he has served as President of AERA and vice President of the National Academy of Education.

Among his many awards, Professor Schoenfeld holds the International Commission on Mathematics Instruction’s Klein Medal, the highest international distinction in mathematics education. Read more about Professor Schoenfeld.

Listen to "It's Time for an Academic Reset"

Listen to "It's Time for an Academic Reset"