Churning Waters and Communal Gardens
With little control over students’ learning environments, educators can still promote growth in challenging times.
By Debbie Chachra
In July 2019, I visited hydroelectric power sites above and downstream from Niagara Falls, where the Niagara River flows fast but smoothly. Calm and wide under the summer sun, the blue-green waters gave little hint of the thunderous drop that lay in between.
I thought about that trip during the spring. Before the pandemic, we’d been in a steady state, and it seems likely that one day we will be again, however different. Currently, though, we are in the turbulent transition. And as the saying goes, we might all be in the same storm—or waterfall—but we are not all in the same boat. The racial, social, and economic disparities in the United States have long been documented, and the differential effects of the public health crisis are tragically clear.
In 1989, Ursula Franklin, professor emerita from the University of Toronto’s engineering school, discussed two models of education in a lecture series broadcast across Canada. In the production model, students undergo a predetermined series of experiences and quality-control measures to become a defined “product.” But, she reminded listeners, this is not the same as learning, which depends on an environment that supports growth. Educators are gardeners, doing our best to provide good growing conditions, appropriate to our charges and the environment, even if we cannot control the weather.
If ever there was a moment to internalize that lesson, it’s now, when our students’ experiences are widely varied. Incoming first-year students may have had their high school education abruptly ended in March. They may have been doing self-paced work, smoothly transitioned to classes online, or taken advanced courses all summer while safe at home. With public health concerns reshaping this academic year, these differences are ongoing. While the barriers to entry are significant, in-person learning, particularly living together on campus, does equalize access. Engagement with remote learning depends heavily on having secure housing and reliable high-speed Internet. It is more challenging for students with limited private space or caregiving responsibilities, precarious finances, or illness, to say nothing of the profound grief of losing a loved one. While these factors might affect any of our students (and many of us as educators), these are precisely the existing disparities that the pandemic is exacerbating—with a compounding effect on educational access.
Now is the moment to tend our gardens, as institutions and as educators. This heightened awareness that our students are all having very different experiences is our reminder to remain open and compassionate. That means providing as much deadline flexibility as possible. It also means leaning heavily on a language of expectations rather than requirements. For example, I ask my students to leave their cameras on during online class sessions, so we can all see and respond to one another, but I also make clear that I understand they may need to turn them off occasionally and we build in no-camera breaks to combat videoconferencing fatigue.
All of us are responding to heightened levels of uncertainty in our lives, including being aware that any change in the public health circumstances could upend our fragile equilibrium. To avoid adding to the unpredictability, we must be clear and thoughtful about scaffolding student learning experiences, whether by sharing a detailed running order for each class session or providing a full set of intermediate stepping stones for larger projects.
Our students need the opportunity to bloom as individuals but also to be part of strong, sustaining ecosystems of learners, which can be a challenge online. While that certainly entails looking beyond videoconferencing, a communal learning environment can be as simple as a shared text document to which everyone can contribute simultaneously. Experimenting with a diversity of tools and approaches for collective learning often means iteratively codesigning learning experiences for students on the fly, inviting them to provide feedback, and updating as needed. They will be learning from how we do things as well as from what we do.
Almost everything about this academic year feels new and unfamiliar, but the values that shape what we do in response are familiar ones: a commitment to growth, community, resilience, and experimentation. While there is no more “business as usual,” these principles can help us think about how to be better than usual, both now and in our new steady state—whether it turns out to be smooth and swift-flowing or a long stretch of whitewater.
Debbie Chachra is a professor of engineering at Olin College.