How Do We Talk About What Happens Next?

Ryan Davis

The conversation about how we return to school has already started and a common refrain is growing: we will not go back to what was.  Yet, if we are not intentional, the conversation itself will lead us back to the current way of doing things.  In The Politics of the English Language George Orwell cautioned, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”   The phrases and metaphors frequently used to talk about schools may build something new, but not something fundamentally different.  

In particular, conversations about “learning loss” and “falling behind” have appeared in a spate of recent pieces in major media outlets.  Such language emerges from a foundation that says the primary function of school is the accumulation of knowledge.  Paulo Freire referred to this as the Banking Model of education – teachers deposit facts and skills into passive students who are then judged on the balance of their accounts.  The langue informs a response: monitoring and filling knowledge accounts of students. The language provokes a sense of emergency and need to preserve the current order.  Many articles even include the (perhaps intentionally) fear-inducing term ‘covid slide’. 1 

The Banking model shapes our language. That language shapes how we think and thus act. Continuing Orwell, “….by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. “

The language of the Banking Model has so saturated our conversation that we accept the nonsensical as logical.  We talk about how many months or years students will be behind not as a direct measure of time missed, but as an odd and abstract measure of learning.   There is no concrete meaning of ‘three months of math’.     

Learning is not measured in units of time.  Learning happens spurts and sputters, regressions and false starts, leaps and skipped steps.  The process of becoming a passionate and competent reader is not a clearly delineated 13-year progression.  But, that is the framework that fits on the Banking foundation. It requires support and veneer of equating learning only with test scores.  

When we talk about “falling behind”, the language is immediately there – we must “catch up”.  The conversation begins to fill-in.  The vocabulary inevitably narrows to reading and math, and what testing is needed, and how time will be made (certainly at the sacrifice to other subjects).  There will likely be excitement and creative ideas, just as with a new coat of paint or rearranged room.  The Banking foundation of deliver-test-repeat still sits solidly underneath.  

Such remodeling is not new to education.  Innovative ways are constantly found to make the Banking process both enjoyable for students and justified through ‘rigor’.  New methods of assessment, remediation, scaffolding, etc… promise to make students’ accounts meet a minimum threshold (or at least appear to).  These artifices give the illusion that education has moved beyond the rows of desk and recitation of facts. But, they still sit squarely on a foundation that says school is primarily about the accumulation of academic facts and skills.  

By rebuilding and repairing on the current foundation, we will never end up with a fundamentally different type of school.  Which means we have to start by giving up our current language for talking about school.  Orwell writes:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

What if we had the conversation about what happens next but couldn’t talk about classes? Or grading? Or Standards? Some may find that radical, but this conversation is already happening.  Yong Zhao recently wrote that the current crisis is a chance to let go of our current structures of scheduling and time, strictly delineated subjects, and age-based grouping.  Even before the current crisis, Education Reimagined published a 13-page vision for a Learner-Centric education that calls for competency-based approaches, contextualized and personalized learning, as well as learning that is socially embedded and open-walled.  

In fact, the conversation is fairly old. In the early 20th Century, Maria Montessori was advancing ideas like mixed-age classroom and learner-centered pedagogies.  Around the same time, John Dewey advanced the idea of learning as a primarily social process and encouraged an active and experiential learning through integrated disciplines rooted in the child’s interest.  In In Search of Deeper Learning (2019) Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine wrote about the power of the apprentice model of learning that has long existed in the workshops and the arts.  The foundation we are looking for is not new.  Yet these ideas have only flickered on margins of the school system.  

The Banking Model persists because of its use to those who already have power and position in society.  It is much easier to succeed in a system that rewards the accumulation of knowledge when that knowledge is culturally selected and coded to match your identity and experiences, when your time in school or ability to be present in school has not been impacted by trauma or significant life changes, and when your interest and talent align with the external goals and measures.  The Banking Model benefits a select few, and gives the illusion of a fair chance for all.  

The current crisis only brings to stark relief for everyone the inequities inherently produced by a Banking foundation.  So, we are seeing moments of relief, like states and colleges providing exemptions from standardized testing requirements.  There is now some empty space, but doesn’t mean we have changed our plans for it.  Many of the pieces concerned about “learning loss” cite a report by NWEA, the organization that also produces and sells MAP testing to schools.  If that space continues to be filled with the language of ‘learning loss’, we will likely see a push for more forms of testing to diagnose and help our kids ‘catch up’. 

But, what will matter most when we return will be not be assessing what facts and skills students still know.  What matters most will be knowing our kids. They will have been through trauma, some much more than others. They will have new questions about how the world works.  They will have new fears.  They will have developed new passions and talents.  Long term school closure certainly hurts students. How we talk about that informs whether we will make the foundational changes that will really help them.  

Our current language hinders a discussion that could create schools that are truly student centered.  Schools that are primarily about students becoming themselves, where learning experiences derive from the questions and passions of the students.  Schools that honor the natural, irregular pace of growth.  Schools whose central form and function are to cultivate a sense of well-being, independence, community, empowerment, and agency.  

There are few examples to point to of schools truly built on new ground.  In conversation especially it’s difficult, if not impossible, to point to a universally recognized model and say, “let’s build that.”  The most accessible first step is to change how we talk, to remove the language that constrains our thought to current ideas.  Quite literally: before a meeting make a list of words and phrases that describe school as is. Then, plan, talk, and dream without using them (or finding loophole synonyms).  It will require creativity and wrestling and failing.  It is a conversation that also can’t happen just between educators. 

Students must be partners in this conversation.  This means going beyond the token student committee member or student advisory group.  We must structure schools to have space to become what students want and need.  Students must be given more agency over what they learn.  That starts with students not being the topic of or providing input to a conversation, but students being equal participants and collaborators in the conversation about schools.  

Some students (and educators alike), especially those advantaged by the Banking Model, will have trouble imagining what a new type of school looks like.  Many will fear falling behind.  They too have been steeped in the language and metaphor of the Banking Model.  Just as we let go of our own attachment to the language of current foundation, we must also help them how to do the same.  If we can, we will be amazed at the schools we can create with them. 

1 The ‘covid slide’ narrative is similar to, and even based on, the “summer slide”.  The summer slide narrative also reduces learning to be solely about test scores. It has been criticized on conceptual grounds.  But even within a testing framework, current findings cast doubt on the methods and conclusions of popular understanding of summer learning loss.  Other work has even found gains in certain domains over the summer. Ultimately, the summer slide provides another example of how the language of the Banking Modeling shapes our thinking and thus our practice with schools. 

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