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It Must Be Live

About twenty years ago, the school where a former colleague worked had inadvertently stepped into the vanguard of education by requiring that each teacher conduct one online course. The reason it was inadvertent is that the school instituted the requirement not to improve learning but to save the expense of building new classrooms, which live learning would have entailed. The result was that students as well as teachers strongly disliked this “hybrid learning” and wished to have live classes instead. That is what students[1], teachers and their parents always do when faced with the choice between online learning and live. The New York Times had an article asking why “our schools” can’t reopen as restaurants and theaters are doing and characterizing the alternative as a ‘hybrid rut’. The American Academy of Pediatricians has weighed in with a recommendation that schools return to live classes as soon as possible.

Even in the face of this evidence of overwhelming rejection, professional education disruptionists and transformationists, whether or not in the pay of the Ed Biz, remain unconcerned with the wishes of those who are to be part of the education. Instead, they are worried about ‘unlocking the next paradigm[2]’. I have long thought that no one in education should speak about paradigms who has not read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions in its entirety and found out what a paradigm is—and is not. Well, I have read it twice, once together with a former colleague, a summa graduate in physics from Cal Berkeley who was also an extraordinarily good teacher.[3] We can assure you that ‘unlocking the next paradigm’ is nonsense.

If so, then what benefits does live schooling confer? To start with the pediatricians’ concerns, it keeps children from falling into listlessness, depression and screen-addiction. It recognizes their needs as social beings for companionship. It allows them to test their ability to get along and to improve that ability in real society. It places role models right in front of them. It makes absent-mindedness less likely. (William James said that an absent-minded person is just present-minded somewhere else. That is true, but it is even better if that person is absent-minded somewhere else and present-minded to our lessons!)

It allows or encourages certain kinds of social intellect to develop, particularly if the teacher is skilled at Socratic instruction or conducting. It brings a group of students within the fringe of their teacher’s front-row consciousness so the teacher can respond to their facial expressions and body language by offering advice or criticism. It brings the teacher within the fringe of the students’ front-row consciousness, increasing attention and shortening mental holidays. It makes more likely the development of the affective bond between them that makes schooling possible. It allows concerted work like choral singing and orchestral playing to take place and improve by practice. It allows musicians to be heard in the fullness of their singing and playing.

I was typing the words of the last paragraph, as I usually do, in my flat overlooking one of the school’s quadrangles, when music came in at the window. In a coincidence a novelist would never have dared to invent, the headmaster of the school had led a choir of some dozens of people into the quad. They were placed under and next to one of his favourite trees, which I had seen him inspecting after the school had been struck some years ago by a typhoon. It was the first time I had heard organised singing in the quad since before the pandemic. The tree’s branches were still reaching up through air that was now filled with sound shaped live by his conducting hand.[4]


[1] Except those in Ferris Bueller’s history class.

[2] The motto of a recent online IB conference.

[3] We did it to prepare a ToK science unit together. I still have my thirty-year-old copy with dog ears and marginalia by both of us.

[4] I was going to close with Williams’s ‘Locust Tree in Flower’, but the typesetting program I am using does not allow me to set and place the type properly. Go ahead and look it up live.

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