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Treat Students Like Human Beings

As we head back to class, it's time to reconsider the dehumanizing parts of school
An open book with heart in pages

Now What? — A six-part series focused on education fixes as we head back to school in person.

Treat students like human beings. 

That idea captures the essence of Harvard Graduate of Education Professor Jal Mehta’s approach to transforming schools. But last winter, after publishing a piece in The New York Times Magazine titled “Make Schools More Human,” Mehta says it came as a disappointment that so many people treated his theory as radical. 

“The fact that making schools more human could be considered a revolutionary thought just shows how far we are from any decent mooring,” Mehta says. “That should be the basic prerequisite floor from which everything else follows.”

Now, as educators prepare for a new school year, understanding the experiences of students and teachers during the pandemic can provide insight into how to rebuild schools more humanely.    

In a new report published with Justin Reich, director of MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab and doctoral graduate of HGSE, Mehta interviewed students and teachers to learn how they would reinvent school post COVID. What became clear is that they do not want a return to normal, nor a blitz to make up for narrowly conceived “learning loss.” Instead, the interviews revealed a window into the longstanding problems plaguing schools and a desire for a system that treats students like people.  

“What the students and teachers were telling us is that a lot of aspects of school weren’t working well even before COVID,” Mehta says. “We were surprised that so many of the responses were about inequity and the dehumanizing qualities that existed in schools before COVID.” 

By listening to students and teachers, Mehta says there are clear lessons for schools to learn so they don’t just slip back into old habits but instead steer in a more humane direction.  

1. Allow for more independence
While many students interviewed clearly have no desire to return to remote learning and detailed the negative aspects of last year — in particular a profound loss of social connections with peers — they also recognized the things that worked when schools were forced to change, and the biggest positive students experienced during the pandemic was a new sense of autonomy.

"The fact that making schools more human could be considered a revolutionary thought just shows how far we are from any decent mooring."

Professor Jal Mehta

“Listening to the students, a lot of the things they wanted weren’t radical redesigns,” Mehta says. “What really came out of the interviews was that what the students wanted were so basic, so human.”

Remote learning allowed for the removal of restrictive practices like dress codes and early start times as well as the freedom of basic acts like eating when they were hungry or taking breaks when they were restless, and students said the newfound sense of independence they discovered was a big improvement over their traditional classroom experience. Schools, Mehta says, will need to seriously consider how to bring students back into learning environments that were designed to curtail these basic freedoms.  

2. Keep what works and drop what doesn’t 
Mehta says a pragmatic strategy to implement changes to treat students more humanely is to start by looking backwards. For their research, Mehta and his team ran an exercise called “Amplify, Hospice, and Create,” where students, teachers, school leaders, and families reflected on the past school year to figure out changes worth growing, old practices that needed to be retired, and new ideas that could be developed.    

“Basically, just ask yourself three questions,” Mehta says: What did you do that worked well? How could you keep it? and How do you create space to do the new things? Following this framework can be an easy way to start a dialogue for rethinking school. For example, to treat students more like humans when it comes to lunch and bathrooms, educators could:

  • Amplify: Let students eat when they are hungry or go to the bathroom when they need to — personal choices they were able to enjoy at home during the pandemic.
  • Hospice: Let go of past practices like bathroom and hall passes.
  • Create: Develop more ways for students to give input in designing food menus and around personal matters. 

3. Make the whole system more human 
It’s not just students who benefitted from a more humane approach to learning during the pandemic. Teachers interviewed also reported an appreciation for changes implemented, like reduced schedules (from six or seven classes a day to three or four) that afforded them more time to slow down and build deeper connections with their students. Meanwhile, many families found the benefits of being able to be more engaged thanks to the flexibility of attending teacher conferences or classroom events virtually.  

Mehta says that these examples show that it’s not just students who need to be treated more humanely, but an entire system that needs to start treating every relationship with more compassion.  

“Ideally, it’s all symmetrical. We’d treat teachers more like human beings, and we’d treat the relationships between districts and states more humanely. It’s hard to go wrong by being more human,” he says. 

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