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.