After the Meteor, How Will Schools Evolve?

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by David Torcoletti

David Torcoletti is the Head of EXPLO Boston. He has had a long career in independent schools.  He was a teacher, Dean of Students, and School Dean at Northfield Mount Hermon School, and was a teacher and Dean of Students at Milton Academy.  He has consulted with independent schools, presented at various conferences, and has been an executive coach for independent school administrators.  He is also a professional fine arts photographer.

Many of us have a simplified explanation of evolution in our head somewhere: Species evolved when a random mutation in a given species was found to have advantages. Those in the species that had this mutation were better able to adapt to their environment – the finch with the longer beak, the giraffe with the longer neck, both of whom could access food more successfully than their predecessors without those mutations. These features allowed them to live longer, and therefore, reproduce more successfully and/or more often. Those without it didn’t have a chance to reproduce as robustly, and eventually, in a long, slow process, a species that once had certain characteristics later has different characteristics, if they didn’t go extinct. They essentially become a new being. The key words in this description are long and slow.

I know that the above is a dumbed-down version about something that is almost infinitely complex, and that has many branches and variations. In fact, it is one of the variations that I want to explore as a metaphor for what we may be experiencing at this moment in education.

Evolution is a force so relentless that pretty much all life either goes extinct, or changes into a new species given enough time. Stasis is really not possible in nature. And in most cases, long and slow is the way of change.

But not always.

Long and Slow moves to Short and Abrupt

In nature, and in human institutions as well, sometimes something so cataclysmic occurs that rather than long and slow, short and abrupt better describes the change process. In nature, it could be that a meteor strikes the planet, with immediate consequences for anything nearby. In the aftermath, it throws up enough dust to change the temperature of the planet. Species that were dominant in the seconds before the impact suddenly are not. Some died immediately. Some hung on through the environmental changes, and struggled to adapt to the new reality. But their dominance was built upon a fine-tuned alliance with the conditions that existed during their heyday. When those changed, and especially when they changed drastically, they didn’t have the time or ability to adapt. They took the other road: extinction.

What was bad luck for the previously dominant life form after impact became an opportunity for the fringe players, who now found themselves without the same frightening competition for resources. They were smaller and could do more than one thing, and adapt to more than one set of conditions. While the Brachiosaurus needed to eat tons of specific plants each day to support its massive frame, certain small mammals did not need so much, nor were their needs quite so specific. Their flexibility – being omnivores, for instance – granted them a foothold in the strange new world.

Relative to the vast span of life in general, human life is a wink of the eye. But even allowing for that, one would have to say that schools have been on the Long and Slow path. The elementary school of the 1930’s was not all that different from the elementary school I experienced in the 1960’s. Same nuns, same habits. When New Math invaded my parents’ life in the form of trying to help us with homework, it was a different way to look at the same numbers, to solve the same problems. Baffling, but not exactly cataclysmic. Schools (and maybe especially independent schools) are, by their nature, preservationist. They are the way we pass along our values, the information, knowledge and wisdom we need to form healthy, happy families, to do good work and to support a democracy – all of which are dependent on information, knowledge and wisdom. We see certain things as eternal, though a part of us knows it isn’t true, and we use certain institutions to pass those along – families, churches, schools, etc.

“It may be time to move on from the magnificent things schools were before the meteor hit.”

The Preservationist Nature of School

Over the centuries, schools have been very true to their preservationist nature. However, it is possible that our meteor has landed, and the dust is all about. This current pandemic has undercut the basic constituent parts that has made up our concept of School – no school buildings, no rooms full of students learning together (both academic lessons and life lessons), no teacher whose sharp eye sees the non-comprehension of her students, no sense of the intellectual and corporeal community that made our shared endeavor elemental and aspirational at the same time. And we don’t know how long these current conditions will last, and we don’t know if they will disappear for a while, only to return next winter – or two years from now.

Becoming Smaller and More Agile

It may be time to move on from the magnificent things schools were before the meteor hit. We should remember them with affection and even awe for what they were, and the good they did in their day. One of the cool things about evolution is that genetic elements of the now surpassed or extinct organism still survive into the future. It is never truly erased – it just finds a new, better adapted form. It is time to find ways to recognize and celebrate the small, opportunistic forms of education that were hiding in the shadow of the large, noble, but now, possibly outdated beasts. These might be the asynchronous learning that can take place online and in other methods. It could be small groups of families coming together to make sure that experiencing nature, or art, or athletics still takes place, but not always under the aegis of what we used to call school. It may also be a “learning box” of materials sent home that students will physically interact with and use to solve problems and form new questions. If we become smaller and more agile, if our diet for learning is more that of the omnivore rather than the brachiosaurus, we may be able to adapt quickly to the new world that may be imposing itself upon us.

We may experience wonder knowing that long, slow evolution turned dinosaurs into birds, but it is also a loss. Ask any young kid who becomes dinosaur-obsessed, as so many seem to do – dinosaurs are the greatest. Conventional schools were once great, but they may need to become a lighter, more agile thing in order to serve the purposes they once served so well.