By Gregg Behr
Last month, an artificial intelligence firm called Expert System released a striking map of society’s mood. In an era when social distancing has reduced the size of our worlds, this map — generated by analyzing some 46,000 social media posts — gave us a glimpse at how our unseen neighbors were feeling. Our two most common sentiments, it turns out, were sadness and fear, each consuming enormous plots of emotional real estate.
And who could blame us? We feel sadness, first and foremost, for the unspeakable loss of life at home and around the world. We feel it for the loss of jobs and livelihoods; for the everyday pleasures we once took for granted; and for the simple, life-affirming sustenance of being in community. Technology has thrown some of us a virtual lifeline, but so much of what’s been lost can’t be replicated online. We’re grieving that — and fearing an uncertain future — together.
So it’s natural, amid this despondency, to feel a creeping pull toward “normal.” There’s a lot to miss about normal: Visiting loved ones without worrying we’ll make them sick, greeting neighbors with smiles instead of masks, seeing friends and dining out and doing things in person.
And yet, as others have pointed out, normal never worked all that well for far too many people. In Pittsburgh, normal meant unconscionable and even deadly disparities in health, wealth, academics and more. It meant polluted air and lead-laden water. Normal produced bright futures for some neighborhoods, trauma and toxic stress for others.
But if the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we’re not necessarily bound to normal’s laws. Educators, for example, reinvented one of our oldest institutions almost overnight. With little warning and no precedent, they improvised and strategized, fighting to stay connected with students and keep the learning going. In some places, they staged car parades. In others, they delivered meals. When “normal” was no longer an option, many came together with selflessness and love to start building something else.
Of course, that work is far from over; huge inequities and daunting challenges remain. But what we’ve seen in Pittsburgh is that the future is less beholden to the past than we might have once assumed. We don’t have to keep doing the same things we’ve always done — the realities with which we’ve been presented are malleable. And if yesterday’s order of things can change so dramatically, then it’s well within our power as people and as a community to decide what tomorrow should look like.
In that spirit, Remake Learning launches Tomorrow, a campaign that calls us to forge a future where each day holds promise for every learner — where youth, families, and educators connect timeless ideas and new ways of learning to prepare for what comes next, no matter what tomorrow might bring. As our region’s educators have already shown, what sustains us through exceptional times like these are the essential qualities that make us human: Our capacity for love, the power of our relationships, and the strength we get from belonging to a society that works together to do so much more than anyone of us can do on our own.
Tomorrow brings these qualities to bear on the question we’ve all been asking: What if?
What if we swapped our focus on “education” for a focus on “learning” instead? Whereas “education” is often confined to schools, the notion of “learning” expresses so much more. We could rename and reestablish our Departments of Education as Departments of Learning. We could weave programming across schools, libraries, after-school programs, playgrounds, and more. We could pair artists and technologists with teachers; we could pair social workers and mental health counselors with school nurses. We could make learning a practice of curiosity, creativity and love — one led by learners and supported by whole communities (and even whole countries). It’s a change of just one word, but it’s a big change in mindset.
What if we leveraged the learning sciences not merely to do things better, but to do better things? What if we applied what scientists have learned about learning itself? We could follow the lead of Finland, which performs near the top of the world’s learning rankings yet continues to push itself further. Guided by findings from science, learners in Helsinki explore their world by asking questions that interest them and seeking answers through research and interviews. We, too, could put young people in charge of more of their learning, letting them direct, document and demonstrate their journeys. Standing at their sides, we could give them permission to follow their wonders and whims.