Many areas of schooling in educational institutions can be and should be rethought. Roughly speaking, all education has to do with three areas of learning: what, how, and where. Learning from whom and when learning should take place are also important, but they can be discussed with the other three areas.
The “what” of learning has always been the curriculum prescribed by government agencies or bodies of authoritative individuals. Schools are typically the entities that implement an existing curriculum, make sure that students are exposed to and master the curriculum, and report that their students have done so to parents, colleges, the public, and whoever else wishes to know. To attend school is to experience what has been pre-determined. Students have very little say over what they learn in schools.
The practice of applying the same content for all students has been challenged for a long time, for two main reasons. First, the same content does not meet the needs of all students. Students typically are assigned the same content based on their age, but age does not determine their abilities. As a result, the content may be perfect for some but too hard or too easy for others. Second, not all students need or are interested in the curriculum. This reason is more complex than the first one because not everyone agrees that students need or should be interested in learning a differentiated curriculum. However, there is strong interest in providing students the opportunities to pursue their own interest and need (Zhao 2012, 2018a, 2018b).
Instead of continuing to force all students to study the same content, schools can invite their teachers to ask new questions. Do we need to teach exactly what we used to teach? Is it okay to allow students and teachers to discuss and negotiate what students want to learn? Can individual students be allowed to drop some courses and add new ones? Most importantly, can students be allowed to design their own learning?
Except for the more progressive and innovative schools, the how of learning has typically been directed by the teacher. The standard approach is that a teacher is assigned to a group of students and is responsible for ensuring that the students master the content. The students are the recipients of what the teacher teaches, and they do whatever the teacher asks them to do, both inside and outside the school.
This traditional way of learning has been challenged and criticized. One of the strong criticisms is the lack of purpose. Students are asked to recite, repeat, and remember meaningless knowledge, without any attempt to connect the knowledge to something in their lives. The knowledge is dry, distant, and irrelevant. The recent boom in Project-based Learning (PBL) and its various relatives is a clear sign that the traditional methods of learning need to change.
COVID-19 provides the right opportunity for all schools to try to change the how of learning. Teachers and schools could start with a few questions: do we need to teach all the time, given that so many online teaching resources are already available? Can we start learning by asking students to identify a problem they wish to solve and help them find solutions to the problem? Is it possible for students to learn without us teaching them?
The where of learning has been defined as a classroom in a school. By and large, learning is defined by what happens in a classroom and/or a special space at home. Schools have defined where learning can and should happen. Students have generally accepted that learning in school-defined places is learning, while whatever happens elsewhere is play or something else. But we know that learning can and does take place anywhere.
COVID-19 has changed the situation. When schools were closed and students were home, learning took place. Students took online courses and interacted with others online. In many ways, students fulfilled their obligations as students in schools. This should prompt schools to ask: does learning only take place in the classroom? If not, can students learn from other places, since online education means students can learn from anyone anywhere? If students learn from other sources, can they join programs offered by other schools or organizations?