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Our Social Brains

What COVID-19 is really teaching us about schooling

and why it matters to our students in the long run

Schools all over the world closed their doors this week due to Coronavirus epidemic. Colleges, universities, preschools and K-12 schools alike told students to stay home in order to stay healthy. While plans for remote learning are unrolling in a wide variety of ways, one thing seems to be certain:

Students everywhere are left with a new gaping hole in their day-to-day lives.

Many of these students have reacted with an initial sigh of relief--no more 7:45 a.m. school start time? No more stress around that pending research project? No more struggling to stay awake in the lecture hall during a monotonous professor’s seemingly endless 2-hour slide deck? This all sounds good initially…

But “boredom” set in quickly for many and the social media feeds became flush with stories of attempts to maintain both friendships and social distance. Parents are posting about our own empathy and grief over lost graduation plans, senior proms, and spring sports tournaments. Younger kids are engaging in story time with their teachers via video chat, clinging to the relationships that mean so much. No one seems to be posting about how much they miss the math problem set they didn’t get to do or the Lit essay they didn’t get to write.

This is what I think the pandemic can teach us most, or at least remind us the most, about schooling: that going to school is way more than subject-learning. It’s way, way more than GPAs and test scores. It’s even way more than learning to manage a workload, a calendar, and the expectations of ourselves and others. Sure, it’s all those things and often those are the first that come to mind when we talk about “school.” But this pandemic is showing us that “school” is about Relationships, first and foremost. Teachers, students, staff, community. The people you are used to sitting beside who drive you bonkers. The teacher with the whiney voice. The classmate whose eye you catch when something funny happens in class. School is about PEOPLE.

We have “social brains”

So I implore educators, school admin, and parents everywhere to make the social elements of school a priority, even while we are apart. Video chats help, but community-building is more than that. Cognitive science tells us that learning with another person improves memory over learning from a screen (e.g., language learning in babies). Watch this for more.

“The power of the social brain has been totally underestimated. It’s a driving force in learning, it’s the gateway to cognition.”
--Dr. Patricia Kuhl, Endowed chair at the Institute for Brain & Learning Sciences, University of Washington

As I redesign my college courses and coach my clients in their redesigned courses, I am thinking about their social brains. I’ll be looking for opportunities to “see” one another, to hear one another, to collaborate across the miles. I’ll be remembering that School is about something besides the designated learning objectives, but really about the fact that we are social beings who need to be in relationship with one another. After this health crisis ends, I hope we’ll hold this realization with even greater regard, cherish student interactions, reward teachers in their positive relationships, design experiences to cultivate the best of human relationships in all our school spaces.

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