2. A New Learning Infrastructure

Infrastructure can be an essential service, not just a physical subsurface. As a service, the learning infrastructure is not dependent on one kind of driving force. Like education institutions.

A physical infrastructure has many more parts than just bridges. Roads, electrical grids, water and sewer lines, communication links, ongoing maintenance, and many more.

The same is true of the learning infrastructure. It is much more than schools. It includes other community groups, families, work-related training, and the myriad of experiences individual human beings have within life’s sphere.

Much of the learning infrastructure is unmanageable. For obvious reasons. We human beings are complex learning organisms, influenced by a wide variety of experiences. Responsive to conditions of living such as personally felt obstacles, culturally imposed attitudes, and both psychological and physiological quirks.

Inside our skin and brain are hidden values and priorities. And we act on them in sometimes unpredictable ways. A learning infrastructure must recognize and be built on that understanding.

Today’s professional teacher is an employee of the state or private educational organization. Properly prepared and credentialed. Regulated in terms of assignment and professional expectations.

Overseen and evaluated by superiors who are also properly prepared and credentialed. Paid for by taxpayers represented on school boards, legislatures, and governors’ offices. Sometimes boards of directors in private schools.

Today’s professional teachers are servants of the public they serve, expected to legally act in loco parentis — in place of the parent.

In loco parentis works well when the culture served by a school is rooted in common beliefs. 

But in today’s multicultural and socioeconomic environment, in loco parentis is hard to pin down. A partisan political environment places the meaning of in loco parentis all over the attitudinal map.

Enormous pressures fueled by a pandemic exacerbate frustrations even more. Preventing our being in proximity of each other, thereby demanding heavy reliance on virtual instruction.

Schools and districts, as organizations reliant on buildings and the supportive environment they provide, were not ready for virtual instructional programs.

No one expected that kind of all-consuming challenge to our existing learning infrastructure.

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Creating a new learning infrastructure will mean a dramatic change in the way we think about teachers and teaching, schools and districts. About organizational management structures and administrative hierarchies.

During the growth of the COVID-19 pandemic it has been fascinating to watch how many sacred cows associated with our society and economy have been utterly transformed.

While none involves bridges yet, many applaud how small business owners and other traditional organizations pivoted dramatically. Even a small number of schools and colleges are pivoting.

Necessity is the mother of invention. An old English proverb which likely has roots in the sayings of Plato.

We invent new ways to survive when the old ways do not work anymore.

In the last decade or two technology companies have changed old corporate rules to be more creative and thereby, more competitive.

One of the more intriguing examples was explained in the September 2020 book titled No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by company co-founder Reed Hastings and culture expert Erin Meyer.

Hastings and his managerial team changed the corporate infrastructure. They dumped dozens of old assumptions about how employees should be regulated and encouraged to perform their work better.

In order to become more creative.

Innovation is both individual and collaborative. So how can Netflix or any other organization encourage both individual reflection and communal invention at the same time?

In schools, the new learning infrastructure could employ those same ideas and principles. Earnestly and authentically.

To accept and even applaud the idea that teachers are not subordinate employees. But rather fully functioning professional somebodies consulted for their knowledge and skills.

In terms of what and how students are taught and how they learn.

Going beyond administerial and managerial oversight. The traditional infrastructure either highlights or implies that teacher involvement in decision-making and action-taking should be limited only to advice.

In the new learning infrastructure, everyone on the school district’s professional team feels their contributions are being valued. This effort becomes a three-pronged design.

Educators are encouraged to reflect (think deeply), talk with each other in positive (“yes, and”) ways, and feel valued to their core.

Perhaps this sounds like an unrealistic and blissful utopia in which employees sit around a fire and mumble incantations of peace and harmony.

Maybe real people in the real world need assertive leadership and guidance. Required if anything worthwhile is to be accomplished.

I once felt that way. And in some ways still do. A little of the army officer still resides in my soul.

But even in those army days, I quickly realized leadership is a two-way relationship. As dependent on my tank commanders as they were on my ability to make intelligent decisions.

All tank commanders needed to be smart and decisive. They needed the ability to communicate in order to function as a team. As with all soldiers, they needed to know I valued their lives and well-being. Just as they did mine as their company commander.

The usual analogy is sports related. The conditions are similar. But in the army, it is often a life-or-death situation.

A football team loses a game. Military units lose or destroy lives. The stakes are much higher.

The stakes are higher in education too. This new learning infrastructure has nothing to do with loss of control or voodoo mysticism. It has everything to do with lives gained or lives lost.

Not in a battle involving armies. But in a future world in which challenges or enemies are of a different sort.

The new learning infrastructure is designed to build student mastery on many levels. Not just in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Not just in being able to write and read in a cogent manner.

Mastery in the 21st Century relates to the ability to think innovatively, communicate deeply and meaningfully, and value the importance of both self and others. All other skills are technological necessities in the context of available tools and databases.

I am not devaluing STEM or baseline communication skills. They too are critical, but only when considered in the realm of human values, priorities, and interactions.

The new learning infrastructure requires skills that transcend the mundane. Teachers who see both sides, understand the ramifications of having knowledge, and possess the kind of wonder that promotes curiosity in students. Then evaluate the pros and cons without unreasoned bias.

Teachers who have the power of insight and academic discipline. Teachers who demand as much of themselves as they do their students, and realize life is more than what we do.

It is how we think and believe while doing it. 

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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