I have been asked this question more than a few times in the last several months. My unwavering answer has been a confident and resounding, Yep!
Here’s why. Two major things became clear to me in 2020. First, the mismatch between adaptive challenges and technical solutions. Every family, business, and individual is facing challenges that require adaptation and creativity. In education, unprecedented challenges now confront even the most well-resourced learners and schools, and obstacles ten times as menacing threaten students from under-resourced schools and historically minoritized communities. The daunting list of adaptive challenges is endless: Children engaged in distance learning miss their teachers and friends; in-person learners might be asymptomatic carriers of corona virus and could unwittingly infect dozens of classmates and teachers; students can’t get immediate side-by-side one-on-one attention when they’re struggling with a math concept; they can’t collaborate on a 3-D cell diorama with a friend; they can’t hear the directions through the teacher’s mask and are too embarrassed to ask her to repeat them... Yet education systems are responding with technical solutions: Plexiglass barriers, masks, disinfecting wipes, distance learning, and loaner laptops. These bandaid solutions are entirely inadequate because they aren't the right type of solution. When DVD rentals slowed to a snail’s pace, Netflix didn’t ship a brand new DVD player to every subscriber to try to convince them to keep renting. They adapted into a titanic streaming service and production company. Adaptive challenges call for adaptive solutions (Heifetz, Linsky, Grashow, 2009). Adapt or perish, as the saying goes.
The second thing that has become clear to me is something a lot of us knew all along, but which is now glaringly obvious and undeniable. The way we have been schooling isn't working for a lot of children. We can’t just try to return to normal.
When things were normal, opportunity and achievement gaps between white and minority students persisted in every state. Male students were far more likely than female students to be disciplined or medicated for disruptive behavior, and Black male students from Kindergarten through fifth grade were seven times as likely as male students to receive severe discipline, like suspension and expulsion. Our school systems are deeply inequitable. Why, then, are we in such a rush to return to normal?
When things were normal, the goal was a uniform rate of academic progress at any cost, including children’s mental and emotional health and social development. Depression and anxiety among children increased to higher rates than ever. Instances of bullying and serious in-school violence dominated news headlines. Children suffered due to the whittling-away of recess time, crowded classrooms, and the pressure of high stakes standardized testing. (Even though grade retention in elementary school is a strong predictor for dropping out of high school, Florida maintains a policy of holding children back in 3rd grade if they don’t pass the reading test. Middle school students who don’t pass the reading test have their elective courses limited or taken away altogether for an entire school year. Imagine: no art or cooking or music or drama for a whole year because of one test. That’s a lot of pressure for an 11-year-old.) A study conducted a few months into the pandemic found that families in all cross-sections of society and children of all ages experienced reduced stress, more positive family relationships, and increased time for creative endeavors in the months immediately succeeding the first lockdowns (Gray, 2020). The study concluded that, in spite of the many stressors associated with the pandemic, children and families felt happier without the stresses of schooling that had been causing so much tension in their homes.
Now back to the question at hand: Why open a new school—a small nonprofit business!!!—in the midst of a global pandemic? First, learning outside is an adaptive solution to adaptive problems. It’s a paradigm shift instead of a bandaid solution. Parents of children in traditional schools have to make an impossible choice: Send the children to school and potentially risk infection with an insidious disease, or keep them at home potentially sacrificing income or worse. By learning outside, children are able to maintain greater space and the risk of viral transmission is far less in fresh open air. Learning outdoors also promotes physical activity and health, possibly preventing some of the co-morbidities that exacerbate COVID symptoms and severity.
Second, we cannot in good conscience return to normal, we have to do something abnormal, radical, revolutionary. Now is the time to overthrow the status quo that failed so many children for so long. Since the implementation of standardized curriculum and testing is currently almost impossible anyway, now would be a great time to question their purposes and execution. Since we're now fully aware of the technological limitations many students face (from lack of internet and home computers to underdeveloped technology skills), now would be a great time to reinvent the way schools create and maintain home-to-school connections. Since we can no longer ignore racial inequities in every other segment of society, educational systems can now also look earnestly in the mirror to begin the hard work of self-examination and reform to become more equitable.
This global crisis would certainly be a terrible thing to waste. Even though Cocoplum had been in our hearts and dreams prior to the pandemic, 2020 provided the total disruption that is sometimes needed in order to inspire innovation. As it turns out, the pandemic was really the perfect time to start a new nature school. Nature schooling holds the most promise for protecting our children from COVID-19, ensuring they continue to progress academically and socially, promoting good mental health, and disrupting the status quo in pursuit of a better and more equitable educational system. Nature school is actually the most rational choice of all the schooling alternatives, making the current pandemic the best time to start Cocoplum.
Although previous blog entries haven't concluded with a formal sign-off, I feel compelled to thank all of our newest followers and subscribers. Without your faith / enthusiasm / support / interest / encouragement or whatever else motivated you to get involved, I want to thank you so much for being part of the movement.