The Single Surprising Benefit to the Pandemic

Dr. Jenny Pieratt shares her thoughts on the pandemic and how it may end up having some positive effects on education in the long run.

After more than a full year of pandemic life, silver linings can be tough to come by — especially in education. However, as an educator and parent, I’ve felt the weight of responsibility to make the most out of this challenging time. The first step is to realize some of the freedoms and opportunities that hide behind the mask of the pandemic. First, and most notably, for the first time ever we have flexibility from the walls of a classroom. The world can truly be our classroom. From the rooms of an apartment, to the front steps or backyard of a child’s home, to the neighborhood streets or a walk in the community; this is our classroom, and the opportunities for deeper learning here … are endless. 

The binds the pandemic broke 

As a project-based learning specialist, I encourage teachers to integrate field work into their plans as much as possible. But, as you all know too well, the logistics of that aren’t exactly easy. Permission slips for each experience must be returned for every student; bell schedules make it difficult to find the time for field trips; and transportation and planning logistics are overwhelming. These barriers can make it feel unsurmountable to leave our desks. 

Today, however, many of our students haven’t sat in those desks for a year, and the new learning spaces they’ve created are one step closer to the field. Even as we all return to school, the definition of school itself has shifted to include more experiences, more student-led learning, and a generally wider array of hands-on activities than in the past. We can leverage that as we push toward a more experiential learning future.

Silver linings of COVID-19 life

Field work doesn’t have to be out there in the “field.” 

  • We can access experts with ease. Every industry is now comfortable with Zoom. It’s much easier to ask an engineer, a dietician, or an architect to join a 15 minute Zoom call than it is to ask them to come into your classroom to be a guest speaker or provide expert feedback to your classes. 
  • Home involvement expectations have shifted. Parents see themselves as partners in student learning. A parent would much rather collect data together at the beach, snap photos of neighborhood or nature observations, or go on an interpretive walk than help with a worksheet or test prep.
  • There is a newfound comfort with and access to technology. This can take us to incredible places we couldn’t visit before the pandemic. Most zoos, aquariums, and state and national parks now offer virtual field trips, but also opportunities to interview and interact with experts in these spaces. Just last week I virtually took my students underwater to a kelp forest and then interviewed a park ranger.

Making field work happen 

Here are a couple of my favorite ways to get started:

  • Make it asynchronous if you are in a hybrid or virtual setting. Send students off with clear instructions and graphic organizers to take field notes, then come back and debrief synchronously, and close out your day with a written reflection or assessment based on their experience. 
  • If you are lucky enough to be back to school with students full time, check out my framework for PBL-lite, which is a two week cycle to get you started planning a field work project. Looking for more? Take a deep dive into my book, “Keep it Real with PBL” to plan a 4-6 week project with several opportunities for field work, including a launch, expert speakers, observations in the community/nature, expert feedback, and a final exhibition for an authentic audience.
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