W is for Wonder


Audio read by Lynn Thomas


1. a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.


  1. desire or be curious to know something.
  2. feel doubt.

Wonder is an interesting word full of star-struck awe to curious exploration to inexplicable confusion. More than anything right now, I vacillate amongst all three wonders. Perhaps it’s the rapid movement through the range of wonder that is unsettling, perhaps it’s the fact that so much of wonder lies in the unknown but now, probably like many of you, I find my wondering has me off-kilter, in a sort of psychological dizziness, if you will. Putting thoughts to paper seems to help ground it – like putting your foot down to stop the merry-go-round. So, here are my wonderings…

I wonder…

What will school look like in September?

Hours upon hours could be filled with this wondering and it is what I find the most unsettling because so much of it is out of my control. I know many things I would like to see, some of it borne out of this remote learning experience and some long-held pedagogical beliefs.

With the continued need to socially distance, going back to the status quo of 30 students in a classroom is not going to keep people safe nor underscore confidence in the education system. I am hoping that we will see a loosening of the strict idea of timetables as we know them and a more creative approach used. For example, using a blended learning approach and having only half of a class of 30 come to school 2 days a week and the other half come the other two, and having the fifth day be for online learning, office hours for extra help, etc. This would give students the one-to-one attention in a face to face environment to develop skills and get the support they need while also building community, but reduce numbers to allow appropriate social distancing.

Hinton, Fischer and Glennon, in their article “Mind, Brain, and Education” from The Student at the Center Series point out that learning takes place all the time, not just in classrooms, so a wider view of learning experiences should be taken into account, be assessed, recognized and credited formally. Doing so would also support physical distancing protocols as students could pursue their learning independently outside of the school building. This accentuates the need to acknowledge that the need for 110 credit hours in order to obtain proficiency in a credit in high school is completely arbitrary and a reassessment of equating learning criteria to time needs to evolve to a more mastery-based approach.

Research on brain plasticity also indicates that the brain is learning virtually all the time, in both formal and informal contexts (Squire & Kandel 2009; OECD 2007). Traditional schooling with a teacher standing in front of a classroom is therefore only one of many potential learning experiences (OECD 2011). Since informal learning also shapes the brain, education can take advantage of nontraditional learning experiences in addition to school, such as after school enrichment, internships, or community programs. In a student-centered approach to learning, informal education experiences with nontraditional educators would be formally recognized and credited.

“Mind, Brain, and Education: The Student at the Center Series”,
By C. Hinton, K. Fischer, & C. Glennon

Many considerations need to be taken into account as well like COVID 19 screening processes, transportation procedures, recreation and mealtime strategies, and a myriad of others. I do not profess to be an expert, and these are just a few dilemmas I thought about. For a more in-depth view of the considerations being taken into account, have a look at the chart below from the Learning Policy Institute which provides a comparative look at established health and safety policies from around the world where schools have already begun the process of reopening.

from the Learning Policy Institute

Over the course of remote learning at home, assessment practices have changed to depend more on feedback than grades. “Going gradeless” is not a new discussion in education circles and this experience has shown the many benefits including encouraging intrinsic motivation in students instead of relying on the extrinsic motivation of grades. Drs. Osmond-Johnson, Campbell and Pollock, in their article “Moving Forward in the COVID-19 Era: Reflections for Canadian Education” echo thoughts on assessment and the importance of feedback:

… COVID has resulted in a pause on standardized testing in most education systems, prompting discussion on how authentic and appropriate feedback can be provided to students and their families, as well as to educators. These are important developments that should be further explored. 

“Moving Forward in the COVID-19 Era: Reflections for Canadian Education”
by Dr. Pamela Osmond-Johnson, Dr. Carol Campbell, Dr. Katina Pollock

In fact, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development along with the Center for Education Research and Innovation have found conventional assessment – like standardized testing where often students are drilled and class becomes “teaching to the test” are ineffective.

Many conventional forms of assessment, where success can be boosted by cramming, have been shown to be “brain-unfriendly” with low retained comprehension. 

“Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science” from Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Centre for Education Research and Innovation

The pause in standardized testing also throws into question the necessity of the testing system as we know it. The lack of real student learning resulting from the tests definitely causes concern for continued use of an antiquated system that doesn’t take into account researched and supported pedagogical practices. Far better to have “snapshot” assessments to reflect the learning taking place across the province and country. A more accurate view of learning would be the result at a reduced cost while also not taking away from the abundant and rich learning activities going on every day.

I wonder…

How will mental health and well being – of students and teachers – be supported?

I was particularly glad to hear the announcement of funding to support mental health and well being, but am concerned what it will actually look like in practice. Mental health and well-being has been a growing concern given the rapid increase in rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers (70 per cent rise in the past 25 years – read more here: The Long Dark Days of November). Furthermore, research has underscored the vital importance of social-emotional learning to future learning and success. A focused and integrated approach to support mental health and teach social-emotional learning needs to be prioritized and integrated throughout the curriculum and across grades, not just because of COVID 19 and its after-effects.

The Centre for Education Research and Innovation and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shared new insights on learning through cognitive and brain science during their international conference “Learning in the 21st Century: Research, Innovation and Policy”. Their paper, “Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science” reveals that

Neuroscience also has developed the key concept “emotional regulation”. Managing emotions is one of the key skills of being an effective learner. Emotional regulation affects complex factors such as the ability to focus attention, solve problems, and support relationships. Given the “poor steering” of adolescence and the value of fostering emotional maturity in young people at this key stage, it may well be fruitful to consider how this might be introduced into the curriculum and to develop programmes to do this. 

“Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science” from Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Centre for Education Research and Innovation

There are growing amounts of evidence showing that successful learning is better achieved through a focus on student well-being and supporting their social-emotional learning than focusing on content (see discussions here: U is for Unhappy…Not Anymore and here: H is for Happy). J. Willis affirmed this assertion in “The Neuroscience of Joyful Education”:

the current emphasis on standardized testing and rote learning encroaches upon many students’ joy. In their zeal to raise test scores, too many policymakers wrongly assume that students who are laughing, interacting in groups, or being creative with art, music, or dance are not doing real academic work….The truth is that when we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage.

“The Neuroscience of Joyful Education” from Educational Leadership by J. Willis

The fact that COVID 19 is going to have a significant impact on mental health is not in question. In fact, a new study will assess the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the mental health of thousands of people – from the womb to old age (read more here.) Drs. Sandro Galea, Raina M. Merchant, and Nicole Lurie, in “The Mental Health Consequences of COVID-19 and Physical Distancing: The Need for Prevention and Early Intervention”, emphasize that the critical steps taken to deter the spread of COVID-19 have consequences that require immediate efforts focused on prevention and direct intervention to address the impact on mental health:

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears likely that there will be substantial increases in anxiety and depression, substance use, loneliness, and domestic violence; and with schools closed, there is a very real possibility of an epidemic of child abuse. This concern is so significant that the UK has issued psychological first aid guidance from Mental Health UK.

“The Mental Health Consequences of COVID-19 and Physical Distancing: The Need for Prevention and Early Intervention” by Drs. Sandro Galea, Raina M. Merchant, and Nicole Lurie

This “first aid guidance” includes planning for loneliness and its effects on mental wellness, having mechanisms in place to deal with reporting and intervention in domestic violence and child abuse situations, and to bolster the mental health system.

Knowing the length of waiting lists now for counselling and mental health supports, not only in the education system but the healthcare system, I have grave concerns for an adequate response to COVID-19’s secondary epidemic – the mental health epidemic that is sure to follow an event of this magnitude.

I wonder…

What about equity?

A big area that the shift to remote learning have laid bare are the inequities in the education system. Educational Leadership’s article “Why COVID-19 Is Our Equity Check” by Dena Simmons outlines many of the educational equity issues like the digital divide and lack of access to affordable, reliable internet. She also highlights the issues that go beyond teaching and learning including safety, food security, and other basic supports that our school systems offer on a daily basis that are now missing for so many.

While partnerships are being struck to try and address some of these issues, teaming with Apple and Rogers to provide devices and internet services for low-income students in Ontario for example, there are still many concerns. As Simmons points out:

…it is difficult not to wonder why we haven’t invested in our young people’s educational resources and access more generously before. This is a question we must ponder and continue to ask on the other side of the pandemic, especially since educational equity requires partnerships between groups—inside and outside of the school system.

“Why COVID-19 Is Our Equity Check” from Educational Leadership by Dena Simmons

I Wonder…

A pause to contemplate…

Much of my wondering is fraught with concern and consternation indicative of the verb itself: the ever-present curiosity mixed, at times, with doubt but not all of it. Some of my wonder lies in the noun – in that feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.

While COVID-19 has proven worrisome and challenging in various ways, it has also given a forced pause. A time to reflect, to be mindful, and to contemplate. I have found the additional family time rewarding, the time to write and work on personal projects fulfilling. I know that may not be the case for everyone, but for this contemplative time, I am grateful.

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