What if?

Paul Magnuson, Director of Educational Research, Leysin American School.


A student wrote to me yesterday with a request that has really got me thinking.


For some context: in the final weeks of our sudden shift to school online, I convened a group of a dozen eleventh grade students, twice, with the goal of talking through their remote learning experience and what we can learn from it moving forward.


The students reflected on their ability to self-manage and self-motivate, their established study practices, and how they might like to reorganize school in the future, based on our collective redo of how school works.


We called the two sessions blue sky thinking. As we wound up the second session, a group consensus emerged that the students would like to have more blue sky time next academic year – time to come together and talk creatively about academics, alternatives to how we do things now, and how they might learn best.


I suspect any educator’s heart should beat a little faster when students express interest in rethinking pedagogy. But perhaps in reality that faster heart rate is the realization that talking what ifs is the equivalent of a crack in the dam or a loose thread in the sweater. Something could burst or unravel pretty quickly.


So a student wrote to me. One of the blue sky thinkers. A smart, reflective, serious student. She asked me this:


I wanted to know … if I could have the option to not go to class and instead go to a supervised study place … where I could work alone like we did during the online schooling period … Maybe I would go to class at least 2 times a week … I would also agree to turn in everything on time … I think this would help me keep the efficiency that I had when I was forced into learning by myself. Do you think the school will let me do this? 


Blue sky, definitely, and not unreasonable. But the questions this request raises! Say the student did only go to class twice a week (that’s half the scheduled classes in this case) but turned in all her work on time and did well in class – and perhaps in less time. Is that an acceptable outcome for the school? It seems to be acceptable – preferable even – for the individual student.


I can hear the collective, hypothetical voices of my colleagues and I as we discuss the request: You can’t just skip class! (Knee jerk reaction). Who would supervise? (Practical constraints.) Wouldn’t this open the doors to other students asking for the same thing? (Are we talking about building a whole new program here?) What about students who wanted to do this but weren’t able to handle it? (Further administrative complications.) If it’s only necessary to attend half our classes to succeed, what will parents think? (Public relations.) 


And so on. 


I’ve heard colleagues talk about school reform in terms of aspirational goals, which feels a bit like code language for blue sky thinking that we know will never happen. I’ve also heard plenty of pundits say education will never be the same, post-Covid. But as I open the mail to respond to this student, I can’t think of any response that doesn’t cloud that blue sky. She is onto something, but I do not know how to support her thinking best.



Paul Magnuson is the director of Educational Research at Leysin American School and adjunct faculty for the International Education Program of Endicott College. His interests include student agency and self-regulated learning for students and teachers.

2 replies
  1. Francisco Thome Arquer
    Francisco Thome Arquer says:

    That’s a very nice article, Paul.

    About a school reform in a post-Covid era, I can’t stop thinking in Paulo Freire.
    For him, one thing is for sure, social interaction is imperative to our learning process.

    Thanks for the knowledge.

  2. Paul Magnuson
    Paul Magnuson says:

    Kiko – absolutely right – we learn through being social … and we’ll have to continue to define what that means in an increasingly remote environment for learning. Even the word “remote” is a little ominous socially.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *