The unintentional Gap Year

A gap year is the ultimate re-set…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

2020 has been many things to many people, but one thing it has been to all of us is an involuntary disruption of our schedules.

I’ve decided to designate 2020 as our unintentional Gap Year.

As a reminder, a Gap Year is a year “off” that some young people take between high school graduation and beginning college.

This might be for travel, independent study or work. Or even just to recalibrate and reconsider life’s options.

The idea is that a ‘break’ before beginning higher education will bring perspective which will presumably facilitate more focus and, one would hope, a better, more mature use of the educational experience. You might consider it an opportunity for some margin in preparation for setting one’s life direction. A gap year is the ultimate re-set.

But many of us don’t seem to want to see it this way.

There are many difficult, frustrating if not traumatizing aspects of 2020, but I think the most difficult seems to be the inability to make productive use of the unique demands and possibilities of this time. Here’s what I mean; schools, churches and businesses have been struggling to adapt. Some better than others.

The ones that have succeeded the least are doing one thing in common; they are doing what they did before and essentially keeping their structure and format as they transfer it to the new technology.

In other words, if school was six hours a day with scheduled breaks (for lunch and exercise) these people imagine that the whole system can be kept intact and transferred online.

It would be difficult to imagine a worse strategy.

A two-hour face-to-face meeting is difficult enough – could you even begin to imagine the dread and exhaustion of a two-hour Zoom meeting?

A full day of school transferred intact online could be nothing but an obvious disaster; frustrating for parents, traumatic for kids and, even if it worked, thoroughly dependent on access to technology.

For one thing, not everyone has online access. One study showed that half of all students NEVER logged in.

If you want to ensure inequity, essentially burned into the consciousness of the next generation, this would be how to do it.

Some kids will excel, some will travel and many will be left behind. Almost certainly on a permanent basis.

Don’t you think it is obvious that, under these unique and certainly trying circumstances there are other things we should learn – and certainly other approaches to learning?

How about instead of forcing new circumstances to adapt to our established ways of doing things, we actually took advantage of a (presumably) once in a lifetime situation.

If you think working from home is difficult, multiply that level of difficulty by a factor of ten, if not more, when it comes to school.

How about if we put the familiar structure of school (and perhaps work) essentially on the back burner for a year.

In school we wouldn’t worry about standards or assessment. Those are both important in terms of rigor and college/career readiness so we would attend to them again once we can all safely return to our buildings. But in 2020, these are literally impossible.

Children are resilient, most would have no problem “catching up” to their grade level.

We could spend this unexpected year reigniting our curiosity and the curiosity of our students for the sheer joy of it. We, and they, could learn for the sake of learning.

We could encourage our students to read books that are interesting to them simply for the love of reading. We could encourage our students to write their own stories and record their own experiences.

We could all spend more of our time outside rediscovering the natural world and our relationship with it.

We could read, with increasingly obvious urgency, important texts about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and have the messy and probably never finished discussions about what it would really take to end oppression and inherent inequity.

We could focus on mental and physical wellness, take really good care of each other, and model for our students what that looks like.

We could get to know and serve our communities in ways that address the greatest needs and make the most sense, and perhaps make the most difference.

Finally, educators would have more time to take a deep, wide, and honest look at curriculum and instruction and school culture – and then respond, update, revise and create.

This is the year when nothing has gone as expected. Our structures and formulas about standard grades and progression have evaporated. This year, for better or worse, could focus on connection and joy and curiosity. This could be the year we all remember as the season in our lives we discovered what really matters.

Instead of doing this, we run the very real risk of getting students to not only dislike school, but to dislike learning.

I know one family where one of their kids loved reading; until she was forced into an onerous reading program with demands and forced study guides. She now hates reading.

What was accomplished by such a program?

A student-centered program would facilitate student-directed learning that, even if it went down a near infinite number of intellectual rabbit-trails, would establish both a love of learning and a set of adaptive, resilient and near-universally transferrable set of skills to equip the next generation for the thoroughly unexpected demands of the future.

The one thing we know for certain about the future is that we have no idea what lies before us. Our structures of school (and work) are already failing us. There was nothing sacred about them. It’s time to learn, adapt and, yes, prosper under an entirely different system.

Life is not made up of neat categories. Learning and work need to flex and flow with the demands of circumstances and shifting possibilities.

Some opportunities close and others open.

There is nothing sacred about the classroom (or the cubicle). Learning – and productivity can happen anywhere.

As historians like to remind us, history is full of things that never happened before. History rarely fully repeats itself, but people often do.

I think it’s fair to say that after 2020, no aspect of our lives will be the same; our economy, our families, our neighborhoods and even our expectations have changed forever. Life as most of us knew it, will not come back.

And for most of us, that’s a good thing.

We humans rarely have the “Gap Year” opportunity on such a scale. We dare not miss it.

I love history, but most people take the wrong lessons from it; yes, we might learn from the mistakes or be inspired by those from previous eras, but the most important lesson we can draw from a study of history is that there is no going back – we only go forward.

Life after 2020, in more ways that we could imagine, will look nothing like it did before.

We can leave behind those systems and structures that held us back and divided us.

Our circumstances demand that we leave some things behind, embrace new ones and maybe even discover something entirely unexpected – out in the world and within ourselves.