Might Covid Suffering Translate into Better Designs for Education?

By Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
Alabama Best Practices Center

Can pain and suffering ever be good for you? Many of us would probably question that concept if we were currently experiencing these human conditions. But psychologist Paul Bloom, the author of The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, suggests pain and suffering, at times, can be a good thing.

He offers some straightforward examples:

  • Touching hot stove or burner causes you to pull your hand back quickly to prevent further injury;
  • Beginning an exercise regimen can cause aches and pains before your body adjusts;
  • Working to master a skill – be it athletic or intellectual – can be painful and cause suffering when you are in the novice stage and wonder if you’ll ever get it right.

You can add to this list based on your own experiences. We’ve all experienced some of the positive effects of working through pain and stress. Bloom suggests that, as humans, we seek both a life of meaning and of pleasure, and these joint desires aren’t always at odds.

At the end of the book, he makes his case against “toxic positivity” and in favor of positive action emerging from our ownership of the pain and suffering we experience:

“There are many things we want out of life, and suffering can enhance many of these. Chosen suffering can lead to great pleasure; and it is an essential part of experiences that we deem to be meaningful. It can connect us to others and can be a source of community and love. It reflects deep sentiments of the mind and feelings of the heart” (p. 224).

My take-aways and wonderings

Despite an endorsement by favorite author Adam Grant, it would be less than honest to say that I loved reading this book. But it got me thinking about Covid-19, the suffering we didn’t choose, and the opportunities our collective ordeal might represent for reimagining education.

Think back to March 2020 when the reality of Covid struck home. What was your first reaction? Fear? Concern? Or were you like me – initially thinking that it would be warm soon and (like late-season flu) it really wouldn’t be a big deal.

As one of my old friends used to say, “Wrong again!”

As we all sat at home and tried to adapt to the new reality, we suffered, but we also changed. Teachers stretched themselves by shifting to virtual learning using digital tools and Zoom and online learning management systems. Administrators found themselves growing and sharpening an array of skills that helped them manage in new dimensions, addressing not only academic needs but the social and emotional needs of their students, teachers, and parents.

It might not have been perfect, but it worked! We got through the first year and more, and we hoped we were seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

Then Delta hit, followed by Omicron and, once again, the education community adapted. Now, as spring slowly approaches, it looks like we might be closer to actually getting those thunderous waves of Covid-19 behind us (while realizing that variants are always a possibility).

Might we draw energy and insight from our “suffering” (and the lessons we’re learning) to begin seriously rethinking the way we do school?

Some questions I’m currently pondering:

  • Why should school always be a five day, seven-hour per day venture in physical space? Are there other structures that we might consider? How do we lead our communities into this kind of conversation and find ways around the “school has always been…” barriers to change?
  • How might we give students greater responsibility and flexibility for their own learning? What structures and learning strategies might help them develop the stamina and sense of purpose to do this?
  • What are we adults learning as a result of the pandemic about how to close the equity and achievement gap?
  • How might our schools become a greater part of the community, with “outside” organizations and experts becoming part of the work?
  • What are the implications for teacher and leader preparation of a more flexible education system?
  • Should formal schooling end with high school or college? What might planning and organizing for life-long learning opportunities “look like?”

I don’t have answers, yet, for any of these questions, but I would love to dialogue with others about them. What do you think? What questions might you add to the list? What’s the best way for all of us to start and sustain a conversation?