Richard Culatta: Can This Crisis Revolutionize The Way We Teach? What does a global pandemic mean for our education system? Educator Richard Culatta discusses the ways we can teach for better humans virtually... and the opportunity this moment presents.

Richard Culatta: Can This Crisis Revolutionize The Way We Teach?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And I think you'll agree that life as we used to know it has pretty much disappeared, for now at least. Almost all of us have in some way been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. For me, well, I've been home splitting my time between hosting this show and helping my kids adjust to a world where they only see their classmates on a screen.

And it's made me think a lot about the episode that the TED Radio team and I made last year. We called it Teaching For Better Humans. And it's about how we can help kids learn to cope with life's ups and downs and deal with an increasingly complicated future because now with COVID-19 it feels like that complicated future is here and, with it, virtual schools, remote learning. For the past few weeks, just about every kid, parent and teacher has had to do their part to usher in an abrupt but necessary new era for education.

TANYA LECLAIR: Hi, my name's Tanya LeClair. I am a digital learning coach at Seoul Foreign School in Seoul, Korea.

HANNAH CONNICK: My name is Hannah Connick (ph). I'm a prekindergarten teacher at a preschool in D.C.

MICHAEL HERNANDEZ: My name's Michael Hernandez. And I'm a high school teacher in the Los Angeles area.

ZOMORODI: We put out the call to educators to tell us how it's been going. There have been a lot of challenges.

LECLAIR: This all came on really fast. We basically got together and started drawing up policies and guidelines and kind of trying to draw everything up from scratch.

CONNICK: My dining room table is not my classroom. And I miss my classroom.

HERNANDEZ: It's really highlighted the fact that we've been caught flat-footed and haven't really evolved maybe as much as we could have.

ZOMORODI: Teachers have had some ridiculous moments.

LECLAIR: ...And the teacher would be like, yeah, one of the kids muted me. I can't tell who it is (laughter)...

HERNANDEZ: I think my students love sleeping in (laughter). I think it's their No. 1 thing that they like...

ZOMORODI: They've also had some incredible bright spots.

CONNICK: Every day at closing meeting, I use that as an opportunity to just have a moment of positive affirmations where I'll have kids, like, repeat after me something, like, I am creative and telling their caregiver you're being so creative taking care of me...

ZOMORODI: They've also had some interesting breakthroughs.

LECLAIR: I've really been impressed with how teachers have taken this on.

HERNANDEZ: I'm actually really excited about this disruption that's happened to the education system. And I know it's, like, frustrating for a lot of us...

RICHARD CULATTA: One of the great innovations that's going to come out of this is we will never go back to school the way it was.

ZOMORODI: That last teacher is Richard Culatta. And actually, he doesn't teach in a classroom anymore. He's now the CEO of the nonprofit ISTE, the International Society of Technology in Education.

CULATTA: There's a time as we adjust to this new world that can be stressful. And that's just going to take some handholding and some getting through. But another thought, too, just something to keep in mind here is I think it's going to be super exciting because all the sudden we're going to have this conversation about what expectations are from students when they walk back into the classroom. And I think some things that they have just put up with for years and years because they never know the difference may suddenly feel really strange. And that's the model of education for the future that we really need to get to and have needed to get to for many years.


ZOMORODI: It can be hard to think about the future when you're just getting through today. So we want to revisit our episode Teaching For Better Humans and take this moment to consider how we can change the way we educate to help kids and young adults thrive. You'll hear some of the conversations we recorded last year but also new ideas that reflect our strange new circumstances. And we're going to start with virtual learning because, think about it, millions of teachers were recently asked to take what they were doing in the classroom and translate it for the screen within days. Many of them, Richard says, are now figuring out how to make school work online on the fly.

CULATTA: Yeah, and they're scrambling. I mean, learning is an inherently social activity. And so often when we start to move over to online learning, we look at the learning process and we just immediately think of the content. And we, you know, scan the content. We make it available online. But content, you know, that is just a really thin veneer of the overall education experience. And if that's the only part - if the content is the only part that we're making available, it's just not effective learning. You have to think about how do you make sure there's still times where everybody can get together in a live space. How do you create activities that are not just reading a worksheet that you've uploaded online?

ZOMORODI: OK, so can you give me an example of what online learning looks like at its best and maybe how we parents can help?

CULATTA: Yeah, so kids can be interviewing each other or their family members and editing and creating videos. They can be designing campaigns to help address an issue in their community. Many of them have a yard outside or a park next to their house. My kid the other day - my 8-year-old - found a bug in his room. And so we had this moment of, oh, we got this bug here. And we could've just thrown it out. But instead I said, you know, what type of bug is that? I don't know. Well, how do we look it up? And so, I mean, we took a picture of it. We went online and searched for it. And found out it was a brown marmorated stink bug. And we learned that stink bugs are...

ZOMORODI: Oh, I found one the other day and I did the bad version of that.

CULATTA: ...Well, but, I mean, it's fascinating. We learned there's so many things about stink bugs I never knew. That moment - that silly moment - one, is it became a learning moment. But it also taught my kid. It modeled that this device that I hold in my pocket, it's not just for playing games. It's not just for calling people and communicating. It's a tool to make more sense out of the world around us. But those are the types of activities that we have to be starting to plan now because they take some thinking.

ZOMORODI: So my concern has been, as a tech journalist, the human component, right? And a lot of teachers have told me that as they've brought more and more screens into the classroom that they have actually had to start teaching human things that they've never had to teach before in the past, like, how to have eye contact with someone, how, to listen to someone. And so how do we teach those human competencies if everybody's not together?

CULATTA: So there's a couple things here that are important to talk about. One of them is what those competencies look like. They still exist - right? - those human competencies, how to be a good, engaged human being, it still exists in a virtual space. We just have to teach it a little differently.

So we talk about five critical qualities of digital citizens, and we say that we need to teach kids to be inclusive, informed, engaged, balanced and alert. It's knowing how to, you know, help make your community a better place when you're online. It's knowing how to create an environment that is inclusive of people with a variety of different viewpoints and backgrounds online. It's knowing how to recognize information that is true, information that has biases in it and make decisions about what information is more valuable in what circumstance. Those are the types of skills that we need to be teaching. And if we do, then our virtual environment becomes a community that is rich and engaging and supportive.

ZOMORODI: OK. So, Richard, going back to this idea of whether there's a silver lining that can come out of these bizarre days and weeks, when this is over and kids go back to school, do you think that the classroom experience will be dramatically different?

CULATTA: Oh, yeah. So, you know, we'll go back to school, of course, and school is critically important, but we'll go back to a school with a realization, with a reality that the world is a virtual world, that these kids are dual citizens. They live in two worlds at all times, and they always will in the future. And if we can recognize that and we can leverage that to make school engaging, rich, meaningful environment that empowers kids not just to soak up information that we give them but to solve problems and to communicate and collaborate with their peers around the world, that's the exciting part. And we are just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what we're going to do.

Teachers are the most creative people on the planet. And once they get the tools in front of them and they know and are comfortable with the tools, the amount of creativity that we're going to see is just going to be unbelievable.

ZOMORODI: That's Richard Culatta, the CEO of ISTE. And thank you so much to all the teachers who shared their experiences with us. We also want you to know that TED-Ed has a new initiative for learning at home. Find out more at

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