What’s the Big Deal About a Few Missed Classes?

There has been much discussion and debate recently regarding the importance of children being in classrooms instead of online learning from home. This is, of course, due to the COVID19 pandemic, under normal circumstances, there is no issue. With the exception of some home-schoolers, it seems to be clear that a child benefits from being in a learning environment, interacting with others, as opposed to being at home.

But things are far from ideal as the Omicron variant wreaks havoc as it spreads like wildfire. The local provincial government is determined to get kids back into classrooms, while many parents and teachers are still skeptical about the return, even with strict pandemic protocols in place.

As I look back on my years in school, I can’t really understand what the fuss is all about. Staying home was always better than going to school, hands down. I can’t recall any kid ever saying, perhaps during a teachers’ strike, that they missed being at school. Even long before online learning was an option, missing a few days of school was not big deal for most of us.

As I look back on my years in school, I can’t really understand what the fuss is all about. Staying home was always better than going to school

In grade school and high school (ELHI for crossword lovers) kids were often hauled out of school to accommodate family travel plans. I can’t think of any student who suffered in the long run for these missed days. “Sorry Al, we’d like to see you move up in the company, but you missed a couple of weeks in grade four when the family went skiing”. Mind you, teachers used to teach directly from the book in those days, theoretically, a student could catch up. I had a teacher, Mr. Vass, a veteran high school history teacher who could, and often did, tell a student from memory, at what point and on what page in the textbook a certain fact was printed: “The Battle of Hastings, 1066, page 184 about halfway down”. Obviously, he had used the same textbook for years if not decades – come on, it’s history, it doesn’t change!

When I was in university I could have been the poster boy for the process of learning by osmosis. According to an interview with a faculty member conducted by the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning of the University of Saskatchewan, “Lecturing while students passively listen is like letting the difference in osmotic pressure between the students’ brain and the instructor’s brain (or the classroom air) be the driving force to promote transport or diffusion of knowledge.” Yes indeed, sign me up.

When I was at McGill University in the late seventies and early eighties, undergraduate classes were essentially limitless in terms of enrollment. Most were held in large auditoriums (auditoria?) and attended by well over a hundred students. There were usually three one-hour lectures a week as well as what was called conferences (some professors dropped one lecture to accommodate the conference). These were smaller, break-away sessions that were led by teaching assistants, most commonly graduate students in a related field. Many students chose not to attend the conferences, relying solely on the lectures.

Some students brought tape recorders to lectures and placed them on the rostrum in front of the professor. I always wondered why once they had positioned the recorder they remained in class. Surely there were better things to do with their time. It wasn’t like they could ask questions as it was usually made clear during the first class that questions were limited to conferences. If you absolutely had to ask the professor, you could make an appointment.

I always wondered why, once they had positioned the recorder they remained in class. Surely there were better things to do with their time

This arrangement was just Jim Dandy with me. You lecture, I’ll take notes, you assign a term paper and create a couple of exams, and I’ll do my best to retain information long enough to spew it back to you. Deal? No presentations (you’re the teacher, not me, I’m paying tuition for your expertise, not my fellow students), no class participation (don’t take up the professor’s time please), and, of course, no taking of attendance.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some of the professors, usually those with a smaller group, would, from time to time, finish their lecture early and enquire as to whether there were any questions. These situations stick with me as there was always that person, often, for some inexplicable reason, a continuing education student, who just had to ask a question and thereby cause us all to stay in class. The professor would open the floor to a limited number of questions and all eyes would focus on that person, knowing they could not give up a chance to hold us all back.

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