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Back to School!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
August 7, 2021

Yes, we are going back to school—this is welcome news! It doesn’t really feel like we left, though. Just after classes ended for the 2020-21 regular academic year, I proctored a month of summer school. Mostly that was done in the classroom, but the instruction was generally “pull” not “push”—the students used an approved online content program complete with quizzes and tests. If they finished those exercises, they could “recover” a failed grade or even be able to get credit for a class they hadn’t taken yet. My hope this year is that everyone “goes back to school.” In other words, it is a given that teachers and administrators will certainly be there—physically. My fervent hope is that most every student will come back to school as well.

The Nature of Learning

Learning is done in a social manner. I have studied the various theories on this point and together with experience have arrived at the solid conclusion that learning is best achieved in the classroom—in a social setting. Why? Because we learn from each other and, well, that is quite difficult to do when one is detached from others and separated from the classroom. This is true across all disciplines and especially in math and science, where a fellow student’s learning discovery can have a monumental impact on another student being able to understand or clarify a construct or concept.

Example #1: When I was very young, I took a self-paced, at-home course in electronics. At the time, we called such courses “matchbook” type programs because their advertisements usually appeared on the inside of a matchbook or the centerfold of a comic book. They were, however, respectable commercial ventures. There two well-known ones: the Cleveland Institute of Electronics, whose motto was, “A School of thousands. A class of one,” or the National Radio Institute, which was bought by McGraw-Hill and phased out in 2002. Both were referred to as “correspondence courses”—you mailed in your tests and other materials. The idea was that you would learn the basics of electronics and simultaneously build a glorious 25 inch color TV (console model with a huge cathode ray tube!). I applied myself vigorously and still remember some things about electronics to this day. But it sure would have been easier, more powerful and quicker if I was in a classroom with other students. Every time I got stumped on something, I had to write a letter to my instructor and wait for a snail-mail response.

Example #2: When I was an adult, I decided it would be fun to teach myself calculus. Yes, I’m a nerd if that is what you were thinking. I went out and bought a book on self-learning calculus and made a little progress in it before abandoning this noble endeavor.

Example #3: Later in my adult life, I got the notion that it would be valuable and fun to get a doctoral degree. One day, coming back to the states from one of my many trips to Europe on business, I read an advertisement (not in a matchbook) for The George Washington University’s Executive Leadership Doctoral Program. To make a long story short, my GW program was cohort-style; we met one weekend a month Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the university campus and for ten days in the summer. We had general exams, wrote a ton of papers, embarked on dissertation writing and completed a host of other requirements. This was a very rigorous program from a flagship university—the bar was set extremely high. One of the most important conclusions I made from the program was that my learning was best and most impactful when we were together as doctoral students—having conversations and breakthroughs about our learning.

The Nature of Teaching

My teaching style can be described as a spark or tinder approach—and I am not alone in this method. I provide a spark to light the fire of curiosity and I help by serving as a tour guide along the road to places that we have either not been to yet or have been to, but because of the learning involved are really seeing it for the first time. I might say something outlandish to get the conversation going. I might ask for opinions and then ask for the basis of the same. I might highlight a current event, thrash it around for a bit, then carefully place it in an historical context. None of these techniques can be achieved with the same intensity using distance learning.

It is no secret that I love my state of Texas. We believe in liberty with a healthy dose of personal responsibility and accountability. These values carry over to our education system here. While some other areas of the country continue to look for ways to separate students from on-ground learning in the classroom, we here in Texas have been “back to school” now for over a year. Signs are looking promising for even more contact learning this upcoming school year. By the time you read this, I will be inside a classroom at Permian High School, teaching AP Government and Politics to students in that same classroom—yay!


Author: Dr. Robert Brescia respects the wisdom of generations, promotes the love of learning, teaches ethics to university students, government & politics to AP seniors, and leadership to organizations. The Governor of Texas recently appointed him to the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Contact him at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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