Living Through Discontinuity

Living Through Discontinuity

I recently learned a new term for what we’re living through, and I want to share it. 

Apparently, we are in an age of “discontinuity.” I encountered the term in a lengthy article about the California wildfires when it was used by Alex Steffen, a climate futurist who is focused on how to find hope when people despair about the possibilities of the future.

Steffen tells Elizabeth Weil, the article’s author, that “Discontinuity is a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work.” When in the midst of a discontinuity, “There’s real grief and loss. There’s the shock that comes with recognizing that you are unprepared for what has already happened.”

When you are unprepared for what has already happened.

I think this dynamic is at work in a lot of different facets of life these days, school among them. The uncertainty around the start of the semester nearly two years into the pandemic suggests how difficult it is to operate in the midst of a discontinuity.

According to Steffen, when it comes to climate, the value in acknowledging the reality of an ongoing discontinuity is to discard the “nostalgia” we attach to the past when we perceived things were “normal.” 

The point is not only that there is no normal—there never was a normal. Normal is a figment of our imagination conjured to provide comfort that what we’re doing makes sense.

As strange as this may sound, I found Steffen’s concept of discontinuity very comforting. If there is no past to return to, and the future is unknown, all that we’re left with is the now.

The challenge when it comes to climate, or any other issue (like schools and schooling) is to figure out what we should be prioritizing in the now to make the best possible decisions for the present under the theory that making good choices in the present will pay dividends in paving the way to a better future.

When it comes to California wildfires, the key is to move beyond debates that only made sense under very different conditions. If a community cannot be made safe, what is the superior alternative to simply waiting for it to burn down and then having to deal with an acute crisis?

For schools I think this means making mission and purpose central to the discussion of what should be done, rather than falling back on attempts to recapture the kinds of operations that were possible prior to the pandemic. The pandemic has allowed for a fresh-eyed examination of many different aspects of life, and school should be no different.

One of the chief arguments for in-person schooling at present is the need for socialization in order to benefit student mental health. But it’s complicated, as pre-pandemic schooling has been demonstrated to be detrimental to student mental health, associated with both increased anxiety and depression. The pressure students feel around grades and their futures has taken a toll on their spirits. The social separation has been an additional stressor, but this does not mean that going back to school is a de facto solution to that problem.

It’s certainly possible that the pre-COVID status quo was less damaging to student mental health than COVID-era schooling, but having identified a clear problem, we can now begin to think differently about how school works and what students need to thrive.

I wish I could say that I have definitive answers to those questions, but the truth is, finding a way through a discontinuity requires community collaboration. 

The key is to start with the right questions. Situations like the current crisis with Chicago Public School teachers must be approached as problems of pedagogy and logistics, rather than devolving into a political power struggle. 

Simply, what do students and teachers need to do the best work possible under the current conditions? The two pillars of effective instruction are consistency and flexibility. These are important because the chief enemy of learning is disruption. 

Given that disruption is inevitable these days, the focus must be on what we can do today, as best we can.

Everyone involved in the equation wants students to be able to learn in a safe, secure, and supportive environment. When all parties share the same goal, a solution should be achievable.

The sooner we recognize the impact of discontinuity, the better off we’ll be in acting today, and tomorrow.