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Bricks, Mortar, and Wishful Thinking

We continuously hear that in-person, “bricks and mortar” instruction is much better for students than online learning. The truth of this statement seems self-evident, but when evaluating the claim, we need to employ a common economic class assumption to the task. That assumption, expressed in the Latin phrase, ceteris paribus, means we assume every other variable is unchanged.

Ceteris paribus is a fundamental and necessary assumption in the study of economics. For example, let us say that Starbucks has increased the price of their coffee by $2 a cup. What will happen to the number of cups of coffee customers will want to buy? Our life experience tells us that people generally buy less of something at higher prices than they will at lower prices. When people buy more at lower prices and less at higher ones, they illustrate the law of demand at work.

In drawing that conclusion, we are using the ceteris paribus assumption. That is, we are assuming that the only thing changing is the dollar cost of Starbucks coffee. The weather, people’s income, the prices charged by Starbucks’ competitors, and thousands of other variables are assumed to be unchanged.

Why We Simplify

We make that simplifying assumption because the world is incredibly complex. People make purchasing decisions based on many more factors than price alone. An arctic blast that drops Houston temperatures into the teens could cause people to buy more Starbucks coffee at a higher price than before at the lower one. The closing of a significant competitor could have the same effect. When formulating policies in real life, we cannot make those simplifying assumptions if we are to have a realistic view of a policy’s impact on the world.

So, let’s apply the ceteris paribus assumption to the statement about the kind of classes that are best for students. It now reads: “Bricks and mortar” classes are much better for students than online instruction, assuming the only thing changing is the location of the lessons.

Tackling Real-Life Complications

Now I ask you, will other things change in schools due to the Covid-19 outbreak? For example, will a requirement to wear masks, maintain social distance, and regularly disinfect common areas alter the learning environment? How about teachers relying heavily on technology and refraining from helping students individually at their desks? The answer seems obvious. We cannot know the extent to which these will change the classroom experience, but experienced teachers already have a good idea. Have you ever tried to conduct a regular class when it is snowing outside or the power is off in the building? Under the circumstances, carrying on, as usual, is very wishful thinking.

Is that experience inherently better and more distraction-free than learning online? I would not bet money on that proposition.

Masks, face shields, and other self-protective measures used by teachers and students are likely to negatively impact the acquisition of knowledge and the building of positive relationships with classes. It is hard enough to learn students’ names with their faces uncovered. Being able to call young people by name is one of the first steps in building good relationships with classes.

No Solutions, Only Trade-Offs

With many restaurants and stores unwilling to handle twenty-dollar bills, I do not think many of us will want to accept students’ written assignments. Going paperless will be a significant hurdle, especially for students who choose to avoid computer-based classes at home.

Economist Thomas Sowell once wrote: “There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs; and you try to get the best trade-off you can get, that’s all you can hope for.”

Will students get the best outcome from in-person classes? The jury is still out on that, but we cannot make rational choices if we fail to consider how bricks and mortar schools will change in the COVID-19 world.

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