After nearly a year and a half of pandemic-related disruption, going back to school this year will look unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. And that’s a good thing — or at least it should be.
Remote learning revealed massive inequities that we’ve finally begun to address, ushered in widespread use of technology for learning, created new opportunities — and motivations — for educators to collaborate, and strengthened the bonds between families, schools and the larger community.
It also gave students and teachers a taste of more flexible, personalized learning environments and new forms of assessments.
Innovation expert and ISTE CEO Richard Culatta describes these as the silver linings of the pandemic.
“If we take advantage of this moment, if we take advantage of the conditions that the disruption sets, to be able to create and redesign a future for learning, I believe we will look back in 10 years on this moment and think that it was the most important, most impactful change that we've ever seen in learning in our country.”
But that’s a big “if.” School leaders and all educators will have to be bold, brave and steadfast to take on the kind of change that can really make a difference in the long haul. Here are six key areas that cry out for audacious thinking.
1. Equity, equity, equity
This has been repeated so many times that it’s become cliche. But it’s worth repeating again: The pandemic exposed glaring inequities, like a shocking number of students without home devices or internet; students whose parents — because they were essential workers or non-English speakers — couldn’t support their kids with remote learning; younger students and those with disabilities who struggled to get online at all; and BIPOC and low-income students who “disappeared” from school entirely.
“We all knew there was a digital divide before the pandemic,” said Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline School System in Washington state. “I knew it. And shame on me that I didn’t do more as the superintendent of Highline to close that digital divide prior to the pandemic.”
The good news is that school and community teams worked swiftly together to narrow those gaps. Federal funding paid for devices; internet service providers donated Wi-Fi hotspots; districts provided tech support to parents in dozens of languages; and school administrators organized buses that provided internet connectivity, meals, homework packets and library books to students.
Enfield said her district has come a long way thanks to how the community stepped up. More than 97% of families now have reliable broadband access. But she cautioned educators against letting the momentum wane.
“Shame on us if we let that go away,” she told a group of administrators at ISTE’s Leadership Exchange in June. “Because this is fundamentally an equity issue. If we choose to look away as we did prior to the pandemic and allow our children who have now seen that they can all have access to learning outside the school walls — if we take that away, not only will that be morally reprehensible for us to do to our children … it will be foolish for us as a nation. Because we will grow stronger the more our children are educated, the more they are connected, and it's up to us to make sure that happens.”
2. Social-emotional learning and the whole child
Like many school leaders, Enfield had a daunting list of services and needs to address after the pandemic shuttered her schools.
Making sure students had food was at the top of the list. Next, was getting devices and home broadband connectivity to every one of the 18,000-plus students. But the last item was more heart-wrenching: “I challenged our whole-child planning team to make sure every student in PK-12 had an adult at their school who was connecting with them on a regular basis.”
Every student had an adult who knew their strengths and their needs, and got them the support they needed. Enfield said that program won’t go away any time soon. In fact, she hopes to make it stronger.
“As a former high school teacher, I know it takes one,” she said. “They need one adult who they know knows them, cares for them and will go to the mat for them — and cares whether they show up.”
Kumar Garg, managing director at Schmidt Futures, would take that one step further. He sees no reason why every student shouldn’t get a personalized learning plan much like the IEPs students with disabilities get.
“Why aren’t we saying that every kid — every kid — should have an individualized educational assessment as they come back,” he said. “We should be asking, what actually happened to you, where are you, and what do you need help with? And that’s a commitment we make to every kid when they come back.”
At the end of the day, the most important thing we’ve learned is that relationships matter, said Julia Torres, a school librarian from Denver. “I want to keep the priority on community, families and strong friendships. I think that we are all made better by feeling less alone in this world.”
3. Personalized and flexible learning
While the prospect of widespread learning loss has been capturing headlines since the pandemic began, one fact that has been getting a lot less attention is that some students thrived during remote learning. Those kids liked the asynchronous learning, the separation from bullies, the ability to manage their work on their schedule and the extra time to focus on their own interests.
Audrey Snelling, 14, of Eugene, Oregon, used the downtime to practice her baking skills. She started sharing tantalizing pictures of her cookies, cakes, pies, croissants and other delectables on Instagram. She followed cookbook authors and tagged them when she made their recipes. They followed her back and commented on her posts.
It wasn’t long before followers began placing orders. She spent some of her earnings on building a website and blog to promote her baking and used some to buy supplies and equipment. The rest she set aside for a personal goal: culinary school.
With the help of family and friends, Audrey honed real-world skills, sought out experts and contributed to her community by donating cookies to a local soup kitchen.
This is a phenomenon that Temple Lovelace, director of Assessment for Good, Advanced Education Research and Development Fund and eXiLab founder, has thought a lot about.
“We can't walk into this saying we know there has been a loss of learning. That’s not true for everybody, and it's a deficit-based paradigm,” she said. “There’s been different learning that’s been happening over the last year that's been constructed with elders in the community and co-constructed with parents who were partners in this education process. There are many success stories of children who have thrived while learning in their homes.”
Personalized learning has long been a buzzword in education, but so far, it’s widely been defined in terms of pacing and rate, said Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education. That is, students can work through lessons at their pace but, for the most part, can’t get academic credit for passion projects like Audrey’s that develop essential skills.
For his innovative design class, he implemented Genius Hour remotely, empowering his middle schoolers to take on a project of their choice from home. One student built an end table that he designed himself. He documented the project by showing pictures of each step of the process.
Another student hydro-dipped athletic shoes that he then sold on a website he created using Adobe Spark.
“The emphasis on personalization increases engagement, but more importantly, it builds the skills students need to be lifelong learners long after they leave our classrooms,” Provenzano said in a video he created about this project.
4. Assessments — rethinking both how and what we measure
For hundreds of years, school has been focused on one thing: pushing information at kids and then testing them to make sure it sticks. But Immordino-Yang thinks about school much differently.
“The aim of school is not learning,” she says. “The aim of school is development.”
Now, more than ever, she says, “we have to shift that conversation in education so we are putting kids in the driver’s seat.”
How do we do that? By developing mindsets, she told a group of administrators at ISTE’s Leadership Exchange. “It’s developing young people to be thinkers, to be prepared humans, to be citizens, to be able to engage with information complexly, to be able to think about deep problems and express their understanding of those problems so they can productively work toward change.”
And one way to drive that kind of meaningful development is to move away from testing kids to see how well they’ve absorbed facts and information and develop new assessments.
“If we try to find assessments that look at these developmental aims in a broader way, then you’re bringing in and leveraging kids' dispositions for engaging with information, with the community and with knowledge-building as scholars and as humans. And the learning part follows.”
That’s a tall order and it would be a monumental shift in education. One place to start is by tinkering with an age-old protocol that got a rest during the pandemic: grades.
During emergency remote learning, schools around the world eased up on grading policies as students struggled with basic needs. It became immediately clear that the priority had to be getting students the tools to get online, making sure they had food to eat and addressing the crush of mental health issues students were suffering from, like loss, unemployed family members, racism, isolation and more.
Tim Needles, author of STEAM Power and an art teacher from New York, discovered something interesting when grades were no longer a factor.
“It’s like every school had a laboratory where you could suddenly explore how learning works and how students react when grades are really taken out of the picture. I found that students were more motivated by collaborative creative challenges and exploring new technologies together than any of the traditional coursework,” he said. “I also found that students who were primarily motivated by grades disengaged, and I needed to find ways to reconnect them to the learning that was happening, which was a challenge,” he said.
“The experience illuminated some of the issues that result from our current grading system and exposed some of the challenges we face in moving away from the focus on grades.”
5. Educator collaboration and parent relationships
When educators around the world were suddenly forced to move their lessons online with little or no time to train, they reached out to a sure source of knowledge and inspiration: each other.
Almost overnight educators joined informal PLNs on Twitter, created professional learning communities within their schools, districts and regions, and reached out to organizations that could help them get up to speed on online learning.
“I saw so many great examples of people coming together to support one another,” said Sarah Thomas, regional technology coordinator in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland. “You saw Facebook communities that overnight would grow to tens of thousands of people. People were willingly sharing what they were doing to help their students, and learning and growing with one another. It was amazing.”
Nicol Howard, co-director of the REAL Lab School of Education at the University of Redlands in California, has noticed a shift from the transactional approach toward a more relational approach. “The silver lining is seeing people collaborate in more nuanced ways and relying on each other. A lot of us have developed our PLNs and are connecting more.”
Another connection that grew stronger during the pandemic was the link between schools and families, said Thomas, who along with Howard and Regina Schaffer wrote Closing the Gap. “We’ve made it more accessible for parents to be part of the process.”
Many schools did that by translating all their directions and materials into all languages that students in the district speak. In Beaverton, Oregon, a school bus driver from Argentina with three years of college engineering experience, offered to serve as a tech support interpreter for Spanish speaking parents.
“A huge number black and brown parents have had way more connection with teachers than they have in the past,” said Joseph South, ISTE’s chief learning officer and co-author of the report, K-Shaped Education Recovery. “Language barriers and lack of transportation kept them away. But during the pandemic, virtual conferences allowed them to meet with teachers online.
"That increased equity for that family. Is there any reason not to provide a virtual option for parent conferences for ever more? But will we do that? It’s a design issue and it's up to us.”
Enfield also doesn’t want to see those relationship bonds between families and educators weaken.
“Teachers and staff learned really quickly in this pandemic how much they needed families, and families learned really quickly how much they needed teachers and staff,” she said. “So I hope we can move beyond family engagement, beyond family partnership to something I call #TeamKid — to every child having a team that consists of their family and their school staff working together for their success.”
6. Technology is here to stay
For decades there’s been a chasm that’s separated the haves and have-nots in the area of classroom technology. Whether it came down to a lack of resources or a lack of will, some schools embraced technology, while others did not. In fact, some teachers embraced technology, while their colleagues at those same schools did not. Tech use was all over the map.
But COVID-19 changed all that. Schools that did not have a device for every student had no other choice but to distribute laptops, tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots to every student. Teachers who had dragged their feet on learning technology tools, got a crash course. It was the push that was needed to truly make technology at school ubiquitous.
“I think one of the gifts we’ve been given this year is that we don’t have an option but to innovate,” said Michele Eaton, author of The Perfect Blend and director of virtual and blended learning for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis.
Teachers who were wary of technology dipped their toe into the water by learning Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams and their district’s learning management system. They then felt more comfortable trying other tools like Flipgrid, Kahoot and Quizzlet.
Now that nearly every educator has basic tech skills, it will be far easier to pivot when weather shuts down roads. “Now that these systems are in place, instead of school delays, we can start learning remotely, said Rachelle Dene Poth, a Spanish teacher, author of Chart a New Course and an ISTE Certified Educator.
There are other advantages, too. For Needles, the art teacher from New York, it’s all about using that technology to collaborate outside the walls of the school.
“Technology is now in every classroom and it wasn’t before, so it opens up huge opportunities for global learning,” he said. “When you’re learning with classrooms around the world, you’re learning all this social and cultural stuff in addition to whatever the curriculum is, so that’s been terrific.”
Needles said he’s worked with classrooms around the world on environmental projects “With so many students online, we were able to connect on social media and use tools like Google Meet, Flipgrid, and Zoom to interact and work together.”
They worked on local issues with global significance. “The benefit was gaining a variety of different perspectives on the issues and learning to work together while supporting our community with these projects,” Needles said.
Many educators are seeing for the first time how technology can make them better teachers, Eaton said.
“We're learning that technology is not the enemy,” she said. “it’s not going to replace teachers. It can really, when used efficiently, help us focus on the things we often feel like we sometimes don’t have time for.”
Diana Fingal is director of editorial content for ISTE.