Op-Ed: The Changes We Should Expect to Take Place in Schooling

The societal disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic also signals a major redesign in our schooling system; here are 10 likely changes
G. Kennedy Greene

Over the past century, the citizens of our nation have lived through at least four devastating tragedies: the Great Recession of 2007-2009; the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001; the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Each of them caused us to reflect on and recalibrate our lives, our work and our society as a whole.

The coronavirus pandemic is shaping into a similar experience. In addition to the enormous consequences for public health, widespread closures are foreshadowing financial hardships that bear resemblance to the aftermath of the recent Great Recession. The negative repercussions on private incomes and public revenues can be expected to stretch into the foreseeable future.

While an understandable reaction could be paralysis or fear, that has not been our reflexive national response. Rather, these catastrophes became reasons to reconsider and redesign our institutions. The 1930s depression and the Great Recession were followed by dramatic transformations to our economic policies, and the surprise assaults brought swift revisions to our military and intelligence operations. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to result in similar implications for our health care system.

It also signals an open moment for schooling.

The emphasis here is on schooling rather than education. In many definitions of education, one does not find the word “school.” That is because while education does happen in schools, it also occurs in other places and by other means. We would be wise to remember that, as we ponder the opportunity before us.

It is worth stating that a new schooling paradigm will not be driven by the coronavirus itself: The pandemic has just made the value in completing the transition more evident, perhaps the final push we need to fully commit ourselves to a different reality.

Here are ten changes in schooling we should expect, as we work through our current health and economic crisis.

  1. Teaching and learning in schools will be blended: In-person and online approaches will no longer stand alone; a fully integrated hybrid will be the standard instructional framework. Learning management systems will be central to that structure. Curriculum, instruction, and assessment will be unified and accessible to all stakeholders. Teaching will be bound less by time and place. Courses will have synchronous and asynchronous features. Blurred will be the lines between classwork and homework. Personalization will accelerate, and students and parents will have more control over their learning. Blended learning implies universal internet and device access, which remains an urgent equity issue.
  2. Students will be both more independent and more collaborative: Historically, students were seen as dependent learners — dependent on someone else (i.e., teachers and parents) to deliver knowledge to them. Over the span of a generation, teachers have moved steadily from being “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side.” Teaching is incumbent on the teachers, and learning is incumbent on the learners. Students will be encouraged to take on greater responsibilities with appropriate removal of barriers and provision of individual learning supports. Collaboration will gain momentum as a primary reason to bring students together in a single place to build interpersonal, teamwork, and conflict-resolution skills.
  3. Teachers will be creators of personalized learning experiences: Again, teachers have been moving in this direction over a sustained period. With students expected to move toward greater independence and collaboration, teachers will design lessons that promote those outcomes. Discrete knowledge and skill-building are necessary foundational blocks, and their development will continue to be aided through the use of digital applications. Understanding of specific student needs and crafting individualized activities to address those needs will always be the unique value brought by good teachers.
  4. Support staff will be freed to deliver services outside traditional schedules: Flexible use of time and space will allow student access to professional assistance without having to miss essential instruction. Therapists and counselors will differentiate the timing and amount of service for individual students and provide it in a more efficient way.
  5. Parents will be essential collaborators again: Parents have always been their child’s first teacher, and they hand off the lead role as youngsters enter school age. Now they have had the experience of being central once more to their children’s learning. Parent engagement will no longer be a nice goal: It will be integral to schooling.
  6. Administrators will be systems developers and change managers: The anticipated structural and process advances will require thoughtful, careful leadership. With many administrative functions being done productively using automated assistance, the work of principals and superintendents will involve less tactical management and compliance, and more strategic planning and problem solving.
  7. School buildings will be places for creative work: Knowledge gathering and skill practice will be done outside the classroom walls and assigned hours more than it is currently. Spaces inside schools will be utilized more for academic exploration, hands-on application, student collaboration, and social-emotional learning. Time and space will be employed more flexibly to deliver customized instruction in mixed-method formats.
  8. School information will be free and ubiquitous: College course content has been made available by leading institutions openly for several years. Elementary and secondary schools will follow suit to reduce access barriers. Reteaching and relearning will be a click away. Parents will be able to assist their children more easily when lessons are available for preview and review.
  9. School communication will be streamed coherently: The current closures have forced schools to be more expressive and cognizant of hurdles to effective communication. This will continue as multimedia channels often used piecemeal (e.g., websites, social media, blogs, email, texting, video, podcasts) will overlap and align.
  10. School reorganization will be necessary and expected: The economic impact of the present situation makes it imperative to consider new solutions to how schools are organized in terms of governance structure, resource allocation, personnel assignment, student grouping, program scheduling, etc.

Educators have been praised widely, and rightfully, for meeting the instructional challenges brought about by school closures. Taking fuller advantage of this open moment will stress us with demands to use new technology and processes for teaching and learning, while managing our own family and personal challenges. School staff members need our support now more than ever.

This disruption to our lives gives us an extraordinary opportunity to think differently about schooling. We can put our professional expertise to productive use to create a different norm. Now is the moment for all stakeholders to begin conversations about the future of our schools given the societal upheaval we are facing.